Farmers Flight!

Texas A&M’s decision to ditch the Big 12 (and those teasips in Austin) for the SEC set off a frenzy that seemed to touch everyone, from students and sportswriters to a certain former yell leader. But when the Aggies and Longhorns square off on Thanksgiving for the last time ever, a lot more than pride will be on the line. It will be the final chapter in a bitter rivalry that started with the constitution of 1876—and has defined the state of Texas for more than a century.

November 2011By Comments

Photograph by Randal Ford

The first thing a visitor to the Texas A&M campus sees, as he comes into town from the west and makes the turn onto University Drive, is the football stadium, a giant hulk of white concrete with “Kyle Field” emblazoned on one side in huge maroon letters. The stadium is usually deserted in midsummer, but on July 21, a Thursday, the Zone Club, in the north stands, was occupied by a group of people who would change the course of Texas A&M and the entire fabric of the state.

Hours earlier, the board of regents had assembled for a closed-door meeting in an annex across the street to determine A&M’s athletic future. One of the people in the room was R. Bowen Loftin, who has been president of the university since February 2010. A physicist by training, Loftin retains a certain professorial demeanor. He is partial to bow ties and white dress shirts, and on this occasion he had not deviated from his favorite mode of dress. He listened carefully as the regents discussed their predicament. It was a version of a discussion that they had been having privately since the previous summer, when the Big 12 Conference nearly came apart following the departures of Nebraska (to the Big Ten) and Colorado (to the Pac-10). At that time, A&M had flirted with the idea of heading east, to the Southeastern Conference. The Big 12 had managed to hang together, but now new trouble had opened old wounds. The main sticking point was that the conference leadership was not enforcing agreements that had previously been made, and to make matters worse, from A&M’s perspective, the main beneficiary seemed to be the University of Texas, which had recently announced a new $300 million television venture with ESPN, the Longhorn Network.

A little after two that afternoon, the regents and Loftin emerged and marched across Joe Routt Boulevard, named for an Aggie football hero killed in the Second World War. They entered the massive stadium and made their way to the Zone Club, where they convened an open meeting to discuss general university business. Loftin stepped outside to the patio behind the club. The day was sweltering, but he did not loosen his tie nor roll up his sleeves. To the north, he could see almost the entire campus spread out before him—the Memorial Student Center, which, according to tradition, no Aggie may enter without first removing his cap; Rudder Tower, named for A&M’s greatest president, General James Earl Rudder; and far out in the distance, the field that was the final location of Aggie Bonfire, the site where, on a tragic day in 1999, the stack collapsed, causing the deaths of twelve Aggies. Loftin may have paused for a moment, gazing at these landmarks, to consider the magnitude of what he was about to do. Then he whipped out his iPhone and called a number he had programmed in the previous summer. It belonged to Mike Slive, the commissioner of the Southeastern Conference, the most fearsome collection of bruising football players this side of the NFL.

“Well, well,” said Slive. “I was just thinking about you. I was sitting here on my porch in Birmingham with a cigar in one hand and a glass of whiskey in the other, wondering if you might call.”

Loftin got straight to the point. “Commissioner,” he said, “based on my sense of what’s right for Texas A&M, we’re very interested in discussing our possible membership in the Southeastern Conference.”

Slive took a sip of his drink. “I believe the SEC would favorably consider that.”

And so it began. This phone call, and the process it initiated, would soon send shock waves throughout the state and ultimately lay waste to the world of college sports as we know it. That afternoon, speaking to reporters, Loftin used the word “uncertainty” five times to describe the future of the Big 12, a fitting introduction to the confusing, dramatic, and unpredictable twists the story would take over the ensuing weeks. At first, discussion of A&M’s possible departure smoldered on sports pages, message boards, blogs, talk radio, and Twitter. The flames were fanned on August 10, when a reporter for the Dallas Morning News asked Rick Perry—the first Aggie governor and soon-to-be-first Aggie presidential candidate—about the rumors. “As far as I know,” Perry responded, “conversations are being had.” Two days later, the story exploded when A&M posted notice of a meeting in which the regents would vote on “Authorization for the President to Take All Actions Relating to Texas A&M University’s Athletic Conference Alignment.” On August 15, the board gave Loftin that authority.

