BY JOHN ROHDE
(The Oklahoman – Sept. 4, 2002)
On a January evening in a Chicago hotel suite, two college coaching legends shared stories and laughter. Serving them drinks was a 20-something assistant who would become somewhat legendary himself.
Barry Switzer and Larry Lacewell can’t agree on the year. Switzer insists it was January 1966. Lacewell said it had to have been the year before.
After the 1965 season, Oklahoma hired Jim Mackenzie as its new football coach. Mackenzie picked Switzer as offensive line coach, and the staff was looking for a freshman coach. Switzer suggested Lacewell, who won the 1966 national junior college title at Kilgore (Texas) College.
Switzer coaxed Lacewell to join him in Chicago for the annual national football coaches’ convention. Lacewell had no travel budget. “I told him if he got his butt up there, he could stay with me,” Switzer said.
Lacewell rode a bus from Kilgore to Chicago and slept in Switzer’s room at the Hilton.
Although the year is in doubt, what transpired is not. Switzer and Lacewell’s stories share the same laughter.
First, a bit of background.
OOOO, PIG … COACHES
For whatever reason, southern Arkansas has been breeding territory for college football coaches.
Paul “Bear” Bryant and Larry Lacewell grew up in Fordyce (as did Little Rock high school legend Houston Nutt Sr.). Barry Switzer came from Crossett. Charlie McClendon was from Lewisville. JT King hailed from Portland. Tom Tuberville was born in Camden. Jimmy “Red” Parker was a native of Rison.
Bryant coached at Maryland, Kentucky, Texas A&M and Alabama and won six national titles with the Crimson Tide.
Lacewell coached Arkansas State and was an assistant at seven colleges.
Switzer coached Oklahoma to three national titles.
McClendon remains the all-time winningest coach at Louisiana State.
King coached Texas Tech.
Tuberville was at Mississippi and now is at Auburn.
Parker coached at Arkansas A&M (now Arkansas-Monticello), The Citadel, Delta State, Clemson, Southern Arkansas and Ouachita Baptist.
“You could draw a circle of about 80 miles, and we’d all be inside it,” Switzer said.
Growing up 65 miles southeast of Fordyce, Switzer was well-aware of Bryant. When Bryant was at Texas A&M, he recruited Switzer out of Crossett High School.
Switzer played at Arkansas and was voted tri-captain his senior season in 1959, when the Razorbacks shared the Southeast Conference championship.
Switzer remembers playing against Texas A&M his sophomore season in 1957, a game Arkansas lost 7-6 when Heisman Trophy winner John David Crow intercepted a pass in the end zone.
“That was one of my biggest thrills as a player was to play against him,” Switzer said. “When we came out to warm up, I saw coach Bryant down at the other end of the field, leaning up against the goal post.”
After installing the wishbone offense in the 1970 season, Switzer would meet with Bryant and his staff on several occasions.
“I knew coach Bryant really well because of the wishbone. We traded film and all that,” Switzer said.
But it was in 1966 when Switzer had his first lengthy experience with Bryant.
Or was it 1965?
“It was 1966. Get it accurate now…,” Switzer said as he began to share the following story:
LEGEND IN THE LOBBY
It was midafternoon on the second day of the convention. Switzer and Lacewell were having refreshments at the overcrowded Hilton bar.
“Coach Bryant walks into the lobby and, of course, everybody’s just eyeballing him,” Switzer said.
Lacewell had known Bryant for years thanks to their Fordyce connection. It was Bryant who talked Lacewell out of being a lawyer and into becoming a coach.
As a graduate assistant at Alabama in 1959, Lacewell once drove Bryant from Tuscaloosa to Fordyce.
Lacewell’s mother dated Bryant in high school.
Knowing Lacewell’s deep admiration for Bryant, Switzer started ribbing Lacewell after a couple of beers.
Switzer: “Has anybody ever told you when you turn sideways, you kind of look like coach Bryant?”
Lacewell: “Shut up.”
Switzer: “Hey, you’re a good friend of coach Bryant’s. Why don’t we just go up to his hotel room and visit? He won’t care. You guys are such good buddies.”
Lacewell: “You bet we’re buddies.”
Bryant was staying across the street at the Blackstone Hotel.
“That’s where the big shots stayed so they could have their privacy,” Lacewell said. “Everything looked awfully big to me back then. I was just a county boy. That was my first coaching convention ever. I had never been around anything quite like it.”
A couple of beers later, Switzer prodded again.
“I found out coach Bryant’s suite number,” Switzer said to Lacewell. “Let’s go over there.”
A couple more beers later, Lacewell finally relented and the two baby-faced assistants ventured across the street.
“Even though I knew coach Bryant, I was still scared to death of him,” said Lacewell, now the director of scouting for the Dallas Cowboys.
Bryant’s suite was at the end of the hall. Switzer and Lacewell walked up to the double doors and heard laughter on the other side.
“I tell Lacewell, ‘Go ahead and knock,’ ” Switzer said. “All the sudden, Lacewell is frozen. He was like a statue there, frozen.”
Suddenly, the doors swung open and out walked Michigan State coach Duffy Daugherty with two empty buckets in his hands.
“Hey, fellas,” Daugherty said to Switzer and Lacewell, neither of whom he knew. “Go get some ice for us and come on back.”
Switzer and Lacewell returned with the ice, and Daugherty shouted, “Just put it over there by the liquor.”
Those also in Bryant’s room included former OU coach Bud Wilkinson, Ohio State’s Woody Hayes and Southern California’s John McKay.
Coaches filtered in and out all night.
“Next thing I know, Lacewell and I were the bartenders,” Switzer said. “We just kept bringing them drinks. We were having a hell of a time.”
Lacewell said Bryant drank whiskey that night and Wilkinson had vodka.
“That kind of shocked me that coach Wilkinson drank,” Lacewell said. “I had that great image of him like everybody else did, but I knew coach Bryant drank.”
Although it was the first time he had ever been around Wilkinson, Switzer did not introduce himself.
“Bud didn’t know who in the hell I was, and I sure didn’t want to introduce myself at that time,” Switzer said.
Wilkinson and Bryant held court.
“When they walked into the lobby, it was like the parting of the sea,” Lacewell said. “Everybody just stepped back and said, ‘Oh.’ Truly, those two have to be 1-2 or 2-1 as the greatest (college) coaches of all time.”
“Ironically, coach Bryant and coach Wilkinson were good friends. I really didn’t know that until later on. They both had a lot of respect for each other. Both did it differently. Their personalities were different. I talked to coach Bryant about coach Wilkinson later on. And then coach Wilkinson talked to me after that – right before he died (in 1994). Coach Wilkinson liked coach Bryant, had a lot of respect for him. There was a lot of mutual respect for each other’s coaching ability.”
As for tending bar, Lacewell laughs at the recollection.
“We just started mixing drinks. It was awesome,” Lacewell said. “We stayed there all night. They told stories. It was just typical coaches’ talk, football talk. But that was a pretty big deal to us. It was a pretty awesome experience for a couple of kids.”
No matter what year it was.