The bar was set pretty high even before last year’s Bum Steers cover was named one of seven winners in the American Society of Magazine Editors’ annual Best Cover Contest. I mean, honestly: How to top Dick Cheney with a scowl and a shotgun? It’s not as if there was an obvious worthy choice to succeed the veep as Bum Steer of the Year—and certainly there was no image as clever and uproarious (to us) as our National Lampoon homage. But time marches on, and as it did, we got increasingly dispirited. Al Gonzales? Boring. (And sad.) The “Book ’Em” Longhorns? A little too easy. Karl Rove? Ewwwww. Eventually we settled on what would have been a generic BSOTY: a steer presented in mug shot form, a nod to stupid criminals, corrupt pols, and, yes, Burnt Orange—clad student-athletes who spent less time in the backfield than in the back of a squad car. Yawn! If you don’t buy this magazine, we’ll shoot … ourselves?
Fortunately, as often happens, the Aggies rode to the rescue. It’s an article of faith around here that when we want people to buy us and read us, a handful of cover subjects are as close to sure things as exist: Big Bend, barbecue, Willie Nelson, Mexican food, and anything related to Texas A&M—good or bad. In this case, the cavalry arrived in the form of Dennis Franchione, whose tenure as the Aggies’ football coach seemed destined to come to a crashing end as soon as the last whistle of the season had been blown. We had our cover boy. At one point, it was rumored that Coach Fran would be sacked with a few games left to play—not true, it turned out, though we still sprung into action. We eagerly plotted a photo illustration featuring Fran and the Aggies’ snarling mascot, Reveille. All we needed was for the Ags to continue their downward spiral.
Unfortunately, as often happens, the Longhorns gave us a scare. (Best joke I heard all year, courtesy of my pal Danny Gillespie: What do Billy Graham and the Longhorns’ offensive coach, Greg Davis, have in common? They can both make a stadium full of people shout, “Jesus Christ!”) I confess to rooting for Texas to beat Texas A&M, if only to ensure that our Bum Steer plans remained firm, just as I’d held my breath for eleven months last year and prayed that nothing would outdo Mr. Cheney’s hunting escapade. For much of the game I cursed at the TV in my brother’s house, in Maryland, where my family had spent a Thanksgiving holiday that was happy and peaceful until kickoff. By halftime, I was e-mailing back and forth with our art director, T. J. Tucker, and our articles editor, Brian Sweany, and we were all thinking the same thing.
T. J.: “Are U watching this?”
Brian: “ A&M! Fran?”
T. J: “Maybe it should be Colt McCoy hanging from the logo.”
Me: “Maybe I should hang myself from the logo.”
By the fourth quarter, my family had driven to a restaurant whose patrons were, inexplicably but mercifully, watching the game. I belly-ached up to the bar. There seemed to be no way for Texas to come back—and when the Longhorns’ kicker missed a chip-shot extra point to keep the Aggies’ lead at eight with about two minutes left, their fate was sealed. So, I feared, was ours. “Fran may have just saved his job,” Brian wrote. Back to the generic Bum Steer.
And then, just as quickly, crisis averted. Less than an hour after the game, Fran submitted his resignation. Even beating t.u. for the second straight year wasn’t enough to save his gig. The Aggies didn’t love him. Ah, but we did. He’s no Dick Cheney—he only shot himself in the foot—but we’re proud (and relieved) to have him as our Bum Steer of the Year.
Our thirty-fifth-anniversary issue, which peers near and far into the future of Texas.