Inside the trans-America trip with Barry Switzer’s ace recruiter that reaped Jamelle Holieway

Inside the trans-America trip with Barry Switzer’s ace recruiter that reaped Jamelle Holieway

In 1985, a 24-year-old sportswriter joined Scott Hill on a trans-America recruiting trip that produced a national champion quarterback and a lifetime of memories.

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

| Dec 19, 2023, 1:00pm CST

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

Dec 19, 2023, 1:00pm CST

Thirty-nine years ago this winter, Scott Hill and I walked into a Burger King in the New Jersey suburbs. We ordered lunch — probably a Whopper — and the young girl working the counter burst into laughter.

She wanted to know if we were from Texas.

Funny, after all these years of “My Cousin Vinny” and “The Sopranos.” Jersey accents now are an American obsession.

Back then, the roles were reversed. Everybody thought we talked funny. And give the girl credit; her geography wasn’t far off.

Hill indeed was raised in Texas. I was raised 110 miles north of Texas. Close enough to count.

And speaking of whoppers, the story you are about to read is true. The names have not been changed, which should disprove your inclination to declare such a tale too fantastic for truth. Too far-fetched to believe.

In January 1985, a 24-year-old cub reporter for the Norman Transcript spent a week on the road with Barry Switzer’s ace college football recruiter. 

Hill let me tag along for a trans-America trek from Oklahoma City to Dallas to Indianapolis to Newark to Seattle to Los Angeles and back to Oklahoma City, all in about 92 hours.

We visited six prospects. Five signed with the Sooners, including a quarterback you might remember. Holieway, by name. Jamelle Holieway.

Hill gave me carte blanche to write whatever I saw or heard. Unless he snuck out of his hotel room in the middle of the night, we never were apart, except for about five minutes when he made an unscheduled visit to Kenny Sally’s mother in Morristown, New Jersey, after disaster struck.

For the first time in my life, I rode in a limo and ate lobster. For the only time in my life, I ate shark and flew from sea to shining sea in a solitary morning. But I’m just 62. There’s time to do it again.

Just won’t be on a recruiting trip. Those kinds of endeavors are in the wind. Walls have been erected between college football coaches and the media. Distrust, going both directions, rules the day.

There was a time when it was not so.

National Signing Day arrives Wednesday, and the hoopla over recruiting hasn’t subsided. It’s bigger now than ever before, though perhaps a little less important, since the transfer portal has exploded into a new avenue for talent acquisition.

More organizations are covering recruiting and covering it more than ever before. It’s easier to cover these days, because of social-media accounts by the players themselves. And coaches still work the media, trying to bend news in the most favorable light possible.

But still, things are different from the old days.

“Radio guys and newspaper guys, we were more friends than I think they probably are now, and it made sense because it helped us,” Hill told me the other day when I asked what caused him to lose his mind and let me go on that trip of four decades ago.

“We were able to ask questions of you all. You all got a hold of the players and sometimes we were able to get answers from you. … It actually helped us in our strategies in the recruiting process.”

The recruiting trip was born innocently. Hill made an off-hand remark one day that winter that I would be intrigued by all that goes into one of his whirlwind, week-long trips. One thing led to another, and the next thing you know, Hill was asking Switzer for permission to let me ride shotgun.

“I remember I just had to go into Coach Switzer and say, ‘Coach, you know, I’ve got this idea and talked to Berry about it, and we think it’d be fun and I think the players would like it,” Hill said. “You mind if I call them and he makes the trip with me?

“He said, ‘Nope, not if you think it’ll help.’ Obviously, it did … we signed five of those six, so I should have had you do it every year. Would have made more sense.”

So sit down, and enjoy this fish tale. Here’s the whopper.

Scott Hill in 1981, during his days as the OU football recruiting coordinator. (The Oklahoman Archives/Oklahoma History Center)

OU’s greatest recruiter

Six or seven times that recruiting year, Hill hit the same stops in a single week. Not always in the same order. But Dallas, Indianapolis, Newark, Seattle and Los Angeles. He was checking in on his recruits, as the Sooners were in the early stages of recruiting nationally, a trend that started with OU’s 1979 signing of Stanley Wilson out of Banning High School in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Wilmington.

In January 1985, Banning had another star, Holieway, who was a primary Hill target.

