Mad Chatter: Osborne, Switzer and a recruiting bouquet worth fighting for

How could the two winningest coaches of their era, conference rivals that run the same offensive system, not tangle more often on the recruiting trail? It’s true. Barry Switzer and Tom Osborne didn’t duel often.

Through Friday, Mad Chatter will post a series of blogs reflecting on Husker recruiting history.

* * *

Looking back, it doesn’t make much sense.

How could the two winningest coaches of their era, conference rivals that run similar offensive systems, not tangle more often on the recruiting trail? It’s true. Barry Switzer and Tom Osborne didn’t duel often.

"While we have recruited many of the same players, we've never been embroiled in recruiting battles like Oklahoma-Texas or some of the other big rivalries," Osborne once said. "We recruit a lot of the players they don't and vice versa."

“The reason Tom and I had a great relationship," Switzer said in 2013, "… we never really competed for players. We very seldom, once or twice a year, we would compete for the same players...

“Nebraska and Oklahoma, there wasn’t the recruiting saga involved.”

But every once in a while, NU and OU went 15 rounds in February. And it was downright epic. Never more than 1987, two months after Oklahoma ripped out Nebraska’s heart in Memorial Stadium. 

The recruiting target: an Omaha Central I-back named Leodis Flowers.

Coming off the Boz era — Nebraska hadn’t beaten OU since '83 — this was the absolute height of Switzer loathing in the state of Nebraska.* Now he was daring to walk into Osborne’s backyard and derail the OPS I-back pipeline to Lincoln. 

* Switzer has been become Nebraska’s favorite uncle the past 20 years, but anybody who says he wasn’t hated in the mid-80s doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

Flowers was a two-time all-state pick, a Parade All-American, heir apparent to Central alum Keith Jones. 

As a sophomore in '84, he scored seven touchdowns in three playoff games for Class A state champion Central. As a junior, he set the Metro Conference per-game rushing record — 196.1 yards.

His final high school game, against Council Bluffs TJ, he rushed for 326. He gained 3,119 yards in his prep career, scoring 39 touchdowns. 

Flowers had always wanted to get away from home. And early in the recruiting process, Switzer told him that he was the first player from Nebraska he’d ever wanted. "That statement alone intrigued Leodis,” Central coach William Reed said.  

Grab your popcorn, Barry was just warming up.

* * *

Three days before Signing Day — one day after Hayden Fry and Tom Osborne had watched Flowers play a varsity basketball game — Switzer flew via private plane to Omaha on a Sunday afternoon. He met with Reed.

And then, before visiting Flowers’ home, he did the damndest thing. He held a small press conference at the Blue Jay tavern. 

It's an exceptional player, Switzer told the media, that draws Oklahoma to recruiting in the Cornhuskers' territory. 

"Leodis is a difference maker," Switzer said. "We need running backs. We're going all over the country in search of one, and here's one in Big Eight territory." 

Oklahoma loses halfbacks Earl Johnson and Spencer Tillman from the 11-1 team that blasted Arkansas 42-8 in the Orange Bowl. 

Flowers could contribute immediately as a freshman, Switzer said. 

"He has all the innate running talents that separate him from other running backs in the country," Switzer said. "He's got size, quickness and speed. He's an intelligent runner and an exceptional young man. I think he would be a great player at any program he plays in." 

And Switzer would like to see Flowers wearing OU's crimson and cream. 

"If he goes to Oklahoma," Switzer said, "he could play for us next year. He'd probably be a second team player as a freshman." 

Flowers' size, Switzer said, would be a plus in the Sooners' wishbone attack. 

"Leodis is a bigger back than we have," he said. "We haven't a back who weighs 200 pounds like he does. I guess Spencer got to 200 and (Anthony) Stafford might be there. But Flowers has the speed to go with it." 

Oklahoma has commitments from 26 players, Switzer said, and has another two or three scholarships to offer. 

"It's an exceptional 26," Switzer said. "There's not a marginal player in there. Every one is a blue-chipper."

Switzer and OU assistant Scott Hill spent about four hours Sunday night at Flowers’ home. His recruiting style was much different than Osborne’s.

"Nebraska is very businesslike," Reed said. "They're stable and organized, solemn and sincere. Of all the recruiters I meet, they're the most professional.

