Barry Switzer had a defensive coordinator. Even had a defensive coordinator he liked.
But Switzer wanted someone else for the job.
Mike Stoops has returned to OU as co-defensive coordinator, and while the details don't exactly match what happened in Soonerville 31 years ago, the bullet points are the same.
In January 1981, Switzer promoted 28-year-old Gary Gibbs to defensive coordinator, demoting Rex Norris.
“It was a tough decision,” Switzer said Saturday. “I hated it. But those are the decisions you have to make as a head coach.”
Such were the decisions Bob Stoops made in recent days.
Fired an assistant coach, Willie Martinez, for the first time in 13 years at Oklahoma. Gone is Stoops' reputation of absolute loyalty.
Brought back his brother as co-defensive coordinator, wounding the status, if not the morale, of longtime lieutenant Brent Venables.
“Mike and Brent have worked together before,” Switzer said. “They'll handle this. I don't want Brent to leave.”
Neither does Bob Stoops, who is taking great pains to soothe the transition for Venables.
And Switzer didn't want Norris to leave, either.
Thirty-one years ago, Southern Cal came after Gibbs. USC dangled its defensive coordinator job in front of the coaching prodigy. Switzer didn't want to lose Gibbs, especially to USC, since the Sooners were scheduled to play the Trojans in 1981 and 1982.
So Switzer elevated Gibbs. Norris expressed support for the move but a few days later resigned to take a job with a New Mexico oil company.
Switzer held open the job. Three weeks later, Norris returned, with a new title (assistant head coach in charge of defense; Merv Johnson already was OU's assistant head coach), but Gibbs remained the defensive coordinator.
“That was a tough decision,” Switzer said. “I don't think similar to what this is here.”
Well, if Switzer means Gary Gibbs isn't his brother, OK. But the human condition mirrors, even to the point that Gibbs and Venables were players under the other coaches involved (Switzer and Norris for Gibbs, both Stoopses for Venables).
The Brothers Stoops are adamant that responsibilities haven't been hashed out. Mike Stoops and Venables worked great together from 1999 through 2003 as co-coordinators. But someone has to make the final decision; Mike Stoops was the triggerman when they worked together earlier. Is there any doubt that he would be again?
The sitting defensive coordinator has to relinquish his post.
The Gibbs/Norris switch paid off long-term. Not short-term. The first three seasons after the switch, 1981-83, were the worst of Switzer's career. OU lost nine games Switzer's first eight seasons. Then OU lost 12 in Gibbs' first three years as defensive coordinator.
And after the 1983 season, Norris resigned to become defensive line coach at Arizona State.
“They worked together, they were professionals,” Switzer said of Gibbs and Norris. “They're in a tight room, 16 hours a day. They're working side by side. All have a role to play.”
But Gibbs, Switzer said, “was the one in the defensive meeting rooms who understood the whole scheme of our defense and how to structure it.”
Norris came to OU in 1973 as part of Switzer's first staff. Norris' career eventually spanned almost 40 years, including 13 NFL seasons and college stops at OU, Arizona State, Florida and Tennessee.
Even today, Switzer raves about Norris. Talks about how Larry Lacewell, Norris' predecessor as OU's d-coordinator, called Norris the most organized line coach he's ever been around. Switzer says he tried to hire Norris for the Dallas Cowboys' staff in the '90s, but Norris couldn't get out of his Houston Oilers contract.
After Norris went to Arizona State, Gibbs put together some of the best defenses OU in history, 1984-87.
So who knows how the second Mike Stoops era will unfold? We know this; he's a heck of a defensive mind and motivator.
“Mike is an excellent football coach,” Switzer said. “So is Brent. Both will contribute. Make us better.”
But new coaching blood is not all OU needs.
“We need Mike, plus some players, especially those with their fingers on the ground,” Switzer said, referring to defensive linemen.
“They're not as good of a football team as they've been in the past. The talent level is not there. That's their problem.”
The return of Mike Stoops “just makes the staff stronger,” Switzer said. “But they need to get some more players. That'll help more than anything.”
So we'll see. Can Venables swallow his pride and remain an energetic coach? Probably. Can Mike Stoops be as effective in his second go-round? Probably.
But you never know. The Gibbs/Norris swap took years to pay off.
“It was a tough decision for me to make,” Switzer said. “But it was the right decision.”
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including AM-640 and FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.