Barry And His 'Boys

AS THE BELLS AND WHISTLES blared, as the earth moved, the sky fell and the only event more Super than the Super Bowl--the Super Bowl Hype-A-Thon--swirled around him, Barry Switzer ordered a baked potato. "Healthy food. They discontinued the Monterey Ranch chicken sandwich," Switzer said. "Best thing they ever had."

While his quarterback and his defensive back and even his owner sell fast food on TV, the coach of the Dallas Cowboys buys it off the rack at Wendy's. While most football fans would trade their birthrights for a trip to the Super Bowl, this guy has been there, done that. "Went to one of 'em," Switzer says. "Hated the crowds, the traffic. Said I'd never go back, 'less I could ride the bus." Now he will.

In the week preceding their career moment, most men in his profession sweat, stress, bray and burn. They agonize over scouting tapes, game plans, X's, O's and injuries. Not Switzer. He lolls about his comfy office with the family Akita dog. "The Super Bowl?" he says, while petting the one life form more laid back than himself. "We won three national championships at Oklahoma and! don't know how it could be bigger than that. 'Course, it must be. This is international."

After a stormy 16-year career at the University of Oklahoma where he was, alternatively, integrationist leader, charming rogue, honored mentor and outlaw cheat, Switzer took a forced retirement in 1988 and was out of football for five years. Suddenly, at 58, he's a central figure as the Cowboys face the Pittsburgh Steelers in Supe XXX in Tempe, Ariz. It was F. Scott Fitzgerald who said in American lives there are no second acts; an Oklahoma woman once told Switzer he reminded her of Fitzgerald's character, Jay Gatsby. "! had to ask my brother, the Dartmouth grad, who that was," he says. "! found out he was a bootlegger--sorta just like me." ("Bootlegger's Boy" is the title of Switzer's best-selling autobiography.)

In sports' global village Switzer exists as something of a yokel. In the most scrutinized, risk-laden coaching job imaginable, he is the anti-coach. On a team of celebrities, from quarterback Troy Aikman to cornerback Deion Sanders, Switzer is perceived as a mere figurehead when he's not being branded an impediment. The players think differently. After the Cowboys won their third NFC championship in four years, beating the Green Bay Packers 38-27, star receiver Michael Irvin rudely informed a blushing TV audience that "No one deserves this more than Barry Switzer. He took all of this [expletive]."

NFL coaches eat [expletive] for a living. One exception is Switzer's Super Bowl counterpart, the Pittsburgh Steelers' 38-year-old Bill Cowher. A local kid, he went off to play at North Carolina State before becoming an NFL lifer-- five years as maniac special teams player and seven as assistant coach. While he has ramrodded his teams into the playoffs in each of his four years as head man, Cowher has heard hardly a discouraging word.

Switzer has heard little else. He was hired by Cowboys' owner Jerry Jones in March 1994 to replace Jimmy Johnson, who had been fired after leading Dallas to consecutive Super Bowl championships. Jones had known Switzer since college; Switzer coached Jones's freshman team at Arkansas. To Jones, Switzer's chief qualification was that he was not Johnson. "Barry's an open guy. Somebody with a track record of coaching success, tough skin, inner strength. He couldn't come in here and invent the wheel, make wholesale changes or any of that," Jones said last week. "Barry was a guy I knew I could work with through good times and bad."

It was a no-win situation, however. Switzer would not only replace the workaholic, self-professed genius Johnson, but he would also face:

A city that previously hated him as the coach of the despised rival college Okies.

A quarterback (Aikman) who long ago transferred away from Oklahoma to UCLA to escape Switzer's nonpassing system.

A complete lack of experience on the pro level.

Tasteless disparagement by Johnson himself in his new role as a Fox broadcaster.

Why did he take the job? It's simple, says Switzer. "This is the job in football." Last year the jackals howled for that job as the Cowboys lost their title to the San Francisco 49ers. But Switzer could have copped a plea; the best defensive back in the league (Sanders) was a 49er and the best runner (Dallas's Emmitt Smith) came up lame in the championship game. But this season, following a shocking 38-20 November defeat by the same 49ers, Switzer had little excuse. Instantly, Jones leaped to the coach's defense, vowing Switzer would remain unless "he's hit by a truck or gets shot."

And then came a frigid Dec. 10 in Philadelphia. The Cowboys struggled against a team they were expected to beat. With the game tied, Switzer elected to go for a first down on fourth-and-one from Dallas's own 29-yard line. Smith was stopped and the Eagles kicked a field goal to win, 20-17. Dallas wept, and America laughed. "Switzercide" and "Fourth-and-Dumb" summarized the reviews of Texas writers. BOZO THE COACH, bannered the New York Post. But the owner was again steadfast in his support. The players rallied behind their coach. Switzer called the team together and dealt his emotional hole card one more time. Tough? A guy who grew up dirt poor near a swamp bottom using an outhouse all his youth didn't worry about not making a first down. The son of an ex-con father who was murdered by his mistress and of an alcoholic mother who kissed him then blew her brains out on the back porch didn't worry about getting ripped on talk shows. Tough? I'll give you tough.

"The aftermath of that fourth down in Philly turned it around for us," says Dallas offensive guard Nate Newton. "It was time to get it on, to play for the man. Barry had taken all the heat for us. Damn, the man's hide is thick. Most coaches wouldn't have survived."

As for the coach? "We needed a stinkin' foot. I'd do it again," Switzer insists. The December disaster remains fresh in his mind, though the Cowboys haven't lost a foot, not to mention a game, since. "I'm too secure with myself to worry about criticism. It's phony, comical. Words don't hurt if you have no respect for who uses them." Switzer is framing the "Bozo" headlines to give to his three adult children.

Following the victory over the Packers, Aikman -- with whom philosophic differences remain--emotionally handed Switzer the game ball. Which left the bootlegger's boy just one more roadblock to clear before becoming the third man (after Paul Brown and Johnson) to coach both college and pro championship teams. "Maybe if we win, I'll give my little fishing rig a name," Switzer says, mindful of Johnson's much-publicized, live-in mini-yacht, Three Rings. "I'll call it something like... Four Rings."

'Boys--and even their coaches--will always be 'Boys.