"Oklahoma's style is more of a jovial type. There's Switzer laying on the floor at Leodis' house, watching Oklahoma's highlight tape, raving about some of the hits his players made. It's a completely different atmosphere."

By the time Switzer’s plane left Sunday night, Flowers was flummoxed. And starting to feel sick. 

The drama was just getting started. 

* * *

Omaha was just one battle line between OU and NU that week. The other was in Marrero, La., where a quick quarterback named Mickey Joseph was stumped, too. 

NU was in Florida, too, hedging its I-back bets.

The previous weekend, the Huskers hosted a running back from Pensacola, who ranked even higher than Flowers. The prospect loved the facilities, admired Tom Osborne, but he hated the cold. 

His name: Emmitt Smith.

Monday morning came and Osborne visited Flowers at Central High. The kid missed part of the day with illness. 

"Basically, he has to be away from things for a while," Reed said. "He doesn't want the prima donna treatment or more press. He just wants to be left alone to make a decision." 

But Flowers wasn’t the focal point Monday. It was Switzer’s press conference. The question:

Did Switzer violate an NCAA rule that prohibits a coach from commenting generally about a prospect's ability or how a prospect might contribute to a team before he signs a national letter of intent?

Carl James, Big Eight Conference commissioner, said the league office received information about Switzer's comments and was reviewing the matter.

"We do this normally," James said. "We take all the newspapers throughout the conference, and anytime we see in there whether it's a Big Eight person or a Big Ten person or what they might be that somebody has allegedly made a comment, we immediately call up the athletic director and say it appears from reading the article that Coach X is in possible violation of the interpretation of the NCAA rule in regard to recruiting comments."

Prentice Gautt, associate commissioner of the Big Eight Conference, said the NCAA's rule regarding recruiting publicity is found in an interpretation of NCAA bylaw 1 - 4 - (a) - (c). The interpretation states: 

"The administrative committee has also reviewed the limitations that would apply to statements that may be made by coaching staff members in response to media inquiries concerning the recruitment of particular prospects. The committee concluded that prior to the actual signing of a prospect to the national letter of intent, the member institution may comment publicly only to the extent of confirming its recruitment of the prospect.

"It should be noted that under this interpretation an institution may not comment generally in regard to the prospect's ability or the contribution that the individual might make to the institution's team. Further, the institution would be precluded from commenting in any manner as to the likelihood of the prospect's signing with that institution." 

Looks pretty clear that Switzer violated the rule, right?

But Oklahoma Athletic Director Donnie Duncan said that if it was a violation*, it wasn’t intentional.

"If that's the case, everyone who has made a comment regarding any player on any radio recruit show or anyplace else is in violation," Duncan said. 

"You don't gather TV cameras to break a rule," he said. "It sounds like the expected in the end-of-the-recruiting year effort, when any efforts can be made to sway a player for any reason."

*Incidents like this illustrate why the recruiting rulebook is 10 times bigger than it used to be. In 2015, any comment about an unsigned player — let alone a press conference three days before Signing Day — would be a big no-no for a coach.

As officials were dancing around the issue, Husker fans (and critics) were in a tizzy. Here’s a sampling of letters to the World-Herald editor:

I wish to express my disgust at the judgment shown by The World-Herald staff in its "wide eyed" coverage of Barry Switzer's visit in Omaha with Mr. Flowers and his coach. Switzer's traveling circus has proven its ability to manipulate the media on several occasions. You ought to know that "hot dogs" like Barry and the Boz use you to make news. Where was the coverage on Hayden Fry's visit, Tom Osborne's or any other coach's visit? -- Ken Bowe, Murdock, Neb. 

The alleged infractions that Oklahoma committed while trying to recruit Leodis Flowers are rules that have no business existing in the first place. This whole affair sounds like a cheap trick concocted by Nebraskans who are insane with jealousy, knowing they can never compete with Barry, Bosworth and the boys. -- Joe Beach, Omaha

I can't believe it. We thought the NCAA was stupid for trying to suspend players for football - ticket violations, and now it's after Switzer for something he said that nobody would have known was wrong if not for the news media. In the paper for three days running! Surely you have more interesting things to write about. -- Bill Knickman, Nebraska City 

Barry Switzer should be exiled to Siberia for the heinous crime of describing Flowers' potential. The NCAA must crack down on such blatant violations of their petty rules. Guilty universities should be given the "death penalty." --Frank Staskiewicz Jr., Omaha 

Back in Norman, Sooner coaches were upset, too. They suspected that Switzer’s press conference was a "setup job" by the Nebraska news media.