Almost immediately the entire region descended into frenzied conjecture. Would the SEC take the Aggies? Would Oklahoma go too? What would happen to the Big 12? Would it collapse? Add another school? Which one? BYU? Notre Dame? Would Texas go independent? Would Texas go to another conference? What about Texas Tech? Everyone had an angle to play. Mega-lobbyist Buddy Jones, the chairman of the Baylor University Board of Regents, swung into action to save his school’s position in the Big 12. Houston-area legislators signed a letter to conference officials asking them to support the University of Houston as the replacement for A&M, and Lieutenant Governor David Dew­hurst was said to back U of H’s candidacy. The national media began to catch on, and stories appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Sports Illustrated, and Forbes. Administrators at A&M were deluged with interview requests. When I tried calling the university, I got a recording saying, “Your call will be completed as soon as a line is available.” None ever was.

A&M finally confirmed its intentions on August 31, when Loftin sent beleaguered (and soon-to-be-deposed) Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe a letter informing him that the Aggies were headed to “another athletic conference.” The drama would have a few more twists—most notably the Act III appearance of former special prosecutor Kenneth Starr, now the president of Baylor, threatening to sue college presidents across the southland—but the die was cast. And the implications were far-reaching. Speculation ran rampant that UT and Notre Dame were talking to the Big Ten. Many wondered whether the long-anticipated major NCAA realignment into four superconferences was at hand, nothing less than a paradigm shift in the way American college sports are organized.

That may yet come (in mid-September the Big East Conference saw Syracuse and Pittsburgh depart for the Atlantic Coast Conference, and at press time Missouri was exploring a move to the SEC and TCU a move to the Big 12), but in Texas, the paradigm shift has already occurred. A&M’s decision means the probable end of the 118-year-long association between UT and A&M in athletic competition, and with it the end of the most essential rivalry the state has ever known, a rivalry that has embodied, for more than a century, the major themes and conflicts of the state itself.

UT versus A&M, and in particular the annual football game, has done more than just entertain us: the competition and animosity between these two schools has actually defined us. This month the Aggies and Longhorns will meet at Kyle Field for what will be, barring a miracle, their final Thanksgiving Day game, ending a ritual that most Texans figured was encoded in the state’s DNA. “We’ll play UT anytime, anyplace, in any sport,” Loftin has said, but that appears more and more unlikely. “We didn’t make this happen,” UT athletics director DeLoss Dodds told me. “It’s their decision. The rivalry has been wonderful, one of a handful of great rivalries. A&M wants to change the world, but it’s not a world we would want to be changed.”

On September 24, just one day before the process initiated by Loftin’s phone call finally culminated in A&M’s officially joining the SEC, Aggie nation packed Kyle Field for the biggest game of the day, a meeting of two teams ranked in the top ten of the Associated Press poll: Oklahoma State (7) and A&M (8). This was the first time in 36 years that the Aggies had hosted a top-ten battle on their home turf. The stakes were huge. The survivor would be positioned to play for a berth in a BCS bowl. As I entered the stadium, I noticed that special shirts, complete with a date, seemed to have been made for the game. Yet on closer inspection I discovered that the date on the shirts was not September 24, nor did the message mention anything about beating Oklahoma State. Instead, the date on the back read “11-24-11.” And what is so important about November 24, 2011? It will mark the final Thanksgiving Day gridiron fracas between Texas A&M and the University of Texas. Never mind the top-ten battle that was about to take place on the field. What Aggie loyalists really cared about was winning the last bout with Texas—or, as they like to refer to their archrival, t.u.

To understand the significance of the UT-A&M rivalry, a good place to start is the school’s fight songs. UT’s, titled “Texas Fight!” begins “Texas fight! Texas fight! / And it’s goodbye to A&M,” while the “Aggie War Hymn” goes “Hullabaloo, Caneck, Caneck. / Hullabaloo, Caneck, Caneck. / Goodbye to texas university” (both lyrics, of course, seem freighted with a double meaning now). These songs are sung at all games, no matter the opponent.