The 1985 OU recruiting class was considered good. Not necessarily great. Those were the days before comprehensive recruiting rankings. But national analysts didn’t list the Sooners in the top tier, which consisted of Nebraska, Southern Cal and Texas Christian in the top three.

The Sooners signed three Parade all-Americans (the five-stars of that time): quarterback Eric Mitchel of Pine Bluff, Arkansas; safety Scott Thompson from Cascade High School in the Seattle suburb of Everett; and guard Mark Van Keirsbilck from Kansas City Rockhurst. That’s a good haul, but Notre Dame (six), Michigan State (five) and Georgia (four) each signed more.

The class was part of OU squads that over the next four seasons went 42-6, won a national championship and played for another. From that class came Holieway, who as a 1985 freshman quarterbacked the Sooners to the national title; productive running backs Anthony Stafford and Leon Perry; Van Kiersbilck and center Mike Wise, two-year starters on the offensive line; starting defensive backs Kenny McMichel, Kevin Thompson, Lydell Glenn and Lonnie Finch; all-Big 12 nose guard Dante Williams; and three-year punter Todd Thomsen.

My trip with Hill took us to six players, in five metropolitan areas. Here’s the itinerary:

Monday afternoon: flew to Dallas-Fort Worth, for evening visits with Finch (Irving MacArthur) and running back Mark White (South Grand Prairie).

Tuesday morning: flew to Indy, for an evening visit with McMichel (Indianapolis Northwest).

Wednesday morning: flew to Newark, for an afternoon visit with Kenny Sally, a hard-hitting defensive back from Morristown.

Thursday morning: flew to Seattle, to pick up Scott Thompson, and caught an evening flight to Los Angeles, for a dinner with Holieway and Thompson.

Friday morning: flew home to Oklahoma City, with Holieway and Thompson in tow, for their official visits.

All but Sally eventually signed with the Sooners.

The trip was varied. We met with three families, dined with two boosters and had one memorable encounter with a coach.

I was struck by how few questions were asked by the recruits and most of their families. They seemed content to let the charming Hill talk, and he certainly commanded their attention.

“I always felt confident,” Hill said from his office the other day, 35 years after his final OU recruiting class. “The University of Oklahoma was an easy sell. We had a lot of good things going for us at that time, so it was easy to get in doors.”

Over the decades, the Sooners have had fabulous recruiters. Jerry Pettibone. Bobby Jack Wright. Cale Gundy. Lucious Selmon. Switzer himself.

But Hill stands as the best, for the players he brought in and the innovations he led, like the coast-to-coast search for players.

“He just made you feel at ease,” said Scott Thompson, who now owns an Oklahoma City insurance agency. “Just a super guy. You felt like he had your best interests at heart. He was just different. He just related.

“And he would talk to me about different schools. ‘No, you don’t want to go there.’ ‘Hey, they’re good people.’ He would do you right. He was very honest.”

That’s the Hill I knew before the trip, and that’s the Hill I saw on the recruiting road.

But not everything always was pleasant. That first Monday night, White and his family seemed sold on the Sooners, and the conversation mostly was engineered by Hill.

But that’s not what played out later that night at the Finch house in Irving, some 20 minutes north of Grand Prairie.

Lonnie Finch’s mother grilled Hill on what awaited her son in Norman. Academics. Accountability. Responsibility. Leadership. Not much about football. She peppered Hill with questions, some contentious, and kept him on a virtual hot seat.

Hill, despite the spirit of an ambush, handled the cross-examination well.

“I think the key word is mother,” Hill said. “A lot of mothers were a little more inclined to get involved with those little intricate things. How their boy was going to be taken care of.”

Finch’s father didn’t say much, and when he did, he was talking football. But that night in a DFW hotel, I chose Mrs. Finch as the focus of my initial story. If every night was like this, Hill’s job was going to be tougher than I thought.

I had no idea.

Jersey stunner

Kenny Sally was committed to OU. Our trip to snow-covered Morristown seemed to be a maintenance stop. Say hello, touch base, remind Sally that he was a Sooner priority. A physical safety with unlimited potential.

We laughed our way through lunch at the Burger King, courtesy of our accents.

But when we got to Morristown High School and the office of Colonials coach John Chirrona, the mood changed. Chirrona was all business, Sally was not there and soon enough Hill heard the news.

Sally was going to South Carolina. Chirrona declared that he didn’t know Switzer but knew Gamecocks coach Joe Morrison, a former New York Giant. Chironna trusted Morrison. Morrison would take care of Sally, Chirrona declared.

