Barry Switzer remembers clearly the moment he said hello to Donnie Duncan.
“I sure do,” Switzer told The Franchise on Sunday. “In a bar in San Antonio. I knew of him a long time before. But that’s where you find a lot of good athletic directors and good football coaches, at a bar.”
Sadly, Switzer also remembers the moment he said goodbye. It was about a week ago.
“I spent 2 ½ hours with him before he died,” Switzer said. “He says, ‘I’m not much into goodbyes.’ He said, ‘I just want a chance to visit for a couple hours,’ and we did. About a lot of things. But he knew it was the end and he knew it wouldn’t be long.”
Duncan died Sunday morning after a long battle with cancer. He was 75.
“Donnie was a superstar at every level,” Switzer said. “To me, he was not only an outstanding coach, but he was like a brother. He was a great friend and a confidant. He was someone I relied on for guidance all through his career with me, his time he spent with me as an assistant coach, an assistant head coach and as athletic director.”
“The entire Big 12 Conference is saddened to hear of Donnie’s passing,” Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said in a statement. “He was a great friend to all of us and one that we will miss dearly. Our condolences to his wife, Sally, and their entire family.”
“It’s difficult to express how saddened the OU Athletics family is at the news of Donnie’s passing,” said OU athletic director Joe Castiglione. “It’s a tremendous loss for collegiate athletics and especially the sport of football. We will always be indebted to him for his service and accomplishments at OU as an assistant football coach and later as athletics director.”
Duncan was an OU assistant coach under Switzer, became head coach at Iowa State and later returned as Switzer’s boss.
As athletic director at OU, Duncan was a key figure in the formation of the Big 12. As an administrator and consultant with the Big 12, Duncan’s warm, smooth and fierce intellect made him the perfect idea man, an innovator who helped usher college football into the BCS era, which set the stage for today’s billion-dollar playoff.
“He had a lot to do with a lot of things,” Switzer said. “Everyone respected his opinion. Great athletic administrator. Chuck Neinas and he were the two best I’ve ever known.”
Switzer was speaking at a coaches clinic in San Antonio in 1970 and was out at dinner when he first laid eyes on Duncan.
“We were out at this restaurant and he was standing at the bar and I walked up and introduced myself, because I’d never met him before,” Switzer said. “He and Rex Norris were together. Both of ‘em were coaches at Navarro (Junior College) in 1970. So how long ago has that been, 46-47 years ago?
“I had heard of him. We recruited a lot of his players out of Navarro to play for us at Oklahoma that were playing for us. But yeah, he was … yeah, he was a special guy.”
When Chuck Fairbanks left and Switzer became head coach in 1973, he didn’t have to think much about his staff. He just thought back to that night in San Antonio.
“He was the first coach I hired. Yep,” Switzer said. “He was the guy I wanted. Great recruiter. Knew all the junior colleges. Knew where all the players were. Good evaluator. Good football coach.”
In Duncan’s six seasons with Switzer, the Sooners were 62-6 and won six Big Eight titles and two national championships.
Duncan took on the chore of being head coach at Iowa State from 1979-83, and although his teams were just 18-24-2 in Ames, Switzer sees it as a success.
“Think about all the coaches that went to Iowa State,” Switzer said. “He beat the University of Iowa three years in a row. I would have been 16-0 if he hadn’t gone there. The only blemish I had against Iowa State was a tie, and that was to him. Beat ‘em 15-0-1 and a tie when Donnie was there.”
Duncan then served as executive director of the Sun Bowl and Gator Bowl before returning to Norman as OU’s athletic director in 1986, a post he held for 10 years. During the 1988 academic year, OU became the first school to play for the national championship in both football and basketball.
Duncan helped form the Big 12 in 1995, then went to work for the league in 1996, serving as senior associate commissioner and director of football operations until his retirement in 2010. He oversaw television contracts and the Big 12 title game as well as other areas.
“Just a really great guy that had a lot of intelligence — extremely intelligent — and a lot of depth,” Switzer said. “He could say things that I wish I could have said. He had the insights. I really admired him. I admired him greatly. He was a strong, strong man.”
“I’ve known Donnie a very long time,” Castiglione said in a statement. “He was a treasured friend and colleague who was widely respected around the country. I’ll always appreciate the way he welcomed me to the Big Eight Conference as a new athletics director in 1993 when I was hired at Missouri, and I enjoyed working closely with him and the other ADs in the complex process to create and launch a new conference — the Big 12.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with Donnie’s wife, Sally, his daughter, Amy, and their entire family on this difficult day.”
The Greenville, Texas, native was born on Aug. 28, 1940, and attended Celeste High School in Celeste, Texas. He was a four-year letterwinner in baseball and football at Austin College, was named team MVP and All-Texas College as well as Outstanding Athlete and Outstanding Senior. He was later inducted into the Austin College Athletic Hall of Honor.
Last year Duncan was presented with the National Football Foundation’s Legacy Award in December for his extraordinary dedication to football.
“He was so competent in every area he aspired to and rose to,” Switzer said. “He’s gonna be missed by all.”