The University of Texas at Austin is one of the largest public universities in the United States and consistently ranks among the finest institutions of higher education on the planet. It has one of the nation's largest library systems, world class art museums, and a Gutenberg Bible. It is the largest employer in Austin and one of the largest in the state, generating $6 billion in business activity annually, all of which is well and good. But as much or more than anything, UT is about one thing: Longhorn football.
In a state where football—Pop Warner to pro—ranks somewhere among God, country, and pecan pie, UT football is a religion all its own. For Bobby Hawthorne and millions of other fans, services mean Longhorn football games, where a steer named Bevo presides over a congregation of diehard orange-bloods, where the world's largest bass drum keeps time for a hymn called "The Eyes of Texas," where some of the game's greatest players and coaches have delivered the third most wins in Division I NCAA history.
Longhorn Football traces the team's history from its origins in 1893 through the 2006 Rose Bowl, in which Texas won its fourth national championship. The heroes of the last 113 seasons include Dana X. Bible, Bobby Layne, Tommy Nobis, Roosevelt Leaks, Heisman trophy winners Earl Campbell and Ricky Williams, Vince Young, and, of course, Darrell K Royal. In a voice that is equally reverential and iconoclastic, Hawthorne also details the off-the-field traditions—Bevo, Big Bertha, "The Eyes of Texas," and the "Hook 'em Horns" sign, among others—that make Longhorn football more than just a game. He delves into what makes the rivalries with Oklahoma and Texas A&M so intense and nominates a group of all-time Longhorn greats at every position. In short, Longhorn Football chronicles the team that has become a religion "worthy of the great state of Texas."
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Texans love stories about oil fortunes won and lost and won again, about one riot, one Ranger, of cattle drives and war heroes like Audie Murphy and gritty, go-it-alone businessmen who defy common sense and conventional wisdom to amass wealth that would shame a sheik.
Texans are suckers for clichés. Stetsons and Tony Lama ostrich-skin boots and silver belt buckles the size of paperback novels and monster pickups with enough firepower draping from the gun rack to defend Wake Island, topped off by matching "God Bless John Wayne" and "Let the Yankee Bastards Freeze in the Dark" bumper stickers.
Texans love to remind people that Texas possesses, produces, or lays claim to the most this, the biggest that and the best of damn near everything truly important, except possibly fresh water or clean air. Though such bragging gets tiresome, it isn't all bluster. Oil from the East Texas fields fueled the war machine that crushed the Japanese and the Germans in World War II. Texas real estate moguls gobbled up cotton farms and mesquite breaks and gassy swamps and turned them into Dallas, Austin, and Houston.
The state survived Goliad and the Alamo, the Civil War, Reconstruction, the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, and the great drought of the early 1950s. We survived Ma and Pa Ferguson, Pappy O'Daniel, Marvin Zindler, John Travolta as an urban cowboy, and Larry Hagman as J. R. Ewing. We survived the nation's fury over the assassination of a popular young president on our streets, as well as the escalation of an unpopular war in a faraway land by the Texan who succeeded him. We will survive the nation's rancor with the son of a Yankee transplant from Connecticut for leading the country into another suspicious military venture.
Texas survives its legislature every other year. We have survived the whims of time and place and Mother Nature because Texas is more than a geographic or demographic entity—it is a state of consciousness built on a collection of myths and legends and tall tales, a sense of pride in who we are and what we are about: rugged individualists and mavericks, wheeler-dealers and super patriots who build global conglomerates from scratch when we aren't rescuing American hostages in Iran or facing down feckless bureaucrats all aflutter over the fate of a snail darter or cave beetle.
All of this is slightly delusional, but what the heck. That's just us. Sure, we are not all wildcatters or cowhands or astronauts. We don't all drive Cadillacs or Suburbans or Ford 150s. We don't all smirk and swagger. We are not all Republicans, though we seem to be moving in that direction. We are a huge state, growing ever larger, more diverse, more contradictory.
The stitching that binds us—hippies and rednecks, Catholics and Protestants, shrimpers and soccer moms and short-order cooks, Hyde Park liberals and Highland Park conservatives—isn't Joel Osteen or Willie Nelson or cheese enchiladas or chili cook-offs or Mary Kay cosmetics. It isn't black gold or white lightning. It isn't the lure of the wide-open spaces or the love of grain-fed beef or the Cotton-Eyed Joe.
It's sports—peewee through professional. In particular, it's football. By and large, Texans love fishing and hunting and outlet malls and chicken-fried steak, but football is the state's true passion. We live and breathe it. With all due respect to Tim Duncan, Roger Clements, Lance Armstrong, and Byron Nelson, football eats first. It's as important as the weather. It's the state's lingua franca, the lubricant of conversations between the high and the low, the right and the left, the ins and the outs. Old men congregate on Saturday mornings at the local pit grill to nitpick decisions made under the stadium lights the night before. Folks who wouldn't attend a school board meeting if every kid in the county flunked the TAKS exam will line up for hours to weigh in on the merits of hiring or firing the linebacker coach.
Football is Texas's unofficial religion, and our faith in this team or that transcends the superficiality of reason, logic, experience, or last year's season record. We are awed by the pageantry, rituals, sacred colors, hymns, and holy mysteries of the sport. Our trust in it never wavers, never wanes. Despite the absence of tangible evidence—a recent playoff berth, for example—we know who and what we are. The Mighty this. The Fighting that. The chosen few.
Now, you tell me that ain't religion.
And this religion's grand cathedral is located not in Dallas or Houston or College Station but rather on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin. It is a stadium dedicated to soldiers who lost their lives and to a coach who was born in Oklahoma but whose name has become as synonymous with Texas as Houston or Bowie or LBJ.
Any discussion of the importance of football in Texas begins and ends with the Texas Longhorns. That may be hard for the Aggies or the Dallas Cowboys or the Permian Panthers to accept, but it's true.
In Texas, football means Texas Longhorn football, the third-winningest program in NCAA history (behind Michigan and Notre Dame), winners of four national championships and countless conference and bowl crowns.
In Texas, football means Dana X. Bible and Darrell K Royal, James Saxton and Street-to-Peschel. It means Bobby Layne and Tommy Nobis, the "Impossible Catch" and Kern Tips on the Humble Oil Radio Network. It means "Hook 'em, Horns" and Bevo and Old Smokey and Big Bertha, the world's largest bass drum. It means the Nocona Nugget and the Tyler Rose. It means Ricky and Rosie. It means Vince Young and Mack Brown.
In Texas, football means Saturday afternoons under the oaks at Scholz Garten or the awning at the Posse East or sitting on the bed of a pickup in one of those state lots east of campus, left hand gripping a cold Shiner Bock, right hand thrusting forth, index finger and pinkie extended, middle and ring fingers tucked under the thumb, as we belt out "Texas Fight."
It means "The Eyes of Texas," and it is the stuff of heroes and myths and legends worthy of the great state of Texas.