On the tarmac at the Miami airport, I waited, a little nervously, for Barry Switzer, who was flying in with the Oklahoma Sooners for the Orange Bowl against Washington, a fascinating, unexpected match-up with national title implications. I knew Switzer wouldn't like my question.
"Barry," I said after he walked down the ramp from the charter jet to meet a handful of reporters, "a lot has been made of the black hat/white hat coaching match-up between you and Don James of Washington . . . "
"Jeezus," Switzer said, not waiting for the question. "I just step off the damn plane and you hit me with that."
Well, I thought, better me to hit you with an awkward question than James to hit your Sooners with his playbook. I didn't say it, because I wasn't quick-witted enough for Switzer's fast walk to the terminal.
Poor Barry. Switzer was whacked by both.
Among James' many feats as a coach, none was more memorable than New Year's Day 1985, when Washington, an 11-point underdog, whipped Oklahoma 28-17.
The 9-1-1 Sooners, with Brian Bosworth, Tony Casillas and Switzer's gold-necklace flash, were ranked second in the polls (behind undefeated Brigham Young) and first in swag and brag. The 10-1 Huskies, as tight-lipped and wing-tipped as James could make a team nicknamed "Purple Reign," were not even champions of the Pac-10 Conference, which had never sent a team to the Orange Bowl.
Switzer had been campaigning loudly for the Orange Bowl champion to be declared national champion because BYU of the Western Athletic Conference played a meager schedule. Switzer, of course, was assuming something.
"Barry obviously thought they were going to win," James said. "He was promoting that the winner should win the national championship. I didn't say a word because we had to play BYU the next year."
James, who died Sunday, was always big on deeds over words. He was even bigger about small things. James was a keeper of notes, a tracker of trends, a watcher of everything. He was so thorough it was scary. In fact, he used his seeming omniscience to keep players in line.
He let it be known that any misbehavior, on field or off, would be detected and punished.
"Whatever you do," he would tell his teams, "I'm going to find out about it."
It wasn't always true, of course, but it was true often enough that players didn't want to be that guy.
So too, for opponents. Give James an extra day, hour or minute, and he would find out something that would give him an edge. Long before Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson rolled out his mantra, "separation is in the preparation," James was the perambulating paragon of the expression.
James had six weeks to prepare for Oklahoma. Switzer didn't have a chance.
That Orange Bowl game is fixed in national college football lore as the "Sooner Schooner" game. That was the name for the pony-drawn wagon that took the field as part of Oklahoma's post-score celebration ritual. But its premature appearance after an apparent Sooners field goal — the successful kick was being waved off for an illegal-procedure penalty when the wagon became stuck on the field — caused the referees to whistle Oklahoma for a 15-yard penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct.
The re-kick from 40 yards was blocked by the Huskies. But the bizarre episode didn't turn the game, as the many re-tellings would have it.
"(The Schooner) didn't have anything to do with who won the game," said Jimmie Rodgers, the brash safety on the Huskies' ruthless defense. "You give Coach James three weeks, and he'll out-coach anybody, because he worked harder than anybody."
The game-changer was James' plan to thwart Oklahoma's formidable defense with a series of "trap checks" to slow down Casillas, the 290-pound All-America defensive lineman who would go on to a 12-year NFL career.
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