The second installment in my look back at the 2014 season. In this section I fly west to Seattle, visit one of the winningest Division 2 programs at a small town in Northern Missouri, watch 4 games in 24 hours in Texas, and tailgate with the Tuohy family (of Blind Side fame) at The Grove. Along the way, I further explore the ways in which money is impacting the college football experience and have my first real encounter with the terrifying reality of concussions.
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.