Jimmy Johnson exemplifies the strengths of Twitter. He’s a celebrity and a highly respected coach, yet almost anyone can get a response from him about anything from football to fishing. Coach Johnson is also very forthcoming but never rude, snarky, or obnoxious and is usually interesting and insightful. I’ve tweeted Coach in the past on occasion about the Huskers and when I saw he was tweeting one morning, I decided to toss out a couple of questions. The first was about former competitor and then successor in Dallas, Barry Switzer:
“@harry_husker: What's your relationship with Barry Switzer? Competitive or friendly?”friendly ..known since 1961— Jimmy Johnson (@JimmyJohnson) January 1, 2012
This response didn’t surprise me much at all and I’m not even sure why I asked it at the time. It did, however, keep me on the Barry Switzer track and provoked me to ask Coach Johnson: “Tom Osborne v. Barry Switzer? Legacy?” I guess I expected his response to be an evasive one where kudos were given to both coaches. Or, one that praises their differences, especially with regards to NFL and College Football. But no, Coach Johnson uttered this condemnation:
As a staunch Husker fan nursing a New Year’s ailment, I about purged my stomach right then and there. I was in between shock and sickness. Thing is this, Johnson is entitled to his gut opinion and I’m sure he’s friendly with Switzer, but to justify it by saying “#’s are there” did not seem intuitively correct to me. So let’s look at the numbers and comparisons.
First, Osborne and Switzer make a comparison relatively easy by a) being almost the exact same age b) coaching in the exact same era and even conference and c) by both starting their career in 1973. They were friendly rivals for a reason, they have a tremendous amount of similarities.
National Championships. There will always be the crowd that says whatever else a coach does, he’s ultimately judged on championships. So to cater to that crowd, let’s look at Switzer’s and Osborne’s championships. Switzer won the Championship in Oklahoma in 1974, 1975, and 1985 for an official total of 3 times. Remember, though, before the BCS things were much more subjective and determining an official Championship Game was not a priority. Osborne, on the other hand, took Nebraska to 3 National Championships as well. They won 1994, 1995, and 1997. To be fair, in 1994 there was controversy with Penn St. claiming title and in 1997 it was actually split with Michigan. But for the sake of this comparison, we’ll give each coach 3 National Championships and a dead even tie.
Winning Record. Osborne and Switzer are both considered to be among the elite college football coaches to ever command a sideline. During his 1973-1988 tenure at Oklahoma Barry Switzer piled up a 157-29-4 record for an .837 winning percentage. Osborne’s tenure lasted 9 years longer as he coached from 1973-1997 and compiled a 255-49-3 record for an .836% winning percentage. Almost exactly identical! Osborne’s 9 additional years should not be disregarded and it was in that period where he cemented his legacy. Even though they are compilation stats, Osborne’s almost 100 more wins in college football really dents Jimmy Johnson’s assertion that the numbers are there. If we delve into their records further, we see that Switzer had 12 conference titles and Osborne had 13 which is, again, very similar.
Everything Else. In the above comparisons the numbers look very equal for both coaches. Yet, now we must address how to deal with Switzer’s NFL time and whether that should play a role in a comparison with Osborne. Switzer is one of only two coaches to ever win a College Championship and a Super Bowl, the other being Coach Jimmy Johnson! While Osborne was dominating the ’90s in college football, Switzer was having success in the NFL. Osborne never coached in the NFL but not for lack of opportunity, instead he chose to stay in the college ranks. So with regards to this issue, a gut check is needed on a couple of hypotheticals. Would Osborne had the success Switzer had in the NFL? Would Switzer been able to maintain his success in college football into the 1990s? No matter your reaction, the answers are certainly not quantifiable in any way.
In addition to the NFL question, it cannot be ignored that Barry Switzer was forced to resign after being placed on probation and presiding over several scandals, including cocaine use by players. On the other hand, Osborne was well known for running a clean program and retired without ever incurring any major infractions. Osborne has gone on to serve as a Congressman and is currently the Athletic Director of Nebraska. This too cannot be ignored but cannot be quantified.
So when Jimmy Johnson asserts that the numbers are there to support Switzer as definitively having a better legacy than Osborne, I would have to ask which numbers is he pointing to? Of course Switzer did have a 12-5 head to head record over Tom Osborne but Jimmy Johnson never beat Barry Switzer at all. Would Johnson really assert head to head as a measuring stick of legacy? The fact is that they both have stellar and similar careers and that it would be extremely difficult to pronounce one coach over the other. Depending on your bias, you’ll pick your guy. I have no doubt that Johnson is closer to Switzer so he can ultimately be forgiven for his misguided answer but it won’t stop from rankling my sensibilities.