Saturday, October 5, 2013

Barry Switzer's Bootleg Boy: The Arkansas Years

I check in periodically with thrift stores selling books cheaply and, more likely than not, find some books that I must have. They cost anywhere from 50 cents to a couple of dollars, providing cheap continuing education.
Recently, I picked up Barry Switzer’s autobiography, Booklegger’s Boy, mainly because I recalled that he was born in Arkansas and played football for the University of Arkansas during the latter part of the 1950s. I wanted to know more about the background of an Arkansan who was among the most successful college football coaches in history.

Also, the biography was of interest because I was in Fayetteville, Arkansas, during the years Switzer was playing for the Razorback. Still a youngster then, I would often go to Razorback games, spending time sledding down the steep grass incline in the north end zone on a large piece of cardboard.  When a game ended, I and a bunch of other kids would run onto the field just to be near the famous warriors in their tear-away jerseys.

Before reading the book, I had few recollections of Barry Switzer, but knew that he had coached the hugely successful Oklahoma Sooner football team. I vaguely recalled that he left that job under a cloud many years ago and that he had a reputation as being arrogant and ethically slippery.

The opening chapters of the book tell of Switzer’s final crisis at OU in June 1989. (The book was first published in 1990 by William Marrow. It was co-written with Bud Shrake.) The first chapter discusses the circumstances leading up to his forced resignation.  The story includes a rape and shooting at the Bud Wilkinson House (where the OU football players lived), his quarterback selling dope to an undercover agent, and allegations that he gambled on Oklahoma and other college football games. In other parts of the book, Switzer explains why he was not responsible for the bad deeds of his players and why the charges against him were whimsical, at best. He also excoriates the NCAA on its rules and operations.

The beginning of the end from Switzer at OU

All of this is of interest, I suppose, if you really like or dislike Switzer. Also the parts of the book detailing Oklahoma’s football seasons will appeal to people who give a flip about that team. For me – since I have no strong feelings about the man or the team -- the interesting part of the book is about Switzer’s years in Arkansas, the first 29 years of his life.

Those years of Switzer's life have some dark and disturbing elements involving his parents. He did not have a normal childhood with a stable home and inspiring elders. Far from it. When Switzer grew up in Crossett, with some time living in El Dorado, his father was a pariah, a man who made a living by illegally selling liquor in Ashley County. Thus, the title of the book, Bootleggers Boy. Although I was initially skeptical about the impact of Switzer's father’s occupation on his life, but book convinced me that it was of great importance.

For example, as the son of a bootlegger Barry was not highly regarded by the parents of his school mates, and he describes how he had to get a friend to pick up his dates because the parents of young women in the city did not want them dating the son of disreputable man. This painful detail of his early life is just a small example of what it meant to have the parents he had.

Switzer was born on October 5, 1937. His father was Frank May Switzer, whose father, Barry’s grandfather, had owned thousands of acres of cotton and pine forest outside of Crossett and had served twice in the Arkansas General Assembly (he lost everything late in life due to illness). According to Switzer, his father was “a handsome man with a powerful physique.” His mother was Mary Louise Wood Switzer, who he describes as “the smartest, prettiest girl in Crossett.”

After Barry was born, he and his parents lived on a houseboat a few miles from Crossett on the Ouachita River. His father operated the toll bridge over the Ouachita River. When World War II started, the family moved to California where the father found work in a shipyard in San Pedro. His mother and a friend opened a café in Long Beach, where their house was located, called “Arkies.  Barry attended kindergarten while living there.

The family returned to Arkansas soon after the war. According to Switzer, his father got involved in “a dry cleaners, a furniture store, a department store, a bakery, a fishing camp, and a used-car lot, but he never made a dime out of any of them.” (p. 24) Then he found out he could make good money as a bootlegger, serving dry Ashley County.

The Switzer family in late 1945 or early 1946 lived in a “gray shotgun house” four miles west of Crossett. Built on stump logs, it was located on a gravel road near a swamp bottom. The house had no electricity, no running water, and no telephone. Its “facilities” was a three-hole outhouse “with a Sears, Roebuck catalog that wasn’t for reading, and a sack of lime in the corner.” P. 25.

