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Bitter Rivals

W. K. Stratton's new book, Backyard Brawl, dissects the football feud between the state's two largest universities.

By August 2002Comments

texasmonthly.com: I really enjoyed the book; I thought it was excellent. It made me laugh, it made me cry, all the fun stuff.

W. K. Stratton: Are you allied with one school or the other?

texasmonthly.com: Nah, I’m an Austinite, a transplanted Austinite, but an Austinite nonetheless. So it’s UT by proxy. How about you?

WKS: Well, obviously, as you know, I’m from Oklahoma originally so I really have no personal ties, except my wife and my stepdaughter are both Longhorns. So I have the orange flag that flies outside my house on game day, and things like that. But I’m nonpartisan.

texasmonthly.com: As you probably should be.

WKS: When I talked to Ray Bowen, the president of A&M—outgoing president now—I said, “How would a student decide one way or the other?” He said, “Well, obviously, Austin is a little more of a liberal environment and UT is a little more of a liberal school, and it’s an urban school. A&M is in a small town. It’s a college town environment, and it’s not really close to the city. But, the big thing other than that is if you want to get the full enjoyment out of an education at A&M you need to be someone who likes to join groups and enjoys being part of organizations and group activities. If you’re more of a loner,” he added, “you’d probably be happier at UT.” So based on that, I would say the kind of people I grew up around are more likely to turn up at A&M than at UT, but I’ve never been much of a joiner or anything like that, so if I had to make the decision, I probably would have gone to UT.

texasmonthly.com: Do you think your general perceptions of A&M and UT before you researched and wrote this book skewed the way it came across?

WKS: Let me put it this way, as a writer, the overwhelmingly compelling story was A&M. If you look at where it came from and how it has accomplished what it has over the past thirty years, that’s the kind of thing that writers are interested in. UT is obviously different, but in many ways it’s similar to a place like the University of Michigan, maybe Cal Berkeley. It’s a big school that has outstanding students from all around the world. It’s kind of in this urban environment, and there are some fine points that set it aside, but it’s not that much different than a lot of these other places. But A&M, there’s no place like it. So from a writer’s perspective, I think it’s fascinating. My Longhorn wife might kick me in the butt for saying that.

texasmonthly.com: I came away from this book having a deep-seated and profound respect for A&M.

WKS: My take is that Texas is a lucky place to have both of these schools and to have this kind of rivalry go on. Before I got into this project, I was thinking, “How could I write a sense-of-place book?” Then some circumstances occurred, and I found out that there was interest in this kind of book. And I said, “Well if I could write this book and not make it the typical go in and hang out with jocks and get that real narrow focus and if I could write about the bigger rivalry and what’s going on in Texas and what this place is like, it could be a good book to do.” So it worked out, I think, pretty well.

texasmonthly.com: Do you think that writing about Texas is daunting?

WKS: It is. I wasn’t born in it and I didn’t spend my formative years here, but I belong here. I’ve known that for a long time. To get things just right—the cultural mixes, the lay of the land, the priorities, all of those sorts of things—is pretty daunting. And especially trying to put football in terms of where it belongs here. There’s a Texas writer named Jay Milner. He grew up in Lubbock, and in the late thirties he was on a football team that has been known in Texas football history as the Cinderella Kids. They lost their first three games, and then their coach fell over dead with a heart attack. So here is this football team gathered around a grave—an open grave—as they’re lowering the casket, and the members of the team make this pledge that they’re going to win the state championship even though they are already three games in the hole. They never lost another game, and they won the state championship. These stories are everywhere in Texas.

texasmonthly.com: It’s Texas, football is religion. If you grow up here, you play football at some point in your life. Did you play football?

WKS: No.

texasmonthly.com: How about growing up, were you always a fan of the sport?

WKS: Yeah, I was always a fan. I started working as a newspaper reporter as a senior in high school. On Friday nights I had to become a sports writer. I’d go out to these little towns that had six-man football, or some places they had a variant of that called eight-man football. Often these football fields would have one section of bleachers, and people would drive their pick-up trucks up and circle the rest of the field and watch the football game. Whenever the home team won, everybody’d flash their lights and honk their horns. So I was around all of that stuff. I went to a lot of OU games when I was in college, dated some Tri-Delts down at OU. If nothing else, I got to see one of my favorite football players—if for no other reason than his name—a running back OU had in the seventies called Elvis Peacock.

texasmonthly.com: You definitely have a sense of place for Texas, and it struck me that this book isn’t as much about the rivalry as it is about Texas itself and how football plays into that. You also opened my eyes to just how intermingled UT and A&M really are. Many of my friends are either Aggies or Longhorns, but I never realized what the camaraderie between the two is like. The rivalry itself though, it doesn’t seem to have the same intensity it did in years past . . .