Hill was stunned and said he wanted to see Sally. Chirrona summoned Sally to the office, and in walked Sally, head slightly bowed, eyes averted. Best I could tell, he never looked directly at Hill.

But Sally delivered the news that yes, he was going to South Carolina.

Hill questioned Sally for a few minutes, but that went nowhere, and soon enough we left. Hill was beyond frustrated.

He drove straight to Sally’s home, hoping to catch Sally’s mother. That’s when he asked me to stay in the car, while he went in. Hey, I was just happy I still was on the trip. I was afraid I’d be cast overboard, like Jonah during the storm, to appease the recruiting gods.

Hill was gone less than 10 minutes. He returned still mystified and upset, but Sally’s mother, too, was sold on South Carolina.

“Probably the biggest jolt I got in my recruiting career,” Hill says now. “She wanted her son to stay closer, there’s no doubt. The inclination I got was that the coach had just kind of stepped in.”

Sally went on to a solid career at South Carolina. He didn’t turn into a star, but he was a player the Sooners could have used.

A quarter century later, I mentioned the Sally saga in a Daily Oklahoman column, and I received a note  from someone who reported more on the story.

Turns out, a young assistant coach at Morristown, five years on the job, was hired by the Gamecocks as a graduate assistant that offseason and accompanied Sally to South Carolina. Fellow by the name of Charlie Weis.

Oklahoma coach Brent Venables talks with former quarterback Jamelle Holieway during the University of Oklahoma's annual spring football game at Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium in Norman, Okla., Saturday, April 23, 2022.Ou Sooners Spring Football Game

Oklahoma coach Brent Venables talks with former quarterback Jamelle Holieway during the University of Oklahoma’s annual spring football game at Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium in Norman, Okla., Saturday, April 23, 2022.

Shark & lobster

That Thursday had to be one of the five most unique days of my life. A 6 a.m. flight from Newark to Seattle, with a stopover in Chicago. Then grabbing Scott Thompson for the trip to the airport and a flight to LA.

Almost 24 hours between sleep. Shark on the Seattle waterfront for lunch, lobster in a Newport Beach landmark for dinner.

It was our second straight great dinner. The night before, in Newark, recent OU graduate Jon Cooperstein took us to a classic Italian joint. Cooperstein was a huge wrestling fan. He’s still in the sports business, leading the sports division of Performance Award Center, which produces gift suites for events, like bowl games.

That night in Los Angeles, real-estate mogul Jay Thomas, a big Sooner booster, picked us up in a limousine.

Thomas later was cited in some NCAA rules violations, and Hill admitted he had some sleepless nights, worrying about what Thomas was doing with OU recruits.

“You had to say, ‘Jay, no, we can’t do that,’” Hill said. “Because he would have done just about anything to get guys to come to Oklahoma.”

Thomas helped set up Sooner recruits with California summer jobs, in those days before volunteer workouts were the norm.

“Jay Thomas was the best thing that ever happened to me at OU, as far as alums go,” Holieway said last week. “This man gave me a job to be a maintenance person, work under his real estate company. I was loving NIL (name, image, likeness) back then.”

Hill said he came to be great friends with boosters like Thomas and Cooperstein. Thomas, in particular, had great connections, including with the president of Mattel Toy Company, which employed several Sooners over the years.

“He really competed hard just to be able to brag” to his Southern Cal and UCLA colleagues, Hill said of Thomas. “He was a hero out there in his own mind with Jamelle coming and winning the national championship as a freshman.

“But did we have to worry about it? I don’t know that I ever took a night’s sleep that I didn’t worry about what Jay Thomas was gonna do with Jamelle Holieway.”

Holieway, of course, became the star of the recruiting class and a college football icon, as the first true freshman to quarterback a national champion. 

“Jamelle was always a hoot to run into,” Hill said.

Holieway was really something, even as a 17-year-old high school senior. Street smart. California cool. Exquisite dresser. Uncommon confidence, even in the high-ego world of football.

“I tell you, my best time was the prom,” Holieway said. “Jay Thomas dropped off a SLC Mercedes convertible. Had ‘GO OU’ on the license plate. I thought I was the prima donna of the school. I’m riding around for a week, like Oklahoma bought it. Oklahoma didn’t buy it, but I let you think that.”

