I don’t know where to start this column, with Dick Janda, or with Earth, Wind and Fire or the mink coat at Jam’s Grill in Omaha.
Barry Switzer, American original and Husker frenemy, comes back to Nebraska on Wednesday night. He’ll accept the Tom Osborne Legacy Award from the man himself, and the two will look like that Rockwell painting we all grew up with. Maybe with a touch of gray.
Many in the audience at the Outland Trophy dinner will come to get that feeling again, to remember the days when Tom and Barry were kings and took turns ruling the game of college football.
They were so darned good, they made me fall in love with the sport. I cherish those days, and we all should, now that realignment and scholarship parity and coaches playing musical jobs have taken over the sport.
Not to mention the joyless crusade of Nick Saban.
I mean, you wouldn’t catch Saban dead in a full-length mink coat.
OK, so we start with Jam’s. This was a cold winter’s night, back in the ’90s. I wandered into the midtown Omaha eatery on a midweek night about 9. I walked in the door and there it was.
Barry Switzer. Wearing that mink coat. Holding a glass of wine. And surrounded by a group of young ladies.
“What are you doing here?” I asked Switzer.
“I’m here to shoot a commercial with Tom tomorrow,” Switzer said. “It’s for a cellphone. So, how ya been?”
It’s been this way since October 1977 — the first time I spoke to the “King.” I was a scared-to-death sophomore at Missouri calling the Oklahoma coach for a quote. The idea of him talking to a kid reporter was a long shot at best — until he answered his own phone.
“This is Barry Switzer.”
He might be the most accessible legend in college football history. Bobby Bowden was media good. But I don’t think Bowden ever did hourlong interviews the day before a game.
Well, the opponent was lowly KU in 1986. Switzer took my interview on a Friday at 1 p.m. The man has the defending national champs and is chasing another title. It’s the day before a game.
He yelled, “Come on in, Tom.” When I walked into his office, he was leaning back in his chair, boots propped up on his desk and puffing on a stogie. Down on the field, his team was going through a classic OU walkthrough. The linemen were having a touch football game, dropping back to pass, etc.
For the next hour, he told the famous tale of his childhood: his father the bootlegger and hearing his mother commit suicide. I’ll never forget this line: “Some people are born on third base and think they hit a triple.”
That’s not the name of an Earth, Wind and Fire song. But I did get to meet band members, thanks to Switzer, who had them visit his locker room after one win.
“Hey, meet the boys from Earth, Wind and Fire.”
I can’t see Urban Meyer doing that. Maybe Jim Harbaugh.
I became fascinated with Switzer and Osborne over the years. They were the yin and yang, the Oscar and Felix of college football. They were the faces of their programs: run and fun Oklahoma and rock solid and straightforward Nebraska.
Osborne tried so hard to beat his rival, and often NU coached and played tight while Switzer and the Sooners would come in and play loose and fast.
So when I saw that framed photo in the campus bookstore at OU several years ago, well, I had to have it.
It’s a photo of Osborne and Switzer doing a radio interview on the field. Switzer is talking and Osborne is smiling. Every photo has a story. This one is classic.
The radio man in the shot was Janda, the longtime Lincoln broadcaster. He used to do a short interview with Osborne on the field before each game.
This particular interview took place at Oklahoma before the annual Big Eight championship game. Janda said he was interviewing Osborne, as usual, when out of nowhere Switzer popped in and crashed the interview.
Switzer was going on about something and you can see Osborne cracking up. Before the biggest game of the year!
That photo, which hangs in my office, is a perfect portrait of their relationship — and why this Switzer appearance is so special.
The kings are growing older. Switzer is 79. How many more times will these two legends get together? We hope forever.
Switzer likes coming to Nebraska and why not? He only lost twice here (1978 and 1982). Even after his coaching days, he was still getting invited to speak all over the state. For a guy who caused so much grief, there was something you had to love about Barry. He was a guy you would want to hang out and have a beer with after he ripped out your heart.