Many of A&M’s traditions involve UT. Another song goes “Saw Varsity’s horns off,” a reference to UT’s calling its team “Varsity” in the early years of the rivalry, while A&M was called “College” (for “Agricultural and Mechanical College”). Good Aggies learn to always refer to UT as “texas university” and to its students—who are seen as softies, intellectuals, and brats—as “teasips.” One of the most prominent Aggie traditions was Bonfire, a monumental effort of student engineering and labor that was meant to symbolize the Aggies’ “burning desire to beat the hell outta t.u.” By tradition, the stack of wood was always topped with an outhouse painted burnt orange.

UT, for its part, has far fewer traditions and slang terms for A&M, but this is only because UT’s favored mode is to behave as if A&M is beneath it, unworthy of elaborate rituals and responses. But don’t be fooled. For UT, to defeat A&M has always been critically important, a way to reaffirm the natural order of things: the primacy of power, wealth, sophistication, and social status. If you grow up in a UT family, you are likely to view the Aggies as a cult of hicks and rubes; as Aggies like to say about themselves, “From the outside, you can’t understand it; from the inside, you can’t explain it.” Of course, if you grow up in an Aggie family, you view UT and its students as insufferable.

Why is this rivalry so intense? It is due partly to the circumstances of the institutions’ births. The state constitution of 1876 required the Legislature, “as soon as practicable,” to establish a “university of the first class . . . for the promotion of literature, and the arts and sciences.” That was UT. No such lofty ambitions were prescribed for A&M. The constitution said only, “The Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas . . . located in the county of Brazos, is hereby made, and constituted a branch of the University of Texas, for instruction in agriculture, the mechanic arts and the natural sciences connected therewith.” From the very start, A&M was the stepchild, the little brother, a status it has never quite shaken. It wasn’t intended as a “university of the first class.”

Conceived thus, over time the two schools have come to perfectly represent the two facets of Texas identity: rural roots and urban sophistication. For most of its history, A&M has been a school for families who lived far from the bright lights of the cities, whose children rode to school in buses that traveled on dusty roads, families who looked eagerly to the sky when dark clouds closed in over their cotton fields. Until the sixties, students, all male, were required to enroll for military training in the Corps of Cadets, fostering a highly disciplined, ascetic attitude that for decades was synonymous with “Aggie.” UT, by contrast, has always been the school for city folk, located smack in the middle of Austin, with its never-ending enticements of music and food and drink and the aura of power emanating from the Capitol, just a few blocks away. UT was the school for matinee idols like Farrah Fawcett. For the crew-cut young men of A&M it could sometimes represent everything in their lives that seemed unattainable. Conversely, for the many UT students who came from small towns, A&M could seem like everything they had wanted to leave behind. When the schools met on the football field, they were playing for more than just bragging rights. They were playing to vindicate their place in the world.

Over time the rivalry became a theater in which the clashes embodying the modern social and economic history of Texas were performed, season after season. The most basic narrative in Texas over the past century has been the transition from a rural state with agrarian interests to an urban, high-tech, global economy, and it is not a stretch to say that this narrative found its perfect corollary in the UT-A&M rivalry. Throughout the twentieth century, the conflict between rural and urban interests was played out innumerable times: at the Legislature; in the boardroom; on farms, ranches, and oil fields; and every Thanksgiving on the gridiron in Austin or College Station.

Occasionally, the difference between the schools has been succinctly captured in their alumni. The best example of this may be found in the 2010 Republican gubernatorial primary, which saw A&M’s best-known graduate, Rick Perry, the son of a West Texas cotton farmer, facing off against Kay Bailey Hutchison (UT ’62), who went from La Marque to the U.S. Senate by way of the Pi Beta Phi house. The dynamics of that race pitted Texas against Washington and tea party populism against “country club” Republicanism, but at heart it was a proxy for the age-old duel between A&M and Texas. In Perry’s attack on Hutchison for being “out of touch,” you could hear decades of Aggie scorn for those god-awful Austin elites, just as a comment that Hutchison once made to me that Texas needed a “grown-up” as governor carried the echo of a thousand Aggie jokes.

Yet it goes even deeper than all that. The rural-urban dichotomy in our history has fostered a dual allegiance in the hearts of many Texans, a large proportion of whom are still only a generation or two removed from the farm or ranch. Even those of us who have no rural roots at all nonetheless embrace a notion of Texanness that simultaneously celebrates an unpretentious, hardscrabble, frontier past and a worldly, materialistic, urbane future. We are all country folk; we are all city folk. And so there is a little bit of Aggie in all of us: an embedded desire to bring down the smarty-pants of the world, coupled with a nagging fear that we will be revealed as unsophisticated bumpkins. And there is a little UT in all of us too: a (sometimes smug) satisfaction that we live in a place that matters and is rich and powerful. When the maroon and burnt orange clash on the football field (or the basketball court or the baseball diamond), sport becomes a metaphor for the warring forces within ourselves.

