Skip to main content
Original Issue

In Charge

New Dallas Cowboy coach Barry Switzer is out to prove he's equal to the task of filling Jimmy Johnson's shoes


"Yep," says Barry Switzer, the Oklahoma Sooners'—excuse us—the new Dallas Cowboys' coach. "Figured we'd line up in the wishbone for the first play of the season. Troy down the line, pitch to Emmitt, me right behind. Like that New York Life commercial? Emmitt running all the way and me yelling, "I knew it would work! I knew it would work!' "

You want to clear your throat here, maybe check Switzer's eyes. Because, trust us, stranger things have happened.

"Uh-huh, I heard that," says Emmitt Smith, the Cowboys' all-world running back. "He was joking." Smith pauses to make sure that he has been understood. "He was joking."

O.K., O.K. Don't yell. It's just, how do we know with these Cowboys? Maybe Smith is fuzzy-headed. He was, after all, tossed from one of those six-wheel, all-terrain vehicles after a collision last week at training camp in Austin, Texas, with Crazy Ray, Dallas's mascot, who took a careless step in front of the ATV. Smith landed on his head and was knocked cold for a spell. But if owner Jerry Jones said he was moving the Cowboys to Brazil tomorrow and naming Pelè the defensive coordinator, would you doubt him? Jones is the hyperkinetic Arkansas oil-and-gas guy who bought Dallas's team in 1989, ticked off every Cowboy fan in Texas by firing demigod coach Tom Landry and putting University of Miami coach Jimmy Johnson at the helm, declared himself general manager, went 1-15, took credit for some inspired drafts and trades, won the last two Super Bowls, made every Cowboy fan love him and then, in March, suddenly let Johnson go (following story) and hired former Oklahoma coach and social outcast Switzer because, said Jones, Switzer was "the best man for the job."

To appreciate Switzer's lack of appeal to the football community—and thus the audacity of Jones's decision—consider that Switzer had been sitting in a rocking chair in Norman, Okla., for five years with an imaginary sign around his neck saying WOULDN'T MIND COACHING AGAIN, and that until Jones beckoned, tumbleweed made more noise than Switzer's phone. Until Jones declared Switzer the man to replace the uppity Johnson after Jones and Johnson feuded at a March NFL owners' meeting in Orlando, it seemed certain that the 56-year-old Switzer would live out his days huntin' and fishin' and dabbling in those bidness ventures that former coaches tend to fall back on.

"I think I found out Jerry wanted me by hearing it on TV," says Switzer, still amazed at his rebirth. Forced to resign from Oklahoma in 1989 after guiding the Sooners to three national championships and a few NCAA violations (not to mention the occasional shooting, rape or other heinous crimes that occurred during his watch) in 16 years, Switzer was suddenly an antique, a living relic of a wilder era in college football.

And yet, here he is now, a squinting Lazarus dressed in Cowboy-blue shorts and a Cowboy-white shirt, Panama hat protecting his scalp from the blazing Texas sun, walking among his charges, the best football team on earth. He is bent a little more than he was back at Oklahoma. His back is killing him and so is his neck, and one knee still hurts from the time in 1987 when a University of Missouri tackier missed Oklahoma quarterback Charles Thompson on a keeper and nailed Switzer on the sideline. But Switzer still walks like he belongs on a football field. He doesn't say a whole lot or act brassy. He never did. He was always a motivator, a recruiter, a guy who delegated power and kept things loose until it was time for his boys to strap it on.

"I see it all," he says later. "I'm analyzing the players, checking out their hands, their stance, their techniques. I'm not an actor. I'm not a guy who intimidates or uses fear. That kind of stuff may draw attention to you, but I'm not trying to create crises. These players know if you're a phony."

Still, the media throng (some 500 credentials were issued last week to cover training camp) and the more than 48,000 spectators who watched the Cowboy drills in just the first six days wanted to see something from Switzer that proved that he was indeed the coach here and not Jones's puppet. "He'll gel blamed for things he can't control, like injuries," said special teams coach Joe Avezzano. "But as far as decisions? He came in and said, 'You guys have been very successful. Go to work.' That's a helluva decision right there. The correct one."