These days he lives in Norman, near campus and, as he pointed out, across the street from a sorority house. He has 10 grandkids he sees frequently. He doesn’t attend OU games, but only because he’s busy hosting a “Coaches’ Cabana” party where he watches the game with Sooner fans.
He still knows how to work the media. He’s on Twitter and had fun recently by telling the media he had met with Donald Trump.
I got a few minutes with Switzer, who says he is bringing Sooner legends Billy Sims, Thomas Lott and Joe Washington with him on Wednesday night:
Q: When was the last time you were in Nebraska?
A: It’s been awhile. I think the last time I was in Lincoln, I went up for a game in Jerry Jones’ bus. I was living in Dallas and took the Dallas Cowboys’ bus to Lincoln. Everywhere we stopped along the way, people wanted to know if Emmitt Smith or the Cowboys cheerleaders were in there. I wish it would have been the cheerleaders over Emmitt!”
Q: What does receiving the Osborne Legacy Award mean to you?
A: “Tom’s one of the greatest legends in college football history. What he did for 25 years is unmatched. Nobody will touch that, doing that every year for 25 years. We always got along well. We competed hard. It will mean a lot.
“I was more like Bob Devaney, I guess. I remember awhile back, they had me come up to Omaha to honor Tom at the arena. Chris Fowler was the emcee.
“When they invited me to come up and sit on the couch and talk about Tom, I brought my drink up with me. Fowler laughed and said, ‘You brought your drink up.’ And I said, ‘Well, Bob Devaney would have been disappointed if I hadn’t.’
“I said, ‘Tom didn’t drink at bars where Bob and I were hanging out.’ Of course, I don’t know that Tom went to any bars.”
Q: Did you ever feel like those games were you against Tom?
A: “No, it was never about us. It was about our great teams, the players we recruited. Coaches don’t take those games personally, the fans and players do. The only time I ever asked a team to win for me was the second time we played Arkansas in the Orange Bowl (1986). That’s where I played, and they had upset us (in the 1977 season) when we were trying to win the national championship. So I asked the players that year, ‘Win this one for us, the guys from Arkansas, me and Keith Jackson.’ ”
Q: What are some of your favorite memories of the Nebraska series?
A: “Well, one year we won up there with the hook and lateral. I remember the media kept calling it the ‘hook and ladder.’ There’s no ladder. What is this, a fire truck?
“Of course, there was the 1978 game. That was my best team. We fumbled nine times that day. Billy Sims had a fantastic run at the end of the game, and then he fumbled. We lost. If we had won that game, we would have played someone else in the Orange Bowl, not Nebraska, and would have won the national title. I still think about that. That one still haunts me.”
Q: A lot of people think Alabama has the greatest teams ever in college football. Do you agree?
A: “The game is so different now. The players are bigger, stronger, faster. The strength and conditioning programs are so good, and everyone’s got one. You used to have an edge.
“It’s harder to do what (Alabama’s) doing now, because everyone’s got players. With 85 scholarships, you can’t take 30 or 40 of them every year. You have to choose. That means there’s talent going everywhere, and nobody does it better than the SEC. Everyone’s got talent, and it didn’t used to be that way.”
Q: The story most Nebraskans remember about you is when you crashed Bob Devaney’s TV show with the tacos.
A: “I still hear about that. We’re in Lincoln, and the winner is going to the Orange Bowl and the loser probably going to the Sun Bowl in El Paso.
“So we’re driving around Lincoln, and on the marquees they had signs that said, ‘Switzer have a good time in El Paso.’
“Well, Bob Devaney used to do a TV show the night before the games with Dick Janda. Bob wanted me to come on the show. Bob had been out to dinner and had a few pops. I said I would, but only if I could just walk out there unannounced and surprise everyone. I said, ‘If you tell anyone I’m here, I’m not coming out.’
“On the way to the show, I had someone stop at a food place and get a sack of tacos. I walked into the show and handed it to him. It was a good time.”
See you Wednesday night, Barry. We’ll bring the tacos.