Young Barry Switzer from
The house was located about three hundred yards (through the woods) from a rural black community with a dozen or so shacks and Sam Lawson’s Café, which served as a late-night entertainment center.  The location was fortuitous because, apparently, much of his father’s business was with blacks living in the area. According to Switzer, his father had five or six black guys selling liquor for him. Also, his father augmented his whisky business by making usurious loans to various people, including blacks, in need of quick money.

Barry, of course, was still a kid during these early years of his father’s business. His best friends, he wrote, were his big collie, Major, and black kids in the area.

Unfortunately, trouble in the Switzer household extended beyond his father’s occupation: not only was he a bootlegger, but he also was a “rounder and a womanizer.” Tired of his bootlegging and messing around, Barry’s mother moved with him and his brother to El Dorado when Barry was in the 5th grade. There she had a whole-in-the-wall café called the Coffee Cup (p. 26).  In El Dorado, when Barry was in the 6th grade at Yoakum Grade School, he began playing football.  In doing so, he found an activity at which he excelled, and he met future Razorbacks Jim Moody and Wayne Harris.

As Switzer was about to start the 8th grade and was looking forward to playing junior high football in El Dorado, his mother decided to return to live with her husband.  Thus, Barry played football in Crossett and became a local star there in different sports at his all-white school. However, because of his stigma as the son of a bootlegger, he hung out with black kids and played pick-up games with them. Based on this experience, he realized that he would not be a star if he had to play with and against blacks in a school setting.

The relationship between his dad and mom did not improve after she moved back in with him. As Switzer describes it, with his father running around for business and pleasure, his mother, who had few friends, did not have anything to do. Switzer writes, “She read all the time, lived in a world of fiction. I didn’t know it, but she had started taking barbiturates by prescription, and she was drinking. She would kind of glide through the day with a glaze around her.” (p. 29)

When Switzer was a senior in High School, his father got busted by Arkansas Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission officers and was convicted on state liquor charges. He was sent to the Arkansas State Penitentiary, a large farm in the town of Varner, located in the delta by the Arkansas River.
Switzer as a Razorback from
With his father in prison, Switzer, then 6’ 1”, weighing 185 pounds, was given a scholarship to play football at the University of Arkansas. He enrolled in fall, 1955. His scholarship provided room, board, books, tuition, and fees, plus he was given $15 per month for laundry money, which was much of what he had to live on. He had a room in Gregson Hall his first year, was home sick, and was not much interested in his classes.

In 1956, he and other football players moved down the hill to the Wilson Sharp House, the new dorm for athletics. He was redshirted his sophomore year, and he began to take his studies seriously – eventually making the Dean’s List in the Business department.

According to Switzer, a turning point in his life came when Frank Broyles became head coach at the University of Arkansas in 1958. In 1957, as a red-shirted sophomore, he had played behind all-conference center Jay Donathan. (Donathan was head coach at Fayetteville High School for several years; his last year was 1962, when I was a sophomore on the team.) In 1958, during Broyle’s first season, Switzer was not a starter but was often on the field. The Razorbacks lost their first six games trying to run the Delaware Wing T.  When Broyles switched to the straight Wing T and Split T, which made better use of the running talent of Jim Mooty, the team won the last four games.

Switzer as a Razorback from
As the 1959 season approached, back in Crossett things were still not good. His father was out of prison, and his bootlegging and money lending businesses were doing well. As Switzer describes it, “He was a fine-looking man, very popular in the black community, where he strolled about giving dimes to little kids. But his life still revolved around drinking, gambling, and women. He was out every night doing whatever it was he did.” P.43.