Thirty-nine years later, Holieway remembers our dinner together. He even recalled the restaurant; the Rusty Pelican on the West Coast Highway.

Holieway said he wasn’t surprised a reporter came along.

“I dIdn’t think it was odd,” Holieway said. “Just thought it was part of the process.”

That night was the first time Thompson met Holieway.

“Boy, Jamelle was nice and quiet,” Thompson deadpanned the other day. “I remember all of us sitting in a dark restaurant somewhere eating. You always seemed to be taking notes. That was my first experience with a reporter; I’m trying to be on my best behavior, not screw anything up.”

Thompson seemed confident himself, but today he swears he was not. Says he wore boots so coaches wouldn’t detect that his listed height was inflated. Says he was warned by his parents not to mess up the recruiting, because he needed that scholarship.

Thompson is quite the self-deprecator. He married an Oklahoma girl and has made his life here. His daughter was a member of the OU pom squad, which prompted former Sooner defensive backs coach Bobby Proctor to tell Thompson that his daughter spent more time on Owen Field than did Thompson.

Injuries wrecked Thompson’s chances to play much. Or at all. As a freshman, he had one foot on the field to enter the Nebraska game and ruin his redshirt season, but Switzer called him back. Then the knee injuries, suffered in practice, started piling up, and Thompson never played.

“I’m the biggest bust in the 1985 recruiting class,” Thompson said.

But that night in the dark restaurant, eating lobster with Jamelle Holieway, Thompson’s football future seemed limitless.

The January 1985 recruiting trip helped clinch the signing of quarterback Jamelle Holieway. Twelve months later, Holieway, Barry Switzer (above) and the Sooners celebrated a national championship. (Paul B. Southerland/Oklahoman archives)

‘Good publicity’

Here’s how little Switzer cared about the ramifications of letting a reporter make a recruiting trip. He doesn’t even remember me going all over the country with Hill and writing about the experience every night. And Switzer has the memory of an elephant.

“I don’t remember much about that,” Switzer said the other day. “I really don’t. Scotty would have to reminisce with me.”

But that was part of Switzer’s modus operandi. He didn’t sweat the things most coaches sweat, particularly the contemporary crowd.

“Everybody’s so paranoid, closing practice and all that bull****,” he said. People would come to his practices back then and “I didn’t know who they were and didn’t give a damn. I didn’t live in a world of paranoia.”

Mike Gundy was a junior at Midwest City High School in January 1985, so he wasn’t paying attention. But I described the trip to Gundy, and he said the look-behind-the-curtain actually makes more sense today than back then.

“Back then, there were things that were not legal that they were doing,” Gundy said.

Indeed, the late 1980s Sooners went on probation for recruiting violations, but so did Gundy’s Cowboys, his senior year of quarterbacking OSU.

And Hill’s worries about Thomas and Holieway were well-founded. But I saw nothing against the rules, and again, I was with Hill for all but those five minutes in Kenny Sally’s house. And Sally did not sign with the Sooners.

I ran my Hill trip past Bob Stoops, who initially said it wasn’t likely to have been duplicated during his 18 seasons as the Sooner coach. But the more Stoops thought about it, the more he warmed to the idea.

“It actually would be good publicity,” Stoops said. “Meaning, I know how I am in a home. I know how Brent (Venables) is in a home.

“It actually is worth doing. I don’t know why I wouldn’t have you go. Because there’s nothing we’re doing that isn’t positive. See the conversations in the homes, and what we’re truly selling is the experience. Now you say it, it’s really a good idea, to promote what you’re promoting. To talk about what we talk about with parents.”

Of course, the conversation could get dicey when it turns to finance. NIL is all the rage in recruiting, these days. Doesn’t seem likely a coach engaged in such discussions would want a reporter in the room, even if NIL stands for Now It’s Legal, as Switzer joked with Stoops a few weeks ago.

But the part of the trip Stoops found most amazing was the travel. He made trips like that as the head coach, but used private aircraft, courtesy of donor Tim Headington.

Going north to south and east to west, in a condensed few days, week after week, would wear out most coaches. But not Scott Hill.

Scott Hill today

Hill misses recruiting. The man who seemed destined to succeed Switzer as head coach, hasn’t recruited a football player in 3½ decades. 

“I don’t think there’s any way for me to describe how much I miss it,” Hill said. “I was made and built to be a football coach. And I messed it up, as you know, as we all know, and it just didn’t turn out for me. So I miss it a lot.”