WKS: I guess it depends on what you call the rivalry. Right now, on the football field, Texas has moved to a place that A&M has not. When they play this fall, given the talent that A&M has and given what Texas has and barring a bunch of injuries, I think Texas should win this game handily on its home field. It’s really not going to be a competitive game, in my opinion. Unless there are some flukes that come along. But I think the rivalry has changed somewhat since the Bonfire incident. I think that caused a lot of people to take a pretty sober reflection about what’s going on, what matters, and what doesn’t. On the other hand, the last figure I saw stated that A&M is the number four school in size in the nation and UT is number one. Last year, U.S. News and World Report rated them tied for fifteenth. These are pretty impressive things. My home state, Oklahoma, has nothing to compare with that. And so the cultural rivalry, I think, is as intense as ever because of the numbers. Dan Jenkins told me—this is a line that they suggested I take out of the book but I thought I should leave it in—he’d never met a Longhorn in his life who thought the A&M rivalry was as important as the Oklahoma rivalry. I agree. So it’s kind of weird that Texas has these two big rivalries. A&M’s whole focus through the whole season is Texas. Texas is a huge rivalry from the A&M perspective, it is the thing every year. They get all cranked up about it, it’s an interesting place to be, College Station, that week before the game.

texasmonthly.com: What do you think about the future of the UT-A&M game in light of Bonfire? You wrote a few moving chapters about Bonfire and what happened surrounding that. It seems like you have good insight because you are kind of on the fence about whether you think it should be reinstated.

WKS: You know, a lot of people don’t know that UT had a bonfire years and years ago. There’s a section in Gary Shaw’s book about a bonfire held down on Town Lake before the A&M game. I don’t know, I didn’t research this and it’d be hard to research, but I’ve heard people say that UT might have had the first bonfire. I don’t know about that. But it went away in the early to mid-seventies. The reasons I kept coming across were that it was considered to be a pollution hazard. That would make sense that UT would want to get rid of it for that reason. But the UT bonfire was part of its tradition for a long time, and for whatever reason, they decided that it wasn’t the best thing to keep going with. Obviously, UT football hasn’t been hurt by it. I think A&M will find a way to go on. I personally don’t think Bonfire will be back, and I’m not sure that it should be, it’s just too dangerous.

texasmonthly.com: Definitely there were some heroes produced by this rivalry—Darrell K. Royal, D. X. Bible, Earl Campbell, and Bear Bryant. Do you think there are any heroes today, or maybe some guys with the real potential to become heroes?

WKS: I think R.C. Slocum is a hero, and I don’t think his heroics are going to be appreciated until he’s no longer coach. People are going to step back and look at what happened during the 29 years, I guess 30 years now, that he’s been associated with A&M. R.C. and I talked quite a lot about Emory Bellard, another one of those heroic figures who has been credited with developing the wishbone. R.C. said that the first year he went to work with Emory there had been few black players at A&M. The first thing Emory did—and R.C. participated in this—was recruit six African American players, maybe nine. R.C. said it was not a popular decision at the time and at A&M, but R.C. was part of that. You go there now, and it’s like most major college programs: You have African American athletes in leadership positions and holding down many places on the team and no one even thinks about that, it’s just accepted. But at the time when R.C. Slocum was involved with Emory Bellard in doing this stuff, it was groundbreaking. And then A&M was an outlaw program when R.C. was an assistant, and he’s done a lot to get that turned around. It’s a pretty clean program these days. Given the kind of a reputation that they had when Jackie Sherrill was the coach, that’s a pretty big turnaround. R.C. has been part of giving A&M consistent winning. UT went twenty years with Darrell and had a winning season every year. That kind of thing has just only recently happened at A&M; it was always in spurts, feast or famine, before. I think R.C. is gonna get a lot of kudos when he steps down at some point and people can look back and get a picture of what’s going on. So yeah, I think R.C. is heroic. Mack Brown hasn’t been around long enough yet. If he wins a national championship in the next year or two, that would seal that. I don’t know what Mack’s long-term goals are. I don’t know if he’s gonna be a guy who sticks around for twenty years or if he’s gonna want to try his talents in the NFL at some point. But if he decides that Texas is it for the long term and keeps Texas back in national prominence and things like that, he’ll be a hero. Major Applewhite is a hero. You know people talk about him in the same breath that they talk about James Street and others like that. He’s never won a national title, but he had so many amazing games and saved himself from the fire so many times.

texasmonthly.com: Do you think that because Major Applewhite has gathered such a god-like following that Chris Simms has been given a bad rap?