It is no surprise that the game in which these forces are channeled every year has become a ritual as basic to Texas culture as the first weekend of deer season. It began in 1894, when the state was still emerging from its frontier past. There was a brief hiatus for the next few years and another in the teens, following a controversial UT victory in 1911. Texas A&M University Football Vault: The History of the Aggies refers to “incidents” the night after the 1911 game (along with accusations that the Aggies were using Indian players), which led the chairman of the UT athletics council to inform A&M that the rivalry would be discontinued. But not for long; it was resumed in 1915, the inaugural year of the Southwest Conference. A&M won the game, 13–0, a victory so satisfying for the Aggies that two years later they branded the score on the hide of the Longhorns’ mascot.

Since 1900, the showdown has usually taken place on Thanksgiving Day (or, occasionally, the weekend after), a holiday that, in Texas, has been marked by many memorable games. In 1920 the Aggies came to Austin riding a 25-game winning streak during which they had not been scored upon. Much to their chagrin, UT prevailed that year, 7–3. In 1940 A&M was the defending national champion and was heavily favored to win, but UT completed a long pass early in the game and held on to win, 7–0, ending A&M’s 20-game winning streak. The Aggies did not win in Memorial Stadium until 1956—and another twenty years would pass before A&M won there again.

Even when A&M does not have a particularly talented team, it always seems to give UT fits. In 1963 Darrell K Royal’s squad was seeking its first national championship. The game was played the week after the Kennedy assassination, on a field so muddy that the yard markers had been obliterated. The Longhorns struggled throughout the game, trailing 13–3 at one point, but finally prevailed—only because a dubious call by an official wiped out an interception that would have won the game for A&M.

One of the Aggies’ most famous victories in the rivalry came in 1985, when they routed Texas 42–10 to bring the Southwest Conference championship home to Aggieland for the first time since 1967 (A&M, UT, and Arkansas shared the title in 1975). This was the first of three straight conference championships for A&M, a feat that the Aggies would repeat from 1991 to 1993.

The game no one will ever forget took place on November 26, 1999—eight days after the collapse of Bonfire. Grown men came into the stadium weeping. Texas was ranked seventh in the country, but there was no defeating the Aggies on this day. UT grabbed the lead, but the Aggies were playing on emotion. In the final minute of the game, linebacker Brian Gamble recovered a fumble to ensure the Aggies victory. Later he would say, “We knew that was more than a game; we knew we had to win it.”

You can be sure both squads will feel the same way on November 24.

How could such a storied and important rivalry be allowed to expire? The long answer is that the Big 12, formed in 1994, was an awkward contraption to begin with, an amalgam of athletic haves and have-nots from the old Southwest Conference (minus Arkansas) and the defunct Big 8. A number of its members were not enamored of their new digs, especially Nebraska, which had been the dominant program in the boardroom and on the field in the Big 8 but now felt it was playing second fiddle to Texas and the Big 12 South schools. In 2009 the conference championship game was moved from Kansas City to Dallas, over Nebraska’s objections. By the summer of 2010, the disgruntlement of the former Big 8 schools had peaked and Nebraska and Colorado had withdrawn. Meanwhile, rumors flew that UT, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and Texas Tech would move as a group to the Pac-10 and that A&M would bolt for the SEC.

“There were issues of equality and respect,” Loftin told me. “Equality” meant “equality of money” but also, as one A&M official told me, “equality in terms of voice.” The Aggies, and other schools, tend to feel that UT’s voice is twice as loud as theirs. “It has to do with mutual respect and influence and stature within the Big 12,” the official told me. “There’s such a big discrepancy among the membership.” To make matters worse, the Big 12 did not divide the money from its TV contracts equally, as the Big Ten, the Pac-10, and the Southeastern Conference do. In the Big 12, half of all television revenue was distributed equally; the other half was based on TV appearances. A&M had gone through some down years, and the Aggies weren’t getting the appearances they coveted. The league was structured to benefit the haves, and the have-nots got to hitch a ride. A&M saw itself as a have that was treated as a have-not. It never got over the failure of the Big 12 to address the inequality of revenue sharing.

