It seems impossible to write about football and not stop in the Lone Star State. For better or worse, Texas, not the SEC or Notre Dame, is the symbol of football fandom in America. Legendary Cowboys coach Tom Landry put it best, saying, “Football is to Texas what religion is to a priest.” Football’s big everywhere, but of course “everything’s bigger in Texas.”
On Saturday I had any fan’s dream set up: Oklahoma vs. Texas at 11, which I watched with UT fans in Austin (the game is played in Dallas at the Texas State Fair every year), TCU at Baylor at 2:30, and Ole Miss at Texas A&M at 8. With a full tank of gas, a pair of standing-room-only tickets, and running shoes to make sure I could sprint to and from my car between games, I went to bed Friday night prepared to take in as much as I possibly could. Add in a high school game Friday, and my brief stint in the state featured four games in just over 24 hours.
It’s the second Saturday in October. Down here in the Lone Star State that date has historically meant one thing: Texas vs. Oklahoma – two of the most storied programs in college football in one of the game’s greatest rivalries. When the teams first played, McKinley occupied the White House, Oklahoma was still a territory, and the Wright Brothers were a few years away from their first successful flight at Kitty Hawk. Between the two, Oklahoma and Texas have won 1,719 games, produced 7 Heisman trophy winners, and taken home 11 national championships.
But this year the traditional power structure is in flux. After nearly a decade of ten-plus win seasons, the once-mighty Longhorns are struggling. Following last year’s disappointing 8-5 season, long-time coach Mack Brown retired, turning over the reins to Charlie Strong, a high-energy guy famous for putting Louisville on the college football map. While Strong has brought what many people in Austin described to me as “a much needed culture change” to the program, he has had a hard time winning games. Entering Saturday, the Longhorns’ were in danger of falling to 2-4, their worst start since 1956.
In Texas’ place sit a pair of upstarts – schools that have long been considered after-thoughts in the Texas football hierarchy: Baylor and TCU. Their fans have spent most of their lives have been spent in UT’s shadow. One Longhorn fan described the pecking order in the state as “Texas, then A&M, then a big drop off to Texas Tech unless you’re in Lubbock, then I guess Baylor.” When I asked about TCU, he responded, “oh yeah, I guess they’re there too.”
The second Saturday of October, 2014 offered a new narrative. Texas and Oklahoma fans made their familiar pilgrimage to the Texas state fairgrounds in Dallas, but for the first time since 2007 they both did so coming off of losses. A week ago, undefeated Baylor knocked off Texas, and undefeated TCU edged Oklahoma, meaning that this week’s marquee game would take place in Waco not Dallas.
“Did you go to the losers’ bowl?” a TCU fan asked me, when I told him of my plan to see three games in a day. For him, and the nearly 47,000 other fans who crowded into Baylor’s new McLane Stadium on Saturday, the chance to outshine Texas was a dream come true. “It’s just great for both schools. No one pays us much mind, so having our game be the biggest one in the state is absolutely huge.”
While the TCU fan may have been right that Baylor vs. TCU was the most important game in terms of national ranking, the biggest game in the state took place that night in College Station. 110,633 people crammed into Kyle Field to watch the Aggies take on the Ole Miss Rebels. It was the largest crowd ever to attend a football game in Texas, or in the SEC for that matter.
University of Texas
Driving into Texas, I expected to see signs of football everywhere. Like many fans, I’ve grown up with the idea that football down here is different from the rest of the country. Arriving in Austin on Monday, however, the biggest show in town was not Longhorn football but the annual Austin City Limits music festival. Hundreds of thousands of people flocked to the event the weekend before I arrived and hundreds of thousands more were expected for the weekend of the OU game. Talk radio hosts lamented the fact that there were empty seats the prior Saturday when Texas hosted Baylor, pointing their blame at the music festival.
The mood in Austin around football was one of rebuilding rather than intensity. The football season lost, people had moved on to other things, or at least focused their football anxiety on high school and the NFL. People weren’t angry or sad; they were patient. Everyone I met praised Coach Strong, but no one I met believed Texas would beat Oklahoma. People would still get excited, still go through the motions of the familiar traditions – but the hope wasn’t there. Wait ‘til next year, they seemed to be saying.
The Wednesday night pep rally, an annual tradition during rivalry week, failed to fill the entire square in front of the University Tower. Most of the people that did go seemed to be there for the spectacle rather than anticipation of something bigger. There were nearly as many people taking pictures along the parade route than people taking part in the parade.
