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Switzer: Super Bowl was almost my last game

DALLAS – The party roared past midnight and deep into the early morning after Barry Switzer won his Super Bowl. “We did it our way, baby!” he’d screamed to Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. And as he scanned the suite at the Buttes resort in Tempe, Ariz., that January night in 1996, gazing at his best friends, his children, everyone he ever loved in life, he thought this was it.

Barry Switzer, 73, is spending his golden years close to where he achieved gridiron glory in Oklahoma.
(Alonzo Adams/AP Photo)

He wanted to quit.

Winning the Super Bowl was more relief than elation. He enjoyed the victory well enough, adored clutching the trophy, but the previous two years had been about Jones, about trying to justify the owner’s feud with former coach Jimmy Johnson, about why pulling Switzer out of retirement was the right thing after all.

“It was very important that we won that game because of all that Jerry had done,” Switzer says now.

Then with it over at last, as he stood on top of the world, having delivered Jones his vindication, Switzer turned to his friend Larry Lacewell, the Cowboys’ director of scouting. Switzer said he was thinking of retiring and heading back to his beloved Norman, Okla., where he had lived in one house or another for 44 years on a plot of land 500 yards from the University of Oklahoma’s football stadium.

“I think I’m going to resign,” he told Lacewell.

The scouting director stared at him.

“You can’t do that,” Lacewell replied.

Switzer laughs into the phone now.

“Larry really talked me into staying,” he says.

It snowed a lot on the OU campus this week, so much so that by Wednesday afternoon, the 73-year-old Switzer refused to leave his house. It wasn’t worth it. He hadn’t planned on coming to the Super Bowl just three hours down the road in normal weather anyway. Why do that? He’d been to plenty of them as a spectator. And the lure of the hulking new Cowboys Stadium rising from the Arlington prairie wasn’t enough either. He’s already seen the stadium: “Jerry’s Fun Palace,” he calls it.

But there is only one coach who has ever beaten the Steelers in a Super Bowl. And after Switzer’s Cowboys were finished defeating Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XXX, something changed in Dallas. The mighty Cowboy dynasty started to crumble. A new salary cap was going into effect and decisions had to be made. Good players had to go. That night at the Buttes turned out to be the last great moment of the Dallas Cowboys. Nothing was ever the same.

Switzer wasn't afraid to cut loose after the Cowboys won their last title, a victory in Super Bowl XXX in 1996 over the Steelers.
(Greg Crisp/Getty Images)

Over the years, Switzer has taken a share of blame for the franchise’s decline. The mighty football empire was really Johnson’s, folks said. Switzer was simply a swashbuckling renegade college coach who allowed champions to act like hooligans and saw the Cowboys spin out of control. Who knows what might have happened had Switzer left after that Super Bowl. He went 24-8 in those first two regular seasons in Dallas before tumbling to 6-10 two years later, when he ultimately resigned. Could someone have done better?

The Cowboys were headed into an abyss that was probably impossible to avoid. Success demanded keeping as many of the stars as possible, even as the cap siphoned off the team’s best pass rusher, Charles Haley, and a bad back forced dependable tight end Jay Novacek to retire. Tawdry behavior was overlooked. The Cowboys, after all, were the Cowboys.

Switzer snickers.

“Half that stuff they did was for you guys in the media,” he says. “All those guys like [Michael] Irvin and Deion [Sanders], they were just trying to put on a show for you. Now that stuff like drugs and cocaine, that gets to you. But all that other stuff? That’s just show business. What I care about is, when it’s time to do the right things on the field, those guys worked their asses off. That’s what was important to me.”

He loves Jones. He loves that the owner gave him everything he ever wanted as a coach. He hears what people say about Jones, about how he’s an ego run amuck and has distilled the Cowboys of discipline and talent so much that getting back to the Super Bowl is nearly impossible.

He disagrees. He says Jones is “misunderstood,” that he was – in fact – a great owner, someone who never meddled, who always provided resources, who treated football as his primary business rather than making it a side investment to some other fortune.

“You get labels,” Switzer says. “I got a label as a recruiter [at OU]. Hell yeah I was a damn good recruiter. But hell, I also ran an offense [as offensive coordinator] that had more than 400 yards a game in 1971.”

The Sooners did not win the national championship that year, but Switzer did win three as head coach at Oklahoma. And no matter what labels he gets dropped upon him – renegade, outlaw, caretaker of someone else’s Cowboy regime – he and Johnson are the only coaches to have won both a national title and a Super Bowl. That stands for something. If he was too loose, too permissible, well, maybe the Cowboys needed that after Johnson’s feud with Jones.

Barry loves telling the story of how he is certain he should have won another Super Bowl in his first year with Dallas but that the Cowboys inexplicably fell behind the San Francisco 49ers 21-0 in the first seven minutes of the NFC championship game. Over the phone, he goes on about how he pulled the team aside and shouted the only thing he knew to say: “You know what’s great about being down 21-0 five minutes into the game? We’ve got 55 minutes to get back in this son of a bitch!”

He can still remember Troy Aikman’s eyes growing wide with disbelief.

“He was saying ‘What’s wrong with this cat?’” Switzer says.

Looking back, that is probably the old coach’s greatest regret in Dallas. While the Cowboys did nearly come back and win the San Francisco game, Switzer believes he would have had two Super Bowl titles because he is certain his team would have beaten San Diego as badly as the 49ers did. That would have given Dallas four Super Bowl wins in a row – and nobody has ever done that.

What a gift that would have been for Jerry Jones.

Switzer sighs. There’s no time for regrets. He isn’t the type to look back and wonder why. Every once in a while, a network calls, wanting him to do games on television. But he’s done. His grandchildren are living around him in Norman. He’s got a beautiful new house on that acre plot of land that has come to be his for nearly half a century. He wants his weekends free.

“I’m approaching the two-minute warning and I’m planning on going into overtime,” he says.

But on this frigid day, he is thinking back to the afterglow of that night in Tempe. Winning a Super Bowl is bigger than the three national championships and it’s not even close. It’s the biggest football stage there is. So what better way to celebrate than with a party as big as can be?

Jerry Jones was angry with him that evening, he says. The owner had thrown a party of his own, one with country music stars and other celebrities. It cost $400,000, as Switzer recalls. His own party had a bill that ran up to $22,000. He laughs and says: “I wonder who paid that bill?”

As if he doesn’t know.

“Of course it was Jerry,” he says again, then goes quiet as if he’s said too much.

As if 15 years can forget the last great moment of the Cowboys and the coach who nearly walked away into the sunrise.

Les Carpenter is a feature writer and columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Les a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Thursday, Feb 3, 2011