Switzer snapped at one journalist who implied that the coach wasn't doing much except pulling in the first paycheck of his $1 million-a-year Deal and tanning well. "For me to blow a whistle and stop a drill and start screaming just so people could see that—to impress the media?—that would be stupid," he said with a snort.

Quarterback Troy Aikman was not thrilled when Johnson left. Neither was Smith nor All-Pro wideout Michael Irvin, who had played for Johnson at Miami. But each has adjusted. "We're doing the same thing as before," says Aikman of Switzer's offense. Indeed, the Cowboys still use much the same playbook they had under Johnson. To maintain continuity after offensive coordinator Norv Turner left over the winter to become the coach of the Washington Redskins, Jones hired Ernie Zampese away from the Los Angeles Rams to fill the vacant spot. Zampese is the guy who taught Turner the offense, so Aikman has had little difficulty with the transition.

But what Aikman feels more than anything is a kind of vertigo caused by the linked, circular paths of the principals of this soap opera. To wit: Jones was a teammate of Johnson's at Arkansas, where one of the assistants was Switzer, who had earlier played for the Razorbacks. Switzer and Johnson married Arkansas women two days apart, 31 years ago, and now those ex-wives are best friends. Johnson and Switzer were assistants together at Oklahoma, before Switzer became the head man there and Johnson became the coach at archrival Oklahoma State. And there's more. Aikman gave a verbal commitment to attend Oklahoma State after Johnson recruited him out of high school, but then Aikman visited Oklahoma and believed Switzer's promise that the Sooners would change their option attack to the I formation, just for Aikman. So Aikman enrolled at Oklahoma. Switzer didn't change the attack; Aikman broke his leg as a sophomore against Johnson's new team, Miami, and promptly transferred to UCLA in a move facilitated by Switzer. As a Cowboy under Johnson, Aikman became a Pro Bowl quarterback and never dreamed he would play once more for the man who had lured him to Norman a decade ago and then helped him depart for Los Angeles. "If this keeps going," says Aikman, "I'll be back playing for Terry Donahue soon."

Switzer's arrival has made it tough for Cowboy publicist Rich Dalrymple, an easygoing chap who worked for Johnson at Miami before joining the Dallas front office at Johnson's request in 1990. "I asked myself how the coverage and hype could increase after our last championship," says Dalrymple. "I figured the only way was if we won a third straight Super Bowl. I was wrong."

Dalrymple sits in the nearly empty cafeteria at camp, contemplating the tasks before him. Some people have said that if Dalrymple, a skillful peacemaker, had been at the table in Orlando on that night four months ago when Jones and Johnson had the climactic clash that led to Johnson's departure, Switzer would still be rocking on his porch in Norman and Johnson would still be the Dallas coach. But Dalrymple had gotten up to use the rest room when Jones arrived at the table to offer a toast, only to be snubbed by Johnson and Johnson's friends.

At any rate, Jones claims nothing could have stopped the divorce. "The change had to come before the draft," he says. "And it wasn't the first time I gave consideration to Barry Switzer, either. My feeling was he'd lie down in front of a freight train to coach the Dallas Cowboys."

What Jones saw in Switzer was something he felt Johnson had lost: loyalty. "Every negative thing that happened to him in college sprang from that loyalty," he says. Switzer had been, in addition, an ace recruiter at Oklahoma, and Jones's thinking was that in the new NFL of salary caps and free agency, Switzer's talent for persuasion could be used to lure players to Dallas when something besides money had to make the difference.

Switzer walks into the cafeteria, grabs a hamburger and takes a seat across from Dalrymple. It's almost 8 p.m. The other coaches are gone. So are the players. Switzer has been studying film, trying to learn this new business. The other day he walked into a defensive meeting to see players getting cash awards for making big plays in a scrimmage. A new business, indeed. "You guys are fortunate you're not in the NCAA!" he hollered. But the NCAA means nothing in the pros, and Switzer likes that. His reputation, however, won't fade as easily. Two days earlier, Mississippi State coach Jackie Sherrill, another college renegade afforded a fresh start, had stopped by to watch practice. From the stands a fan yelled, "Get off the field, Sherrill, you crook, you scumbag! It's bad enough we have to put up with Switzer!"