Hill oversaw just four more recruiting classes after 1985. In December 1988, OU was hit with major NCAA probation, and Hill was cited for providing impermissible transportation to players and allowing them to make free, long-distance phone calls home. Jay Thomas was mentioned in the NCAA investigation.

Hill was fired by OU interim president David Swank in March 1989. A few weeks later, Hill was arrested and charged with distributing a gram of cocaine; he pled guilty in March 1990 and was sentenced to 15 months in federal prison. He served 3½ months in El Reno.

Hill grew up in the Dallas-Fort Worth suburb of Hurst. He considered rebuilding his life back in  the Metroplex. But no.

“I’ve been involved, as you know, with the University of Oklahoma ever since I left,” Hill said. “And will always be. I tell everybody I was Texas born, Texas bred. When I die, I’ll be Oklahoma bred.”

Hill credits a conversation with Oklahoma City civic leader Lee Allan Smith for maintaining Oklahoma ties, even in his time of shame.

“Lee Allen said the greatest thing that you can do is to go right back out there, stick your head in the middle of everybody here in Oklahoma and make something of yourself,” Hill recounted. “He said if you’re willing to do that … 30, 39 years from now, you’ll be glad. And he said the people in and around the program will be glad and you’ll make a whole lot more of yourself there than you would if you tuck tail and run.

“My spiritual life really came alive back then. So being able to continue with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and now with Bible Study Fellowship and just the different path that my life took from a spiritual perspective has made it all worthwhile.”

Hill has been successful in a variety of businesses, including his current Call Us First Home, a home and business inspection business, of which he is managing owner. He’s also been instrumental in Sooners Helping Sooners, the program designed to aid former OU athletes.

Of course, I’ve stuck around, too. In 1985, I was halfway through my 13 years at the Norman Transcript, then spent 32 years at The Oklahoman, and now I’m riding the Sellout Crowd wave.

I run into Hill every once in a while. I helped put him together with the U.S. Basketball Writers Association, which resulted in 2010 with the renaming of the freshman of the year award in honor of OU legend Wayman Tisdale, and Hill’s group hosted the awards banquet in Oklahoma City for about a decade.

I see Switzer all the time. At age 86 his mind remains sharp, even if he can’t recall a 1985 recruiting trip that seemed no big deal to him.

And I see Holieway from time to time. He stayed in Oklahoma, too, and has had his health and legal issues, but he seems to be doing well, still charismatic, still California cool, even after four decades living here, much of it in southeastern Oklahoma.

And frankly, I was shocked that Holieway even remembered our lobster dinner from so long ago.

“I don’t have CTE,” Holieway cracked the other day,. “I haven’t been hit that much. They kind of let the quarterback alone.”

That’s true. He was a wishbone quarterback who was slick enough to avoid hits and was 28-1 as the starter. More good memory.

I sometimes cringe at how cornball I must have been at age 24, on that trip with Hill. I didn’t even take luggage; I popped everything into a garment bag.

But Hill, a salesman going in, remains a salesman going out. All these years later, he said he enjoyed the trip. Said it gave him a fresh discussion partner.

Coaches, you see, migrate to each other on the recruiting road. Tend to stay at the same places. Eat dinner together when possible. Hill last week reinforced that I was a pleasant alternative.

“It was fun with you and I, being able to visit after each individual visit,” Hill said. “Insights I hadn’t been able to imagine or fathom. Rather than sitting around talking to coaches, I’m talking to a guy that has a whole other different and refreshing perspective.”

Makes me feel better about tagging along to Dallas and Indy and Newark and Seattle and LA, all without a suitcase, green as Augusta grass, on a trip that 39 years later more than ever is hard to believe.

 

 

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Berry Tramel is a 45-year veteran of Oklahoma journalism, having spent 13 years at the Norman Transcript and 32 years at The Oklahoman. He has been named Oklahoma Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sports Media Association. Born and raised in Norman, Tramel grew up reading four newspapers a day and began his career at age 17. His first assignment was the Lexington-Elmore City high school football game, and he’s enjoyed the journey ever since, having covered NBA Finals and Rose Bowls and everything in between. Tramel and his wife, Tricia, were married in 1980 and live in Norman near their daughter, son-in-law and three granddaughters. Tramel can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at [email protected].

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