Tuesday, January 5, 7:05 a.m.: Austin-Bergstrom International Airport at the crack of dawn is typically a quiet place, but not so today. Two full days before the Longhorns play for the BCS National Championship, in the Rose Bowl, the scene at the curbside check-in looks like a fall Saturday turnstile at Darrell K Royal–Texas Memorial Stadium. Everywhere is burnt orange. Burnt-orange button-downs, sweatshirts, dresses, and pants. Burnt-orange backpacks, garment bags, duffels, and rollers. I’ve arrived an hour and a half before my flight. The last time that happened I was holding my mom’s hand and knocking my ear against her kneecaps. But an hour and a half today is looking like an insufficient cushion. I rub my eyes for a moment, then open them.
The lines are already longer. Already more orange.
I step inside, cross my fingers, then marvel at the genius of Mack Brown. I went to UT in the lean years of the late eighties and early nineties, and I haven’t sat in the stands at a Longhorns game since 1995. Back then you wouldn’t have found this much orange in the entire stadium. Brown not only retooled the product, but he also did a brilliant job of marketing. “Come early. Be loud. Stay late. Wear orange.” The travelers at the airport all have that mantra branded on their brains, to the point that there’s a real chance that I’m going to miss my flight. And if I do, there will be no use fussing with standby. I’ll have to drive to California.
I’m the second-to-last passenger to board Flight 340, a nonstop to LAX. Surveying the plane for one of the two remaining open seats, all I see are burnt-orange ball caps. A chartered flight headed to an assistant coaches’ reunion wouldn’t look much different. I finally sit down but still don’t feel completely at ease. And it’s not because I don’t have a ticket for the game yet. That can be fixed. But apparently I’m the only person in Austin who doesn’t own a single stitch of orange.
4:15 p.m.: After making it to Los Angeles, I pass the afternoon on the phone at a friend’s place in Venice, trying to find Wednesday night’s best party and a ride to Thursday’s game. Both are fairly easy. Lyle Lovett is playing a party at the Skybar in West Hollywood’s Mondrian Hotel, where I booked a room just yesterday. It was the last in a block of 75 reserved in August by a man named Craig, a fraternity brother of a guy I sat by for a semester of college Spanish. Craig also rented a bus to take sixty people to the game, as did a number of other friends of friends I’ve found.
It occurs to me just how much this means to these people. Even in a year when more national attention than usual was focused on the state—on TCU’s undefeated regular season and first-ever BCS bowl, Houston’s return to prominence and the polls, and Texas Tech’s spontaneous combustion with the firing of Mike Leach—UT is the school everyone expected to make it here, and the Horns fans act like it. I imagine all the money being spent on lodging and limos, all the hotel room closets filled with orange and luggage stuffed with UT paraphernalia. Already I’ve seen dozens of UT flags waving above taxis and chauffeured Town Cars.
I grew up as big a Horns fan as anybody, beginning with an elevator ride in a downtown bank tower not long after my family moved to Austin, in 1971. I was maybe six, and I remember watching my dad, typically an outwardly amiable guy, nod solemnly and go quiet when another man joined us. When we reached the lobby, my dad let him out first, then leaned down and whispered, “That was Coach Royal. He invented the wishbone.” I would figure out later that my dad’s history was a little off, but the significance was in his tone. We were from North Carolina. My dad was a basketball fan. Yet he spoke with a reverence accorded only to Dean Smith and the four-corners offense. Horns football was sacred.
By middle school, the wall above my bed was a Longhorns shrine, with a poster of the Tower bathed in orange and another of Russell Erxleben, plus a scrap of paper signed by Randy McEachern and Johnnie Johnson. But the centerpiece was a poster showing Earl Campbell hurdling an SMU defender. That same image was tacked up in every Austin boy’s bedroom during Campbell’s 1977 Heisman run, all of them autographed at Rooster Andrews Sporting Goods. Texas didn’t lose once that regular season, and national-championship fever seized Austin in the weeks before the Cotton Bowl against Notre Dame. When my family went to pick out our Christmas tree, I pleaded with my mom for one of the orange-flocked trees with the number one on top instead of a star. Even my dad couldn’t get behind that idea.
But adolescent rebellion being what it is, I drifted. When Alabama played UT in the 1982 Cotton Bowl, I took the Tide in a bet with my dad and danced in front of the television set while Alabama shut out the Horns for the first three quarters. When late touchdown runs by Robert Brewer and Terry Orr gave Texas the win, Dad suggested I start walking to the nearest UtoteM for his winnings, a six-pack of Big Red.
By the time I entered UT, in the fall of 1985, that rebellion had blossomed into full-fledged contrarianism. I’d beg off when friends invited me to games, telling them that I never saw any football players rooting for me when I took tests. But more to the point, beer drinking had claimed the top spot on my short list of priorities, and my football memories from college are about everything but the games. There was a home win against Baylor my freshman year in which I slept off a hangover