I wasn’t sure how this acceptance of mediocrity would play out on Saturday. Would people still go to Dallas? Would there be grumblings for Coach Strong’s job if the Longhorns got blown out despite the professed support?
I decided to start my day at Scholz Garten, a popular German sports bar on the edge of campus, only a few blocks from the football stadium. My uncle, an Austin resident and converted UT fan, assured me that it was the place to be to watch a game. During home games, he told me, you can hardly get inside the place. If students weren’t going to make the trek to Dallas, this would be the spot to watch.
I drove through campus fifteen minutes before kickoff to empty streets. A cold front the night before had covered the state in clouds and sent the 90-degree air plummeting into the 60s. The grey skies and deserted streets gave Austin the appearance of a ghost town. I saw a few students with backpacks on, making their way to the library. There were a handful of shoppers on “The Drag,” a popular street bordering campus. But the campus was essentially dead.
When I walked into the bar, I found a similar scene. There was a collection of small groups of two or three clad in their burnt orange jerseys scattered at tables around the main room. In the back, a huge TV had been set up in anticipation of a crowd, but the room was largely empty. People were talking in quiet voices.
I settled into a seat at the bar next to a couple in their mid-thirties. They were transplant Longhorn fans, moving to Austin by way of Pennsylvania and Massachusetts. “When I was growing up, there were only a few games on TV each week. Texas was one of the teams that was always on, and I fell in love with the program. I always knew I wanted to make it down here,” the man told me. Now a compliance officer for the university, he shared the opinion that the season was essentially preparation for next year.
In between assuring me that Texas would fail to cover a double-digit spread, he spoke of his admiration for Coach Strong. He told one story of a Title IX training that he led for the football team. In the middle of the training, he noticed one of the assistants absentmindedly writing in a notebook. Before he could say anything, Coach Strong hopped up and yelled, “shut your damn book and pay attention.” “I’ve never felt heat coming off of anyone like that. He has such a presence. At the end of the training Coach Strong told me that we should be giving the training to everyone on campus. When I explained the challenges, Coach Strong protested. My co-workers told me that they thought he was going to tell me to give him 50 pushups. I thought the same thing, and you know what, I would have.” Like most of the people I met, he was unequivocally supportive of Coach Strong’s efforts to change the culture around the program.
When the half ended with Texas trailing 17-13, I set out to explore the rest of the town. As before, the streets were largely vacant. The few college-aged people I ran into had an assortment of reasons for not being in Dallas: one had a huge research project looming, one had accidentally bought tickets for the music festival without realizing it was the same weekend as the OU game, one was just not that into football. These were the exceptions. Everyone else, they assured me, was at the game. Not going to Dallas was a conscious decision. People may have given up hope of victory, but they had not given up on their team. I caught the last few minutes of the game on the radio, as I drove north towards Waco. Over the final ten minutes of the game Texas scored a pair of touchdowns to cut a 17-point deficit to five before failing to recover an onside kick in the game’s waning moments. Oklahoma walked away with the win, but the message was clear. Texas would be back.
Baylor vs. TCU
As Texas and Oklahoma shook hands at the end of their game in the 84-year-old Cotton Bowl Stadium, TCU and Baylor took the field at the brand new McLane Stadium. The symbolism was not lost on the crowd. The old guard was vulnerable. New waves were rippling across college football. Change was in the air.
Outside the stadium, tickets were few and far between. Kids road around on bikes looking for spare tickets. A student and her mom watched from the gate near the South endzone, unable to find a way in. One group of TCU fans watched the game from a boat docked next to the stadium. The campus itself was deserted.
“I’ve never seen the stadium like this,” one Baylor fan told me. “The old place was nice, but we rarely sold out.” Now, the standing-room-only crowd was on its feet for every play.
Baylor finally had reason to cheer, reason to believe. Between 1996 when Baylor joined the Big 12 and 2009, the Bears won exactly 14 conference games. During that stretch, they never finished higher than 5th in their six-team division.
But Head Coach Art Briles and Heisman trophy winning quarterback Robert Griffin III changed that. In 2011, Griffin’s award-winning season, the Bears won 10 games and claimed their first Bowl victory since 1992. “Without RGIII, I’m not sure any of this would be here,” another fan told me. “He put us on the map.”
