- Lynn Burkhead
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It's a long ways from the fish-rich waters of eastern Arkansas to the hallowed gridiron turf of the Super Bowl, but it's a journey of which at least one pigskin coach is familiar.
That's because Barry Switzer, the former coach of the University of Oklahoma Sooners and the Dallas Cowboys, has made such an expedition with a bass rod at his side most of the way.
Switzer, whose OU teams won national titles in 1974, 1975 and 1985, and who's Dallas Cowboys defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XXX a decade ago, is one of only two coaches to win both a college championship and an NFL title.
Jimmy Johnson, who played on the 1964 Arkansas national championship team for which Switzer was an assistant coach, is the other. (Cowboys owner Jerry Jones also was a member of that '64 Razorback squad.)
If the two men share the distinction of winning NCAA and Super Bowl championships, not to mention coaching the Cowboys, they also share another commonality.
And that is their passionate love of fishing Johnson on saltwater, and Switzer on freshwater, particularly for largemouth bass.
This is exactly why Switzer was a featured guest of one of America's favorite fishermen, Jimmy Houston, on a recent episode of "Jimmy Houston Outdoors," which airs on ESPN2 television each Saturday morning at 8:30 ET.
"I used to go fishing for bream and crappie when I was young," the 69-year old Switzer told ESPNOutdoors.com earlier this week. "I used to flycast for bream. When the willow flies were falling off, I would catch big old bream on popping bugs; that's a lot of fun.
"I still have that old flyrod from those days, but I don't do much of that anymore; bass fishing is really what I like."
Switzer's love of the largemouth bass can be traced back to his youthful days in Arkansas, where he explored the state's marshy terrain, fishing oxbow, cutoff-style lakes by wading in loggerhead turtles and all.
"When I went fishing, I would put on tennis shoes and wade those sloughs," Switzer said. "I'd wade out waist deep in those swamp bottoms near the Ouachita River near the Louisiana line."
While crappie, bluegills and bass were the primary fish Switzer targeted back then, he laughs and tells of another piscatorial species that some anglers aren't that familiar with outside of the South.
"I liked to try and catch grinnel," Switzer said of the living relic of a fish otherwise known as the bowfin. "I'd throw up under the cypress trees for grinnel. If they'd bite, it was fun not to eat them, but just to catch them.
"If you would catch a 9- or 10-pound grinnel, it was a fighting machine."
So too was the monster largemouth bass Switzer pulled from a 640-acre flooded phosphate pit in Lakeland, Fla., in 1987 while fishing with his good friend Bobby Bell, a two-time Oklahoma state bass champ, and TV fishing legend John Fox.
"I threw a 9-inch worm over this old boy's shoulder; he was catching a few 8s and 9s," Switzer said. "The worm hit the water and it started going sideways before it could sink. About 10 minutes later, I landed a bass that weighed 13-7 and was 19 inches long."
While the trio caught 17 fish in two days weighing 10 pounds or better, Switzer's bass like his football teams often were was the king of the hill.
"It looked like a pumpkin and I have it mounted today," he laughed.
So strong was Switzer's love of bass fishing that when Jones came calling with the coaching keys to one of the NFL's most storied franchises, Switzer was soon asking where the largemouths were biting in north Texas.
He wouldn't have to ask long, thanks to Jerry Whittle, a marine dealer in north Texas who originally hailed from the Ada, Okla., area.
"He was an Oklahoma fan and he kept a Pro Craft out there painted up in Cowboy blue with a star on it," said Switzer, a spinnerbait man who likes to cover a lot of water. "I would go out to Lake Ray Roberts and fish it all of the time when I was coaching in Dallas. I caught a bunch of bass out of there."
From Ray Roberts to Toledo Bend to Bull Shoals to the famed bass waters of Florida and Mexico, Switzer has searched many of them for their bass treasures down through the years as he drew up Xs and Os on the chalkboard.
These days, Switzer said he would just as soon fish with Houston on Houston's private and bass-rich lake in southern Oklahoma.
Houston as rabid an OU fan as one is likely to meet has fished with Switzer since first meeting in the 1970s. Saturday's segment of "Jimmy Houston Outdoors" marks the fourth decade in which Switzer has joined Houston on the show.
For the record, a chagrined Houston admits to having pulled for the Texas Longhorns in last month's Rose Bowl as they defeated USC in the national title game.
Ever the loyal fan of the crimson and cream Sooners, Houston contritely admits it was more a case of rooting against USC than it was actually rooting for OU's bitter rival.
"I had to pray the Sooner prayer and ask God to forgive me since I rooted for Texas," Houston laughed.
One thing Houston rarely turns down is a chance to fish with Switzer, whose 157-29-4 college coaching record and winning percentage of .837 is fourth-best all-time.
"On our fishing trips together, we've caught fish and had fun just about everywhere we've gone," Houston said. "I don't know if we've ever had a bad fishing trip."
Or a quiet one, either.
"I like Jimmy," Switzer said. "He's not just all fishing either; he's got a good personality. And Jimmy's got the gift of gab and can talk about a lot of very interesting things and subjects. We have a good time together."
And, perhaps hot surprisingly, Houston has some things to say about Switzer.
"Barry could come into a room, light it up and take charge at the same time telling jokes and telling stories," Houston counters. "He remembers every little thing about a football game from 30 years ago."
"Barry has always had colorful language," Houston said. "My wife, Chris, has always gotten onto him about that, but he hasn't paid much attention to her; he says 'shucks' a lot.
"But he's as good as gold; he's one of those guys who will do anything for you. He'd give you the shirt off your back if he thought you were cold."
But the one thing Switzer will not do on the field or on the water is give away his competitive edge.
"When we get together, we always have that contest the first one to catch a fish, the biggest fish, etc.; we always get after it like that," Switzer said of Houston.
"It's competitive, but I never win. Those guys like Jimmy and Bobby Bell, they're pros and they know what they're doing."
Just like Switzer has always known what he is doing with a football team on either side of the Red River.
The former Super Bowl coach teams up with Jimmy Houston for big-time bass fishing, Oklahoma style.