OU fired Barry Switzer 20 years ago today, and we could stage a rousing debate over whether the Sooners are better off or worse for wear over that decision.
Here’s an even better debate: Did the departure of Switzer spell the doom of the wishbone in big-time college football?
Few teams have run the ‘bone in the last 20 years, mostly service academies, and OU bailed on it in 1989, Year 1 of Gary Gibbs’ six-year run as coach. In John Blake’s desperation year of 1998, the Sooners went back to in limited form, but it had no chance. In Bob Stoops’ first game, the 1999 opener against Indiana State, the Sooners lined up in the wishbone on the opening snap, then shifted into the spread offense, and the ‘bone was gone for good.
What would have been the wishbone’s future had Switzer stayed at the helm? It would have had a much longer shelf life and been much more successful.
First, a clarification. We’re not talking about option football. Plenty of teams still run the option. Zac Robinson and Tim Tebow still run some option. We’re not talking Nebraska’s option, which lasted until Bill Callahan’s arrival in 2005.
We’re talking wishbone. Three running backs. Triple option.
Switzer long has said teams still can win with the option. But I don’t think the wishbone would have survived these two decades. Switzer would have given it a go and stuck with the ‘bone for several years. But eventually, the change in the game would have dictated a change in the coach.
College football defenses became bigger and faster. Creases are not as big. Open spaces closed more quickly. The need to throw grew, both in a variety of different ways and much more efficiently.
I think Switzer would have adapted. Would have morphed into more of a Nebraska option offense and maybe eventually into something resembling the current OSU offense, with triple threats of throwing, running and the option.
But no wishbone. Defenses could stack the line and get away with it. With exotic pass coverages unknown in the wishbone heyday, the home run passes that Jack Mildren and Steve Davis, J.C. Watts and Jamelle Holieway could sting unsuspecting defenses would be gone.
The wishbone’s chief limitation in 21st-century football is the inability to spread the defense. You would have seen the ‘bone broken more and more, to where eventually the base offense was not the three backs, but one or more likely both halfbacks in motion, to the slot or all the way to the sideline.
The wishbone was grand for 20 years of OU football. It would not have survived another 20, even with its greatest champion in control.