Two years after Griffin’s departure, the Bears took home the Big 12 championship. Now, they boast another Heisman candidate quarterback in Bryce Petty and are favorites to repeat as conference champs.
TCU’s fate has not been much different. Between 1956 and 1998 the Horned Frogs went to a grand total of four bowl games, losing all of them. Since 2000, however, TCU has had nine 10-win seasons, including an undefeated season in 2010 that featured a victory over Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl.
Despite their success, the Horned Frogs have remained an outsider in Texas football circles. When I expressed surprise that ESPN didn’t select Waco for the site of College Gameday, the TCU fans I was with cringed. “Everyone goes out of their way to ignore us.” Even the Rose Bowl win had failed to convince the Big 12 powers to add them to the conference.
One might expect TCU and Baylor to be rivals. The schools are less than two hours apart. Both are relatively small Christian schools that love sports even when they’re not that good at them. Instead, there was a sense of brotherhood in the stands, a camaraderie forged in decades of shared suffering.
“Texas is our biggest rival,” a TCU fan told me. “I like beating Baylor I guess, but I always want to stick it to Texas. After that, I’d most want to beat A&M.” These were the little guys standing up to the bully. They were sick of living in the shadows – they were screaming for someone, anyone to notice that they played Texas football too.
The game itself was a classic. Back to back TCU touchdowns to start the fourth quarter gave the Horned Frogs a 58-37 lead with eleven minutes to play. Undeterred, Petty led the Bears on a pair of ninety yard drives, eventually rallying his team to 24 points and a victory on a last-second field goal. Petty finished the day with 510 yards and six touchdowns. In its aftermath, ESPN analysts called it the game of the year.
Unfortunately, I heard the end of the game from the car as I sped east towards College Station. Maybe karma does exist. As much as I’d heard pleas for attention from the Baylor and TCU fans, I had failed to stay for the most memorable moment in the rivalry’s history. I comforted myself in the knowledge that I was not alone. Following TCU’s last touchdown, swarms of fans had made their way to the exits. The bridge that connects campus to the stadium was full of students and fans who had also counted the Bears out.
Longhorn fans drove three hours and paid large sums for parking and tickets to watch their three-loss team that no one believed could win. But at Baylor fans didn’t stay at a home game to witness their fifth-ranked team pull off one of the greatest comebacks in their history. Those who stayed will remember that game forever. Those, like myself who left, will also remember – our memory will just be a little more self-loathing. The atmosphere of the stadium was great, the play on the field was exciting, but ultimately that willingness to leave is the difference between Texas and Baylor. It will take more days like Saturday to close the gap.
If Baylor and TCU are the ignored children in Texas football, Texas A&M is the pesky younger brother. Texas is the national brand, the team has its own television network, is always signing huge contracts and attracting the biggest recruits. According to Forbes, despite their mediocre on-field performance Texas football generated nearly $110 million in revenue in 2013. A&M, which boasted the nation’s most electric and most controversial quarterback, generated less than half that amount. True to its younger brother status, it took that QB, Johnny Manziel, a long-time Texas fan who was not offered a scholarship by the Longhorns, to change A&M’s fortunes. Manziel’s Heisman-winning season, the Aggies first season in the SEC, marked a change in Texas. Free from Texas’ shadow in the Big 12, A&M was able to become its own brand. Three years ago, I wouldn’t have thought of going to College Station. This year, it was near the top of my list.
I’d wanted to make it to Texas A&M since the first week of the season when I watched the Aggies manhandle South Carolina. The passion of their fans, the unity of their cheers was unlike anything I’d seen. Even hundreds of miles from home, thousands of Aggies had made the trip to Carolina. On the night before the Thursday game, many of those fans had stood on the Statehouse steps to take part in the famous Midnight Yell.
Many of the college football traditions these days feel a little forced. At Notre Dame, the midnight drum circle and playing of the trumpets under the dome are essentially tourist events – something to check off your list as you take in a weekend of Irish football. At Iowa, the school offered free t-shirts and food to attract students to the Friday pep rally, but failed to get a crowd of more than a few hundred.
A&M is different. The Midnight Yell regularly boasts crowds in the tens of thousands. The Yell leaders are still some of the most prominent figures on campus. During games, students only sit when the other team’s band plays. One student I met told me that during his sophomore year he badly broke his leg early in the week of a home game. When Saturday came, he did not sit. Much to the distress of his doctor, he used his crutches to keep him upright all game.
