The running back every school wanted felt like he needed to move on with his life.
Billy Sims was convinced Oklahoma was where he could thrive in Barry Switzer’s wishbone offense, but he carried the ball just 15 times his freshman season as Joe “Silver Shoes” Washington’s understudy in 1975. He then suffered a season-ending injury in his first appearance as a sophomore, leaving the Sooners to place a medical redshirt on their prized running back from Hooks, Texas.
The honeymoon between the Sooners and Sims was over. He was no longer the player every school in America was chasing. He wasn’t receiving the same attention from the coaching staff. He barely saw the field before he was forced to redshirt. So No. 20 made a decision.
Sims quit Oklahoma’s football team.
“I wasn’t playing, I was highly recruited,” Sims said. “All of a sudden, I got hurt.”
He can’t remember specifically what Switzer told him that made him stay, but it was the confidence instilled in Sims by Switzer, the Sooners’ head football coach from 1973–1988, that helped him get through the rough beginning to his collegiate career.
It was the motivation he needed to rededicate himself to football.
A healthy Sims scorched defenses his junior season for a program-record 1,896 yards rushing, which held for 26 years until Adrian Peterson broke it in 2004. He scored 22 rushing touchdowns, the third most in a single season in school history, before tying Steve Owens’ record of 23 a year later. He also averaged 7.41 yards per carry, making him one of three Sooners ever to average 7-or-more yards per rushing attempt in a season after Greg Pruitt (8.98) and Marcus Dupree (7.84).
His remarkable year ultimately led Sims to capturing college football’s most prestigious individual honor, the Heisman Trophy, in 1978 as Oklahoma’s third winner.
“I thought I was just going to go back and pump gas the rest of my life,” Sims said, “but coach Switzer saw more in me than I saw in myself.”
Oklahoma RB Billy Sims
Penn State QB Chuck Fusina
Michigan QB Rick Leach
USC RB Charles White
Sims wasn’t sure he’d have a life beyond Hooks.
It was there in the small, northeast Texas town he emerged as the state’s best running back. He still holds the Texas high school football record for most-consecutive games with 100-yards rushing — 38 straight contests stretching from 1972-74. As a high school senior, the state’s No. 1 tailback in the 1975 recruiting class didn’t intend on crossing state lines to play college ball either.
“I was headed to Baylor,” Sims said.
Switzer managed to get the Baylor commit to make the 260-mile trip to see what Norman had to offer. Before he got there, Sims didn’t realize the number of Texas players Oklahoma had on its roster.
“I had told coach Switzer that I had a good visit,” Sims said, “but I’m going to keep my commitment and go to Baylor.”
But then, a week after his visit, Sims got a phone call while working his regular weekend shift pumping gas at a Conoco service station on Oct. 19, 1974.
Switzer called Sims on a Folsom Field payphone while his team still had a half left to play at Big 8 foe Colorado. The Sooners smashed the Buffaloes 49-14 that day, but the bigger victory for Switzer might’ve been the call he made to Sims.
“I just couldn’t believe that,” Sims said. “I never thought a coach would call a high school kid at halftime, especially when they have a game.
“Pretty much the rest was history after that.”
• • •
Sims, now 62, often shakes his head when he drives by the bronze statue of himself on Jenkins Avenue.
No one, not even Sims, could’ve imagined he would win a Heisman Trophy entering his junior season. But by the end of it, Oklahoma offensive guard and Outland Trophy winner Greg Roberts interrupted one of Sims’ botany classes in 1978 with news.
Roberts walked into the class to inform his roommate he won the 1978 Heisman Trophy.
Roberts told him he needed to go to the sports information department, but there was one issue.
“I wouldn’t leave the class,” Sims said. “Because I had a teacher (who) didn’t care about football players. So I was an hour late.”
No one might’ve seen Sims winning a Heisman the way his career began, but the glimpses of greatness were always there.
“I totally expected him to (win the award),” Switzer said. “He was the best back in the country. We were the best team in the country. We should’ve won the national championship (that season).
“But he fumbled too many times against Nebraska.”
Oklahoma’s only blemish in 1978 was a 17-14 loss to the Cornhuskers. Sims fumbled the ball twice late in the game — the final one coming on the Nebraska three-yard line with less than four minutes to go.
It was a low point for Sims’ Heisman-winning year, but the Sooners got a chance to redeem themselves when the Orange Bowl pitted Oklahoma and Nebraska in a rematch that same season. OU won 31-24, and Sims still had one more year in crimson.
• • •
In Oklahoma’s 1979 season opener, the senior running back played against Bob Stoops, then an Iowa freshman defensive back who would eventually supplant Switzer as Oklahoma’s all-time winningest coach.
“He was a nightmare,” Stoops recalled of Sims’ performance in Oklahoma and Iowa’s meeting on Sept. 15, 1979. “We played them fairly well. But boy, he was a terror. He was strong, fast, powerful, spinning. I’ve said it many times, he was like the Tasmanian devil running through there. His power, speed. All of it. He was tough.”
His biggest test his senior season was Nebraska once again. The Cornhuskers defense hadn’t surrendered 100 rushing yards to any running back all season before the Big 8 rivals met on Nov. 29, 1979.
Sims rushed for 282 yards against Missouri the week before, so Switzer asked his star if he had one more good game in him.
“Coach,” Sims replied, “I always save my best for last.”
Sims went off for 247 yards rushing, helping Oklahoma beat Nebraska 17-14. He then reeled off 164 yards rushing in the Orange Bowl against Florida State to cap his career at Oklahoma with 4,118 career rushing yards, a school record until Samaje Perine nosed ahead with 4,122 yards 37 years later.
Sims legitimately had a chance at another Heisman. He finished second to USC running back Charles White, which upset Switzer that his running back wasn’t able accomplish what only one other player — Ohio State’s Archie Griffin — has done.
“He should’ve won the Heisman Trophy two times in a row,” Switzer said. “He was the best back in the country his senior year. His last three games were fabulous.”
Sims was content with the trophy he already won.
“I almost won it twice,” Sims said. “A lot of people thought I should have, but Charles White had a great year at USC. Once was good enough.”
• • •
Anyone unfamiliar with Sims as a football player might know him for his business ventures, in particular his barbecue restaurant chain. A few might remember him as the No. 1 overall pick in the 1980 NFL Draft to the Detroit Lions. But to anyone who’s kept up with the Heisman Trophy presentation long enough, Sims is the man who yells “Boomer” on stage with the other winners as they await the next to be announced.
It’s been a tradition since 1978, he says, and no one’s asked him to restrain his school pride.
“I’ve never been approached about not saying that,” Sims said. “Even the Sooner Nation, they expect it. They be waiting on it when they watch the TV.”
He cherishes the memories he’s made and become the life of the party in New York. He was excited to meet the first Heisman winner ever, Chicago’s Jay Berwanger, and 1948 Heisman winner Doak Walker. He’s enjoyed watching two more Sooners win the award since he joined college football’s most exclusive fraternity, and he hopes to see a third on Dec. 9 with quarterback Baker Mayfield playing lights out his senior season.
Most of those memories might’ve never been made had Switzer not sold Sims on what he could be at Oklahoma when he was still in high school or convinced him to stay when the running back contemplated quitting.
Success was never a guarantee, which makes Sims all the more grateful for the monument of himself standing east of Oklahoma’s football stadium.
“I’m just so fortunate and blessed and thankful for the folks from the state of Oklahoma to honor me like that,” Sims said. “I told coach Switzer, when he was recruiting me he never did mention anything about a statue.”