With Nebraska and Colorado gone, the conference looked to be in serious trouble, but the remaining partners, including A&M, agreed at the 2010 meetings to stay together as a ten-team league. This was less than ideal, because, according to NCAA rules, a league must have twelve teams in order to hold a championship game, a rich source of revenue. The SEC option remained a possibility for A&M, but the board of regents was not unified at that time about giving up the rivalry with UT, and with a budget-cutting legislative session on the horizon, nobody wanted to make a rash move.

Two things changed in the year since then. One was that Governor Perry named four new regents in 2011, who tipped the balance of the board more favorably toward the SEC. (Perry himself did not play a role in A&M’s decision.) The second was the stunning announcement in January that UT had signed a $300 million contract with ESPN to form the Longhorn Network. A&M had known that a network deal was in the works. Several years earlier, the two schools had even explored starting a network together. But the huge price tag of the ESPN contract surprised A&M—as it did UT administrators, who never imagined they would make so much on the deal.

“Everybody knew we were going to have a network,” DeLoss Dodds told me. “All the athletic directors knew it. Nobody said anything until ESPN paid three hundred million dollars. Was I going to turn that down? Hell no.”

It was as if UT had brought in another Santa Rita No. 1, the famous oil well drilled on land belonging to the Permanent University Fund (the endowment created by the 1876 constitution for the state’s two flagship universities). Royalties from the Santa Rita funded much of UT’s growth in the twentieth century (and A&M’s too), and now the Longhorns had struck another gusher—all for themselves.

Straw quickly piled up on the camel’s aching back. A vice president for ESPN suggested that the network might televise high school football games and referred to specific UT recruits who were unsigned but had verbally committed to UT. Once again, A&M felt blindsided. “I can’t speak for the NCAA,” athletics director Bill Byrne told reporters in January, “but I would imagine the governing body will look into the use of a collegiate television network airing games of prospective student athletes.” (Which it did. In late August, the NCAA outlined what would constitute “acceptable content” on the Longhorn Network. High school games were not included. Or, as a source at UT put it, “They told us we can’t do it.”)

By the time of the July 21 regents meeting, and Loftin’s phone call to Mike Slive, A&M was unalterably set on its course to join the SEC.

That’s the long answer. The short answer is that A&M’s departure to the SEC was simply the natural conclusion of its rivalry with Texas. For a century, the Aggies have been looking for a way to really stick it to UT, and they had finally found it. The A&M community understood at once the significance of SEC membership. This is how the widely read Aggie message board TexAgs.com put it on the day the Aggies’ move to the SEC became official:

Yes, the Aggies are clearly stepping up in class and the TAMU decision-makers believe that playing in the nation’s most prestigious conference—and finally emerging from what many have considered a giant, burnt orange shadow—will produce a significant recruiting advantage in the Lone Star State, something to directly combat the Longhorn Network; if you will.

That line about the giant burnt orange shadow is a window into the Aggie soul. It speaks to the depth of frustration among Aggies everywhere about living in the penumbra of UT for more than a hundred years and bearing the brunt of a jillion Aggie jokes. UT always seemed to have the upper hand; indeed, it even gets two thirds of the Permanent University Fund (according to an old Aggie joke, A&M ended up with one third because it was given first choice). Now A&M had a chance to turn the tables. Loftin described the move to the SEC as a “one-hundred-year decision for Texas A&M,” one that would ensure future success and stability. “The most gutsy, forward-thinking, and aggressive play in the history of Aggie Athletics,” TexAgs.com called it.

And there was no doubt that it would be a popular decision. After A&M posted notice that the board might authorize Loftin to explore other conference options, the Aggies sold seven hundred season tickets in three hours; eventually Kyle Field sold out completely for the 2012 season, the first time that’s happened in school history. Bumper stickers reading “SECede,” which had been widely circulated in the summer of 2010, made a hasty reappearance. At the summer graduation ceremony held three weeks after the call to Slive, Loftin handed out diplomas to the newly minted graduates. As they shook his hand, a number of them, instead of saying, “Thank you,” mumbled under their breaths, “SEC.”