Even Texas fans I met told me about the devotion of the Aggies. “If you want to see some intense fans, College Station is the place to be.”
Longhorn fans offered two explanations for the Aggie devotion to football: its location and its military origins. “There is nothing in College Station – it’s literally just A&M,” I heard over and over from Texas and Baylor fans alike. “College Station got its name because it was a stop on the railroad – there was no town there,” one fan told me. While it’s certainly more than just a railroad stop now – College Station is now home to over 100,000 people, a sense of isolation remains. The surrounding area is cattle ranches, open fields, and forests. Driving from Waco, highway signs counted the mileage to Houston and Bryan but there was no mention of College Station. As I got close, the haze of the stadium lights announced the campus. That isolation helps bring people together. There aren’t the same distractions as there are in Austin. People aren’t accidentally buying tickets to music festivals because there aren’t any big music festivals.
As for the military aspect, up until the 1960s students were required to participate in the corps of cadets. Though the corps represents only a small percentage of the current student body, its legacy is pronounced. The band is made up of corps members and the Yell Leaders are traditionally chosen from the corps. At games, corps members dress in uniform, which make their numbers seem larger than they actually are.
While the game quickly turned into a disaster for the Aggies, with Ole Miss racing out to a 21-0 lead, the Aggie devotion was still evident. The stadium is unlike any I’ve been to. Though other stadiums hold more spectators, Kyle Field’s height and the coordination of its fans are second to none.
When I first entered, I stood still for a full minute trying to take in the scene before me. 110,000 people all clad in Aggie maroon and white chanting together. And these are not your ordinary chants. The Yell Leaders are spread out around the field. They use an elaborate series of dances and hand motions to indicate what cheer, or yell as Aggie fans insist on calling them, to do. The yells are active, requiring fans to move with as they cheer. These yells persist throughout the game – even the fourth quarter with the game out of reach, the remaining crowd chanted. At breaks in the action, there is no piped in music and the band only plays for a short time. The yells are the entertainment. The combined effect of the entire stadium moving with the cheers is incredible. One TCU fan told me, “it’s almost a little scary watching them. It kind of reminds you of videos of Hitler rallies.”
All the chanting is more than just entertainment; it is critical to forming bonds that unite the Aggie family. One student explained the broader impact of the traditions: “55,000 people go to school here, but it feels close knit. There’s even a college-sponsored trip the summer before freshmen year where incoming students learn the cheers and traditions. Practicing the same traditions makes you feel like you’re part of a small brotherhood.”
That explanation is something you hear everywhere. Every school has unique traditions that differentiate it from other schools. You hear about those traditions on campus tours and in alumni magazines. Nowhere have I seen the adherence to tradition so strong – nowhere have I seen the whole crowd stand to watch the band play. There is a term for students who don’t go to the games or participate fully in the traditions: two-percenters. Essentially everyone buys in – maybe two percent don’t. Where other schools are struggling with student attendance, A&M dedicates an entire half of the stadium to student seating and getting a student ticket requires students to wait in line every week. One student told me that almost ninety percent of the graduating class buys a class ring.
As the game moved into the fourth quarter and it became clear that a comeback was not in the cards, most of the student section remained. The Yell Leaders still cheered, the crowd still responded. “You picked the worst game to come to. I’ve never seen the crowd this deflated,” the student I was watching with told me. If that’s the case, I can’t wait to see Kyle Field on a good day.
When I woke on Sunday and began the drive east towards Louisiana, I thought back to my week in Texas. The signs of football’s presence may not have been omnipresent — Austin may have been overrun by a music festival not a football game — but the popular view of Texas as the football capital of the world seemed to fit. On Friday night, nearly every radio station on my dial was tuned to some high school game or another. When broadcasters announced the lineups for the college games, they didn’t state the players hometowns, they simply stated their high school as though everyone would know where that was.
I watched a high school game Friday night with a long-time high school coach. I asked him whether the view of Texas as put forth by Friday Night Lights was accurate. “Oh no, that’s way over done,” he told me.
“Oh ok, so Texas isn’t actually that football crazed?”
“No, no. I mean the part about the football players always banging the cheerleaders. The football obsession part is completely accurate.
Maybe football really is bigger in Texas.
Be sure to check back next week as I travel to Ole Miss to watch the upstart Rebels look to extend their perfect season.