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A Complex Superiority

Jones Ramsey, the self-proclaimed world’s tallest fat man, once mused that Texans cared about only two sports: football and spring football.

The late University of Texas sports information director overlooked one: football recruiting.

If I wasn’t fully aware of the mania surrounding college football recruiting while growing up in East Texas, I certainly learned about it as a sportswriter for the Dallas Times Herald in the mid-1970s.

All available sports staffers, as well as some from the news side, were required to report to the office on the first day each year that high school football players were allowed to sign letters of intent, committing them to colleges and universities.

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In those pre-Internet days, we would receive hundreds of calls from fans who couldn’t wait until the next morning’s newspaper arrived to discover whether the blue-chip running back from Kilgore had signed with Southern Methodist or Texas Christian, or whether the stalwart defensive end from Wichita Falls had signed with Texas Tech or Texas A&M.;

It was never clearer than on those days that there was a lot more to Texas football than University of Texas football.

The Longhorns undoubtedly had the state’s most successful program and the most national acclaim, but I can’t remember an instance when the six other Texas universities in the old Southwest Conference ever acknowledged that they were less than equal. There have been enough upsets of the Longhorns by Rice, TCU and Baylor to prove it.

One of those upsets speaks to my next point, which might cause me trouble -- not for the first time -- in Austin.

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Before I make it, I should establish my Longhorn bona fides.

Some of my fondest memories as a child are of watching Texas victories, in particular the one over Roger Staubach and Navy in the 1964 Cotton Bowl that earned the Longhorns the national championship and the one over Joe Namath and Alabama in the ’65 Orange Bowl.

I graduated from the university in 1973 and, although I have spent most of my life since out of state, I have remained loyal. When my son, now 8, was a baby, I sang three lullabies to him because those were the only songs for which I knew all the words -- “Hey Jude,” “The Eyes of Texas,” and “Mercedes Benz,” which was performed better by my favorite fellow alum, Janis Joplin. She is closely followed on my list by Walter Cronkite, Dr. Denton Cooley and Farrah Fawcett.

The 1963 team’s national championship was the Longhorns’ first, but they might have won another two years before if not for one of the aforementioned upsets by TCU, 6-0. The Horned Frogs were stirred up because Texas’ coach, Darrell Royal, had compared them to cockroaches. Why that is worse than being called a Horned Frog, I’m not sure. But it made them mad.

Royal explained later that he didn’t mean to insult them. He was merely trying to say that the Frogs, like cockroaches, enjoyed getting into stuff, like a potential Texas national championship, and messing it up, which they did.

But there was an unspoken truth in his comment. We Longhorn fans did consider the other state teams as little more than pests.

Thus, among Southwest Conference universities, we were the undisputed leaders in arrogance.

We earned our hubris to some extent with our team’s play, especially during the 20 years Royal coached in Austin from 1957 to 1976. In 138 conference games, he lost only 27 en route to 11 titles.

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Behind quarterback James Street, better known today as American League rookie-of-the-year Huston Street’s father, the Longhorns began a 30-game winning streak in 1968 that included two more national championships.

But in our defense, our self-esteem also was fueled by outside forces.

For those who might believe Oklahoma is our primary rival, you are almost right. Before the Southwest Conference disbanded and the Longhorns and Sooners came together in the Big 12, Woody Hayes once told me he thought the Texas-Oklahoma rivalry was the most intense in the nation. More intense, he said, than Ohio State and Michigan because there was no conference championship on the line when the Longhorns and Sooners played, just state pride.

At the core of that rivalry, however, is respect. The Sooners are worthy foes, fellow members of the exclusive club of traditional national powers, and losing to them is no humiliation.

I cannot say the same for Texas A&M.; Texas’ series with the Aggies dates to 1894, and even though they have beaten us only a very, very few times since, every loss stings. That includes the fictional one in “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.” Larry King, the writer, not the TV talker, produced a terrific musical, but it could have been improved immensely with a little editing.

