After four hectic months working remotely from Austin as the weekend editor for the New York–based news and entertainment website BuzzFeed, Summer Anne Burton accepted a full-time editing position with the company in 2012. For someone who loves creating and curating things on the Internet—she has an active Tumblr, a blog featuring her drawings of major league baseball Hall of Famers, and another blog devoted to obscure music from the fifties and sixties—it was a dream job.
Tom Westerberg would just as soon not answer another question about Allen High School’s Eagle Stadium. “It’s the same thing over and over and over,” the coach of the Allen football team says of the parade of journalists that has interviewed him over the past several months. They want to know about the extraordinary amount of money that was spent on the facility in advance of its 2012 opening. They want to know about the problems that forced the stadium to close this past February.
Q: My friends and I were paddling the Devils River in Val Verde County last spring. We drank some beer, we spilled our gear, and before we knew it, it was getting dark and we hadn’t found a good island to camp on. So we pitched a tent on the bank below a bluff. Or at least we’d started to, when the owner of said bluff appeared and loudly informed us that we were on his property and needed to get lost.
The favorite places of thirteen notable Texans—captured with artfulness and affection in the August issue by photographer Jeff Wilson—struck a sentimental chord with most readers. Or at least twelve of them did. The thirteenth, from cyclist Lance Armstrong, drew a decidedly critical stream of feedback.
"I thought you'd be fatter."
It’s a common outburst when people first meet me at a barbecue event, book signing, or one of the hundred-plus barbecue joints I visit in a year traveling across Texas and beyond.
“How are you not . . . ,” a pause to size me up, “. . . four hundred pounds?”
At least they figure I weigh less than a car engine. Otherwise I might consider the question rude.
This line of inquiry appears to be an unavoidable hazard of the job. Since Texas Monthly named me the nation’s first and only full-time barbecue editor in March 2013, my health has been a topic of international discussion. When the New York Times reported on the news of my hiring—calling me “a walking milestone in the history of Texas barbecue”—they asked Jake Silverstein, Texas Monthly’s then editor in chief and the man who hired me, about plans for my fitness program. “He’s figured out how to make the barbecue lifestyle compatible with staying above ground” was his response. A few months later, a live spot with an Australian morning show ended with the female host exclaiming, “Oh, your poor colon!” They went to commercial before I could thank her for her consideration.
The Greek chorus of Twitter also regularly pipes up, with followers happy to stand in for my mother:
From @chuck_blount: @BBQsnob How often do you get your cholesterol checked?
And @JaimesonPaul: Daniel Vaughn’s heart attack is going to be so sad.
And @KLewie: @BBQsnob I had a heart attack in march. Not fun. Be careful my friend. But I’m still smokin but just not eating as much. Luv ya man.
Weird as it is to say, I understand the morbid fascination with my 36-year-old cardiovascular system. My job requires that I travel from one end of the state to the other eating smoked brisket, one of the fattiest cuts on the steer. And I can’t forget to order the pork ribs, sausage, and beef ribs. Of course my diet is going to raise eyebrows. Including those of my doctor. During one of my semiannual visits to see him, when my blood work showed an elevated cholesterol level, he gave me a scrip for statins and a helpful catalog of high-cholesterol foods to avoid. First on the list? Beef brisket. Second? Pork ribs. When I told him about my role as barbecue editor, he just said, “Maybe you could eat a little less brisket.” I promised to focus more on smoked chicken, but the pledge was as empty as the calories in my next order of banana pudding.
My wife, Jen, also has concerns. My editor, Andrea Valdez, once asked her if she was worried about my health based on my profession. Jen replied, “Shouldn’t we all be?” But to her credit, she’s been supportive of my decision to change careers (albeit a bit less enthusiastic than she was when I was made an associate at the Dallas architecture firm I worked with for six years). Only once has Jen placed restrictions on my diet. Back in 2010, when I was regularly writing for my blog, Full Custom Gospel BBQ, and doing research for my book, The Prophets of Smoked Meat, she declared February “Heart Healthy Month” and banned me from eating barbecue. Suffering from withdrawal, I turned to cured meats. She got so sick of seeing salami and speck in the fridge (I think I even staged a bacon tasting at one point), she let me off the hook three days early. That was the last prolonged barbecue hiatus I can remember.
All jokes aside, I do understand the long-term perils of my profession. I’ve taken those statins religiously for several years, and I’m doing my part to keep the antacid market in business. But I’m usually more worried about the acute health concerns I face. I judged the “Anything Goes” category at a cookoff in South Texas and spat out a submission mid-chew that featured some severely undercooked lobster tails. At a barbecue joint in Aubrey, I took a bite of beef rib that I had reasonable suspicion to believe had been tainted with melted plastic wrap. And the most gastrointestinal discomfort I’ve ever had came from the 33 entries of beans I judged in one sitting at an amateur barbecue competition in Dallas.
But my health is my concern. To anyone who asks if I’m worried about an early grave, I just say I’ve pre-humously donated my body to barbecue.