WKS: That obviously can’t be easy for Simms, but all Simms had to do was beat OU, or beat Colorado. Chris Simms is a wonderful athlete. He has a lot of talent, and he’s very young. He started playing as a true freshman, right out of high school. If Chris had won some big games, it wouldn’t have mattered what kind of legacy Major had or not, but he just hasn’t done that yet. Maybe this is his year. He’s gonna have plenty of opportunities.

texasmonthly.com: I was thinking about the different aspects of the rivalry and the things that have evolved from it. What do you think are the really great things that have evolved from this rivalry? And what do you think some of the bad things have been?

WKS: Obviously, there are bad things, even as recently as the mid-nineties when we had the last Southwest Conference Championship determined at a game over at Kyle Field. Who knows who acted or overreacted, but you know in a rivalry of this kind you’ve always got that potential of fisticuffs breaking out—and that seems to be the worst part.

texasmonthly.com: What about the good stuff?

WKS: There is this enormous good-natured kidding that goes on. I think that whole “EATME” thing and things like that are just a hoot. I don’t think that too many Ags who’ll read that will be horribly upset by it. In a bigger sense, I don’t think that either school wants to let the other school get a leg up on ’em, and so that’s going to prompt the alumni of both universities to keep the endowments up and make sure the faculty is outstanding. People from those schools like it when they come out in the U.S. News and World Report ahead of the other.

texasmonthly.com: This is your first book?

WKS: That’s right, first book.

texasmonthly.com: Well, what prompted you to write this book, beyond simply wanting to create a sense-of-place book for Texas?

WKS: A year ago in April Jan Reid and I drove up to Dallas for a meeting of the Texas Institute of Letters. We were going into a banquet, and Jan was approached by this fellow, a literary agent from Dallas, who said, “Hey, listen Jan, are you interested in doing a book about UT and A&M?” He said, “Nah, I’m booked up right now.” So Jan and I went in and sat down, and as we waited for the traditional rubberized chicken that you get at these things, Jan looked over at me and said, “Did you want to do this book?” I’d been thinking about it since that little conversation. I was in the process of changing agents, and I got hooked up with David McCormick. Jan was a good friend of David’s, and he mentioned to David this book. So I got hooked up with David through that conversation, and we kicked around what would work and I wrote a proposal. So that’s how it came to be, and I’m really glad that things worked out that way.

texasmonthly.com: Well, I think things worked out well. But are you worried at all? This is an emotionally charged rivalry. As you go into quite a bit in the book, this means a whole lot to a whole lot of people. Do you think you might piss off some of the wrong people?

WKS: It’s always a possibility. I worked as a newspaper writer for ten years and I did probably a couple dozen magazine articles over the years, and I’m always amazed at what people like, what people completely ignore, and what pisses people off. Sometimes it’s the most innocuous things. But when it was in manuscript, I had a number of Aggies and Longhorns read it and they came back saying, “Yeah, this tells the story, yeah.” So I think I managed to keep from pissing too many people off.

texasmonthly.com: Despite the fact that you followed the 2001 season as the focus, this is a book with a great deal of history. What piece of that history did you find most fascinating?

WKS: Everybody knows the story of the branding of Bevo, the 13—0 and all that. But why did they choose the word “bevo”? It was possible to come up with some different combinations, but Anheuser-Busch had marketed successfully a light beer, called “Bevo,” which was popular on the UT campus. And it was intentionally named Bevo so that it would be like Budweiser’s take on “Pivo,” which is what Czech Texans call their home brew. I thought that was wonderful. In fact, there’s a building at the Busch Brewery in St. Louis called the Bevo Building, named for that product. I thought that was really interesting.

texasmonthly.com: I had never realized how big the branding was. When you described the way it took up one side of the bull, I had to wince a little at the thought.

WKS: That poor steer. He had a tough time of it—getting butchered at the end. A lot of people think all Bevos end up on the barbecue table, but the first was the only one.

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