His mother was sinking more deeply into her world of fiction and barbiturates and alchohol:  “She’d sit in her favorite chair and read her novels, never leaving the house but lost somewhere in her imagination, the ills and the booze inside working on her….” (p. 45)

August 26, 1959 was a fateful day for Barry Switzer, one that had to have scarred him forever. He was at the family house near Crossett; his father was somewhere else. He describes what happened the evening of that day:

That night I went to bed in the front bedroom…I hadn’t turned out the light yet. Mother came in and sat on the bed. I didn’t totally understand the hell she was living through. I was too young to know how really desperate her everyday life was….She loved me and she needed my love so much, but as I looked at her sitting there on the bed kind of glassy and smiling, loaded o prescription drugs and booze, something broke inside me and I said to her something I will always regret.
I said, “Mother, I would rather never ever see you again and know you are safe and well taken care of, than to see you like this all the time.”

She leaned over to kiss me.

I turned my head away. (p. 45)

His mother then got a pistol out of the closet and walked out of the room to the back porch. Barry just watched her leave; then he heard a shot. She had killed herself.

Of course, Switzer felt responsible for and guilty about what happened that evening. It surely was a heavy burden. However, thirty years later, when writing this book, Switzer found out that his mother had planned her suicide – it was not in response to what he had said and done. She had left a suicide note, but Barry’s father had kept it a secret from him.

(In November, 1972, when Switzer was an assistant coach at OU, his father was murdered, shot at his house by long-term girlfriend, Lula May, who was jealous because he had started seeing another woman. The shot in the chest would likely not have killed him, but when Lula May was speeding to get him to the hospital, she missed a sharp turn on a gravel road and hit a power pole. The car exploded into flames, killing both of them immediately.)

Despite the tragedy in his life, Switzer’s senior year at UA was a good one. He met his future wife, Kay McCollum (March 31, 1941-January 1, 2008) who was a freshman on the UA campus. She was from Stuttgart, majoring in math. Also, she was a featured twirler with the marching band. They married in 1963 and were divorced in 1981.

On the football field, Switzer -- playing his final year -- was leader of the “Wild Hogs” unit, the second string team; however he played nearly full time at center. He was elected team tri-captain with guard Billy Luplow and quarterback James Monroe.

That year, 1959, Arkansas tied for the Southwest Conference championship with T.C.U. (who Arkansas beat 3-0) and Texas (who beat UA by a score of 13-12 at Memorial stadium in Little Rock). The town of Crossett held a “Barry Switzer Appreciation Banquet” on January 26, 1960, attended by 200 people who paid $1.75 per ticket to hear Coach Broyles and Arkansas Gazette’s Orville Henry speak. (p. 48)

After Switzer graduated he hung around Fayetteville helping with the freshman team and waiting to his summons to the army. It came later in 1960. However, he was released early from the Army (with the help of some influential friends) after Broyles invited him to be a full-time assistant for the 1961 team. He was a Razorback coach through the 1965 season. In early 1966, Jim McKenzie, an assistant coach at UA, was hired to be the coach of the University of Oklahoma. He hired Switzer for his staff.
OU Coach Barry Switzer with Michigan's Bo Schembechler
At Oklahoma, Switzer was an assistant coach from 1966 to 1972, then became head coach in 1973, a job he kept until 1989. In 1976, Frank Broyles offered Switzer the head coaching position at the University of Arkansas. When he turned it down, Broyles hired Lou Holtz. While head coach at Oklahoma, the team had a 157-29-7 record, with national championships in 1974, 1975, and 1985.

In 1994, after this book was written, former Razorback football player Jerry Jones hired Switzer to be head football coach of the Dallas Cowboys. With Switzer as coach, the Cowboys won the Super bowl in 1966.  He resigned as a coach of the Cowboys in 1998.
Switzer as coach of Dallas Cowboys

In reading Bootlegger’s Boy (and other things about him), there is much not to like about Barry Switzer. He inherited some of his father’s bad traits, and some of his personal and professional behavior was – to put it kindly -- not beyond reproach. Nevertheless, he was one of the most successful coaches in the history of collegiate football, and he was one of the most famous Arkansans in the second half of the 20th Century.

The story of Switzer’s years as a youth and young man in Arkansas makes his accomplishments even more impressive. His accomplishments came in spite – or perhaps spurred by – the difficulties and tragedies of his early years living in a dysfunctional family on the edge of Crossett. 

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