Because of the macular degeneration, his eyes don’t work like they used to. He doesn’t talk about his vision much, so it’s hard to know exactly how much he sees. But if you linger long enough on a Tuesday evening at Austin’s El Gallo restaurant, chances are good he’ll make out that you’re there and swing by your table for a serenade. Perhaps he’ll sing “Guantanamera.” Or a romantic ballad. Or a bolero, perhaps in Spanish, perhaps in English.
Charlie Strong is probably ready to stop talking. The conventional wisdom is that he doesn’t shine at press conferences or while giving speeches, something that’s been brought up time and again since the 54-year-old took over as the University of Texas football coach on January 6. Brought up time and again, that is, by members of the media.
The conventional wisdom isn’t wrong. Strong is not a politician or PR man. But after all the drama and distractions that accompanied Mack Brown’s final seasons—the Longhorn Network, A&M’s joining the SEC, the regents’ back-and-forth with UT president William Powers, and, yes, the lack of conference championships and major bowl appearances—fans just want to see the Longhorns win ten games (at least) again.
That’s why Strong, who led the University of Louisville to a 23-3 record the past two seasons (including a Sugar Bowl win over the University of Florida in 2013), came to Austin in the first place. Assuming he succeeds, the other stuff won’t matter. The question shouldn’t be whether Strong can fit himself into the often melodramatic University of Texas empire. Rather, it’s whether the University of Texas will fit itself to him.
Jason Cohen: You’ve talked a lot about “putting the T back in Texas.” What exactly does that mean?
Charlie Strong: You always look for a niche. The image at Texas has been a program that didn’t play physical. And when you talk about being physical, you talk about toughness. So when I say “put the T back in,” I’m talking about toughness. I’m also talking about trust; I’m talking about togetherness as a team. I want to build the toughness back into the program.
JC: So toughness was missing?
CS: I don’t know if it was missing. I just think you have to ask, What do you want to hang your hat on? And right now, that’s what we’re hanging our hat on.
JC: It’s a brand.
CS: It’s a brand. It’s what you look for. Go brand your team.
JC: You’ve made another big symbolic statement: the players aren’t allowed to make the Hook ’em sign. What did you say to them about that?
CS: You have to have pride within your program. When we put up the Hook ’em sign, let’s make sure that it’s being represented the right way. It’s gotta mean something to them; they really have to believe in it. So it goes back to, Have we played hard enough? Have we fought hard enough? We’re not gonna throw the Hook ’em sign up just to throw it up.
JC: Do you think that’ll change during camp?
CS: I don’t know yet. But I think we’ll work them hard enough that they’ll earn their way back.
JC: If I’m writing the movie about this, that’s the end of the second act. They earn the Hook ’em sign and go out and win the game.
CS: Or that’d be the conclusion: at the end of the game you’d watch them put it up, and they’d walk off the field.
JC: At Louisville, you took a losing team to 7-6 twice and then 11-2 in 2012 and 12-1 in 2013. What are the expectations, inheriting an 8-4 team at UT?
CS: At the University of Texas, the expectations are always high. It’s a team that has always competed at the highest level. So that’s what you want to do here. You want to compete at the highest level and make sure the players understand that you’re looking for their best effort each and every game.
JC: You keep getting asked about the comments you made in the spring, that the team’s not going to play in the College Football Playoff Championship Game this year.
CS: I don’t ever like to put pressure on our football team. When you start talking about a national championship, that’s what you do. We still have a lot of work. We’re not who we were [in April], but we still have a long way to go.
JC: But is it fair to expect UT to compete for a national championship every season?
CS: You want to compete. And you’d like to go compete year in and year out.
JC: I’ll ask you a much narrower question then: Are you going to beat North Texas in your season opener on August 30?
It is worth remembering this moment. The date is January 7, 2010. The Texas Longhorns are playing the Alabama Crimson Tide for the BCS National Championship at the Rose Bowl, in Pasadena, California. Exactly 3 minutes and 31 seconds have elapsed in the first quarter. Texas defensive back Blake Gideon has intercepted an Alabama pass, and his undefeated team, which is ranked number two in the country, has easily moved the ball to the Alabama 11-yard line. Longhorns star Colt McCoy, the winningest college quarterback in history, is under center. Though this is only Texas’s fifth play from scrimmage, many of his teammates will later recall feeling, in that moment, that they are simply better than their number-one-ranked opponent. They already believe that whatever Alabama does, it cannot stop McCoy.
There is a sense too that something even larger than the national title is at stake. A victory for head coach Mack Brown—his second championship in four years, on top of his already-stunning record at UT of 128 wins and 26 losses—would guarantee his canonization. After a four-decade wait, the Longhorns football program would finally be restored to its Darrell Royal–era glory. Brown would retire a conquering hero, while his designated head-coach-in-waiting, the brilliant Will Muschamp, would seamlessly take his place.
McCoy takes the snap. He keeps the ball, moving to his left and turning upfield. At the line of scrimmage he is tackled by Crimson Tide defensive end Marcell Dareus. As McCoy rises from the pile, there is no immediate evidence that anything is wrong. But in fact the world has changed—deeply and catastrophically.