But the past recedes; the Cowboys and most of their supporters feel Switzer at least deserves a chance. "We don't have any choice but to give him a chance," says Smith. "Regardless of how we feel about Jimmy or Barry, we will execute."

Adds veteran safety James Washington, "It will be interesting to see what happens when times get tough."

Finishing his burger, Switzer turns to Dalrymple. "Rich," he asks, "do I have to fill out all that crap, all those questions?"

"It's for the NFL," replies Dalrymple. "All the coaches do it."

Switzer scowls. "I mean, My favorite food? My most embarrassing moment?"

The questionnaire is back in Switzer's spartan dorm room. Also in the room is a neck traction device Switzer straps on for 20 minutes each day, a harness attached to a rope that runs through a pulley and then to a 25-pound bag of water. The weight of the water lifts his head and eases the stabbing pain above his shoulder blades.

"Well, I'll try to do it," he says without conviction, getting up to leave. "But I want to watch the other half of that film now." He walks toward the door and then looks back at Dalrymple.

"Just do some of it," says Dalrymple.

"I'll do it," Switzer says.

But not without Dalrymple's help. Under "Greatest over-achiever I've ever coached," they write, "Jerry Jones." Under "NFL team I followed as a child," they put, "L.A. Rams." Switzer found that question ludicrous. "The only team I followed as a kid was the Yankees," he said. "Hell, we didn't have a TV."

But none of this means anything. The only thing Switzer has to do to find peace is to please one man: Jerry Jones. Jones wants loyalty and hard work. And wins. "I got my neck out this far," says Jones, spreading his hands to shoulder width.

"I hope he has a fulfilling of himself," says Switzer's daughter, Kathy, 24. of her dad and his task, "because he's in a no-win situation. If he doesn't win the Super Bowl, they'll hate him."

But maybe, just maybe, Jones won't. A human caffeine pill who loves to work and needs just four hours of sleep a night, Jones says he doesn't resent people, like Switzer, who sleep seven or eight hours nightly. "I'm envious," he says. "Believe me, not sleeping isn't the answer."

At the end of the first week of camp, the Cowboys play a Saturday night scrimmage against the Houston Oilers in front of 15,647 fans at sold-out Burger Center on the outskirts of Austin, and Switzer gets to act like an NFL game coach for the first time. He acts the same as he always has afield—eager, rational, supportive. There are so many coaches around him performing their duties that it seems he could pack up and leave town, and no one would notice. But there are certain moments when the head coach must make his mark. When nobody else will do.

Such a moment occurs when Dallas cornerback Kevin Smith intercepts a pass by Houston quarterback Cody Carlson in the fist series and races upheld almost to the goal line before being crushed by an Oiler offensive lineman. Switzer races over to make sure Smith is O.K. When Smith finally gets up, Switzer smiles like a little kid. He is happy about the play, happy Smith is uninjured, happy to be here.

Just beyond him on the sideline, Irvin eats a hot dog and talks on a portable phone, jewelry flashing from a wrist, his neck, an ear. Irvin is in street clothes, nursing a tender left shoulder, acting, as always, like the honored guest at a parade. He calls for his limousine and then ponders the Cowboys' new coach.

"Yeah, I was upset when it happened," he says of the coaching change, "but not with Switzer, just with the way things were going. I've always liked what I've heard about Switzer."

And how does he think things will end up for the new man?

"He'll be fine," Irvin says. "We'll all be fine."

Limos all around, please.





Jones (in cap) and Switzer huddled as the offense smoothed out the wrinkles.



Camp scenes: Coach and players felt the heat; Aikman found a fan; the perils of ATV travel were ignored even after a spill.