Turns out, William Reed had asked Switzer to meet with the media. Reed was handling so many interview requests he thought it made sense.

"I don't want it looking like I planned something I wouldn't plan for any of the other schools," he said, "And I don't want it to look like I set up the University of Oklahoma for some kind of violation. It's kind of put me between a rock and a hard place."

Said Donnie Duncan, Switzer’s AD: "It sounds to me like much ado about nothing. There again, we'll wait and see. I'll be interested in the interpretation as it relates all across the country, because there's an awful lot of discussion going on by a lot of people, including those who represent universities regarding players or potential players."

In the end, Duncan was right. The press conference didn’t prompt action from the NCAA.

Switzer was in the clear. But Flowers’ head was as muddy as ever.

* * *

Wednesday morning in Pensacola, Fla., the second-most prolific running back in American high school history (8,800 career yards) walked into school wearing red. Yes, red. 

Emmitt Smith had told his friends that his Signing Day outfit would reveal his college choice. He was bluffing. 

He picked Florida.

Back in Omaha, Flowers wasn’t so decisive. He liked Iowa, especially Hayden Fry's lead recruiter, Bill Snyder. But this was destined to come down to NU and OU.

The public didn’t know it, but Flowers wanted to commit to Oklahoma after Switzer’s visit.* But Reed told him to hold off because of the uncertainty with the NCAA.

* Can you imagine how much worse the uproar in Omaha would’ve been? My goodness.

Now Flowers was torn again. Wednesday came and went and Flowers didn’t make an announcement. Nebraska received letters of intent from Keithen McCant, Mike Croel, Reggie Cooper and others. But no word from Flowers.

Thursday, Osborne and assistant Jack Pierce took off for Marrero, La. They stood in a vacant lot across the street from Mickey Joseph’s school, observing an NCAA rule that the head coach can't be present for a signing. Mickey was in. But no word from Flowers.

Friday, same thing. Saturday, same thing. 

Flowers was getting so many phone calls he couldn’t sleep. William Reed received countless more “stupid” calls from fanatical strangers. "By far, this was the worst it's been," said the coach who’d been through his share of recruiting wars.

Finally Sunday, a breakthrough.

Flowers’ visit to Nebraska hadn’t gone as well as he hoped. He didn’t feel comfortable around the coaches and players. But that weekend, Flowers received phone calls from Keith Jones, the Central alum, and smooth-talking Broderick Thomas.*

The Sandman helped clinch the deal.

* Thomas made a similar call to Mickey Joseph, which was instrumental in Joseph’s signing. Broderick’s little brother, Will Thomas, was a safety in the ’87 class.

Monday morning — five days after Signing Day — Osborne went to Central again and met with Flowers. At the end of their visit, Flowers committed. Osborne drove back to Lincoln. Frank Solich and Dan Young drove to Flowers’ home and picked up the letter of intent.

Flowers had just one request for his high school coach:

No press conference. 

* * *

What happened after that? 

The Osborne-Switzer war raged for two more years, until Switzer resigned amid scandal. In ’87, Nebraska lost to Oklahoma for the fourth consecutive year, 17-7 in the Game of the Century II. 

In ’88, Osborne finally got his Big Eight championship, beating the Sooners in the Oklahoma rain, 7-3.

Flowers redshirted in ’87. In ’88 and ’89, he backed up Ken Clark. He started at I-back in ’90 and led the Huskers in rushing, accumulating 940 yards in nine games. 

But after getting just one carry in a Citrus Bowl loss to Georgia Tech — arguably the low point of the Osborne era — Flowers quit the team before his senior year. He later said he was struggling with issues off the field. 

Flowers didn’t go down in Husker history as a great I-back. But in the 16-year rivalry between the era’s two winningest coaches, nobody stirred a recruiting battle quite like he did. 

"I'm glad it's over," Flowers said after he signed in ’87. "I don't think I'd want to go through this again. Once is enough." 

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