That’s because Dareus has hit a nerve in McCoy’s right shoulder, which has caused his throwing arm to go limp. McCoy leaves the game, never to return. For Texas players and fans, what happens next is pure heartbreak. Backup quarterback Garrett Gilbert, a true freshman who has thrown only 26 passes in his college career, will throw four interceptions. In spite of those errors, the Longhorns manage to draw within three points of the Crimson Tide with 6 minutes and 15 seconds left to play. But Gilbert fumbles, then throws the game away. Final score: Alabama 37, Texas 21.
Thus do dreams die. Mack Brown’s moon shot burned itself out in the eucalyptus-scented air of Southern California, and the team lugged itself back to Austin, shattered by its strange defeat. But the nightmare wasn’t over—not by a long shot. That school year, 2009–2010, was the culmination of one of the greatest runs in the history of college sports. In 2002 Sports Illustrated had named the University of Texas the “Best Sports College” in the country. Three years later, the Longhorn men won eight Big 12 titles in five sports and two national championships, in football and baseball. The women did almost as well, winning track and field national championships at the outdoor level in 2005 and indoors in 2006. The softball team went to the College World Series in 2005 and 2006 with its incomparable ace, Cat Osterman, while the women’s tennis team finished second at the 2005 NCAA tournament. In 2009–2010 the men’s basketball team started 17-0 and was ranked number one. That spring the baseball team was the second national seed in the NCAAs. Men’s swimming won the national championship that same year. The University of Texas, it seemed, was unstoppable.
And then in a sudden, epic collapse, it all went to hell. In the fall of 2010, Brown’s bizarrely inept Longhorns football team went 5-7. At the end of that season Muschamp abandoned UT to become the head coach at Florida. Over the four years that followed the loss to Alabama, the Longhorns football team’s record in the Big 12 was 18-17. In other words: full-blown mediocrity. The other big men’s sports, the so-called revenue sports, went into weirdly simultaneous swoons. Men’s basketball had two NCAA tournament victories in four years. In 2012 the baseball team failed to make the NCAA tournament. In 2013 its record was so bad it did not even make the Big 12 tournament.
The list of woes was not limited to win-loss records. Augie Garrido, Texas’s legendary baseball coach, was convicted of drunk driving in 2009. Its equally legendary women’s track coach, Bev Kearney, was forced to resign in 2013 for having an affair with a student-athlete. That case led to revelations that Major Applewhite, a former UT quarterback and current offensive coordinator, had had an affair with a student trainer at a bowl game a few years earlier. Later in 2013, basketball coach Rick Barnes watched helplessly as his four highest scorers defected, three to other colleges and one to the NBA draft, where he failed to be selected.
The football team’s lowest point came in a single week in September 2013, when it was humiliated first by BYU 40–21 and then by Ole Miss 44–23. As though to underscore the dysfunctional mess that UT football had become, five days later the Associated Press ran a story saying that UT System regent Wallace Hall and former regent Tom Hicks had, without the knowledge or authorization of UT officials, contacted the agent for Nick Saban, the head coach for Alabama, to ask if Saban was interested in taking Brown’s job.
All of this was happening at the same time that in-state rivals Baylor and Texas A&M were lighting up the college football world with Robert Griffin III and Johnny Manziel, local boys who had attended high school within two hours of Austin and went on to win back-to-back Heisman Trophies in 2011 and 2012.
The final straw came last December, after UT’s lopsided 30–10 loss to Baylor in the final regular-season game. The Longhorn community dissolved into a frenzy of anger, blame, and recrimination, and Brown was called everything from a “has-been” to a “clown.” “The game has blown by Mack Brown like he is in reverse,” read a typical blog post. “Mack is a failure,” read another. The attacks raged for a full week and culminated in Brown’s departure on December 14. It was a cruel end for one of Texas’s greatest coaches. “I think Mack’s departure was handled poorly,” says Steve Hicks, the vice chairman for the UT System Board of Regents. “It should have been a celebration of his accomplishments and not something that embarrassed him the way it did.”
Two months earlier, the empire had suffered another blow: legendary UT athletics director DeLoss Dodds announced that he was resigning. Dodds, who had held the job since 1981, had been the architect of Texas’s athletic dominance. He had engineered the enormous money machine that ran it all and used that wealth to lure the best athletes, build the best facilities, and hire the best coaches, including Brown. Thus did the University of Texas’s most successful sports era end in more than a little pain and turmoil. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. With all this bitterness and controversy, and with Dodds and Brown gone, what would happen next?
The finishing touch on each of Matt Mowat’s bicycles is a badge on the frame that reads “Made With ♥ in ATX”—and it’s clear he really means it. After a career in advertising and graphic design (including stints at GSD&M and Wired) and several moves back and forth between Austin and San Francisco, Mowat finally settled in Texas in 2007 with the idea of opening a bike shop.
September is upon us, nearly the end of our rainy season. Drat. I’m always sad to see it go. In a typical year, about sixteen inches of precipitation falls on the Marfa Plateau, most of it during a summer-long monsoon. Unwelcome periods of drouth routinely descend and mar those expectations, but when the weather ticks along as it should, rain begins speckling the earth in May and manages to generate a little more momentum in June.