The irony then is that Texas A&M; pays us the ultimate compliment every time its band strikes up its fight song, “The Aggie War Hymn.” Prominent among the lyrics is, “Goodbye to Texas University.” What other university honors its archrival by using its name in its own fight song?

The Aggies probably think it’s an insult, just as they do when they refer to Texas students and alums as tea sippers. How are you supposed to drink tea, slurp it? Tea slurpers, now that would hurt.

Never, though, has our superiority been more validated than on Dec. 6, 1969, when No. 1 Texas beat No. 2 Arkansas, 15-14, in a game still referred to in the Southwest as “the Big Shootout.”

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President Nixon was in Fayetteville, Ark., that day to celebrate college football’s first centennial and presented the Longhorns the Presidential Plaque declaring them the nation’s No. 1 team.

I can’t believe Joe Paterno has ever voted Republican since. The Penn State coach also had an undefeated team and was apoplectic that the president would honor the Longhorns over the Nittany Lions.

The Longhorns were unapologetic, especially after beating Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl, 21-17.

Ten more consecutive victories followed in 1970 before a 24-11 loss to Notre Dame in a Cotton Bowl rematch ended the 30-game winning streak.

I arrived on campus a short time later. As a sportswriter for the Daily Texan, the student newspaper, and later for the Austin American-Statesman, I adopted an adversarial role with Royal that I took seriously. Maybe, in retrospect, too seriously.

It was the times. Royal represented the establishment. Most of us at the Daily Texan, and even some of his players, were anti-establishment.

There were important issues, such as whether Royal was aggressive enough in recruiting black players. Texas in 1963 stands, not so proudly, as the last all-white national championship football team.

Some of the issues were more trivial, such as Royal’s obsession with Oklahoma’s spying on Texas practices. I thought he was paranoid and let him know it.

Before the 1976 game against Oklahoma, known as “the Spy Bowl,” Royal accused the Sooner coaches of espionage, calling them “sorry bastards.”

Days later, Royal, who would retire prematurely at 52 after the 1976 season, walked off the field after coaching in his last game against Oklahoma, a 6-6 tie against his alma mater, to chants from Sooner fans of “Sorry bastard!”

He deserved better from a lot of people, including me, as one Oklahoma assistant coach acknowledged years later while confessing that the Sooners had spied on Texas practices.

The Longhorns finished 5-5-1 in Royal’s last season, barely avoiding his first losing record.

In the years since, the arrogance has been pretty much knocked out of us. It no doubt has happened at different times for different Texas fans.

It happened for me as far back as Jan. 1, 1972, when Penn State, which had been snubbed by President Nixon two seasons earlier, beat the Longhorns in the Cotton Bowl, 30-6.

Until then, I had presumed that Penn State was a lightweight Eastern power, unfamiliar with the “screw your navel to the ground football” we played in the Southwest while padding its records with victories over Fordham and Rutgers.

How could I have not picked up on the fact before the 1972 Cotton Bowl that Lydell Mitchell and Franco Harris were pretty good players?

I would not make that kind of mistake again.

In the 22 years between Royal’s retirement and Mack Brown’s arrival in 1998, the Longhorns made a couple of runs at the national championship and recruited a Heisman Trophy winner in Ricky Williams -- Texas’ second after Earl Campbell. But they also had a few losing seasons and a few more that didn’t end in bowl games.

But now, under Brown, we’re back. In four of the last five seasons, the Longhorns have won at least 11 games. They are 12-0 this season, with a chance in the Rose Bowl for their first national championship since 1970, and have not lost in 19 games.

What has not returned is the arrogance. We have had enough bad times that we know that they could be back as soon as Reggie Bush turns the corner. We are humbled before such greatness, thankful for our successes.

Victories such as the one over Michigan in the 2005 Rose Bowl or the ones this season over Ohio State and Oklahoma do not make us superior to Michigan, Ohio State or Oklahoma.

They do, however, make us superior to Texas A&M.;

*

Randy Harvey, a former Times columnist and assistant sports editor, is sports editor of the Baltimore Sun. He graduated from Texas in 1973.


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