As for UT, its athletics future is considerably less certain than the Aggies’. The fundamental weaknesses of the Big 12 remain, despite a belated announcement in early October that TV revenue would now be shared equally. The irritants that drove Nebraska, Colorado, and A&M to leave (and that have weakened Missouri’s ties to the league) are still present. It is still an unstable conference of haves and have-nots, and while some of its smaller teams are exceeding expectations—Baylor, for one—we know from the history of the late, lamented Southwest Conference that private schools have a hard time sustaining success from one year to the next. Not that the struggles are confined to the little guys. UT had its worst season in the Mack Brown era last year, and the pressure is on to prove that the program can rebound. The Big 12 is going to have to add new teams, and it did not wait long after A&M’s departure to start trying. On October 6, the conference announced that its board of directors had authorized negotiations with TCU to become the league’s tenth member. This does not mean that the Big 12 is stable: Missouri’s intentions remain unclear, and there are few other schools in the Midlands of BCS caliber. TCU is a solid program, but it does not expand the league’s footprint.

In theory, UT always has the option to become an independent (though Dodds has repeatedly said this will not happen). Notre Dame has done this successfully, sort of—the success has come in the revenue from a TV contract with NBC, not on the gridiron. In the meantime, there is little the school can do except get ready for the next time realignment is on the table. And if the Longhorns really miss their rivalry with the Aggies, they can always pick up the phone and call Mike Slive.

This wouldn’t be a football story without a Hail Mary pass. Already, efforts to preserve the rivalry have begun. Republican state senator (and A&M grad) Tommy Williams, from The Woodlands, has declared that he will file a bill next session requiring the two schools to play each other. But perhaps Williams is missing the point. Perhaps the time has come to let the rivalry go. It’s true that UT versus A&M accurately symbolized the major urban-rural conflict of the twentieth century in Texas, but it’s not the twentieth century anymore. A&M is still the capital of rural Texas, but it is no longer a captive of its rural past. Its leaders are intent on making the university a major player in modern high-tech Texas.

A&M is a far different university from what it was in Earl Rudder’s day. For decades, the administration has been trying gradually to rebrand the university. Former president Robert Gates used to hate it when, during a football game, the camera would pan over the Corps of Cadets, who account for only 2,200 students, in an enrollment of about 50,000. In the nineties, Gates’s predecessor, Ray Bowen, launched Vision 2020, a campaign to make A&M one of the nation’s top-ten public universities by the year 2020. It’s well on its way. In terms of research expenditures (not including dollars for health and science centers or hospitals), A&M ranks third, trailing only MIT and the University of California at Berkeley, and it expects to overtake the latter soon. Its researchers work closely with the Department of Defense in the areas of bio­terrorism and infectious disease, and A&M is currently competing for a federal grant that, if awarded, may entice pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKlein to establish manufacturing operations in Brazos County, the result of which could be a thriving biotech corridor centered around Bryan–College Station.

Both schools understand that they are essential to the intellectual and economic future of the state. In the late nineties, the presidents of UT and Rice University campaigned for A&M to receive an invitation to join the Association of American Universities, the “club” for the nation’s elite research institutions. A&M joined the AAU in 2001. Although UT still scores higher in U.S. News & World Report’s college rankings (forty-fifth to A&M’s fifty-eighth), the Aggies have begun to creep closer to parity in that realm as well.

The truth is that the differences between UT and A&M grow increasingly less significant with every passing year. For all the rivalry that exists between the two schools, both take their students from the same wide pool of applicants: good suburban high schools. Even the original reason for the rivalry—the primal struggle between the two facets of Texas culture, urban and rural—no longer exists. Texas is indisputably an urban—and suburban—state now.

So with all due respect to Tommy Williams, perhaps we should simply acknowledge that the UT versus A&M rivalry has run its course. It defined us for the past one hundred years, but the next hundred years will be defined by other conflicts, other rivalries. And that, finally, is what we’ll be celebrating this Thanksgiving at Kyle Field. Sing it with me now, one last time with feeling:

Hullabaloo, Caneck, Caneck.

Hullabaloo, Caneck, Caneck.

Good-bye to texas university.

Texas fight! Texas fight!

And it’s goodbye to A&M.

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