UT, how do your fans love thee? Let us count the burnt orange ways. T-shirts, both sleeved and sleeveless. Black-trimmed polos. Logoed golf shirts. Solid dress shirts. Pinstriped dress shirts. Fine, medium and broad-checked dress shirts. Tucked in. Un-tucked. Half-tucked. Sequin-dusted blouses. Polka-dot dresses. Clingy jersey dresses. Bra-strap revealing tank tops. On black hats. On white hats. Toddler-sized football jerseys. Infant-sized cheerleader outfits. Columbia PFG fishing wear. Track jackets. Wicking fabric. Fauxhide.
Every one of these permutations of school pride—and a seemingly infinite number of other fashions and accessories—are represented on an early evening in April at a stubby-ceilinged hotel ballroom in East Texas. Longhorns from Longview, Kilgore, Mineola, Palestine, and many other Northeast Texas towns have come to the Holiday Inn Tyler-South Broadway to get a glimpse of University of Texas head football coach Charlie Strong.
Tyler is the fourth stop of the “Texas Comin’ On Strong” eleven-city statewide goodwill tour, a chance to get to know the new man in charge of UT’s hopes and dreams. On this warm spring day, a few fans line up outside of the hotel a couple of hours early—extra time to admire the giant inflatable cartoon Bevo in the parking lot and the fancy bus emblazoned with an enormous image of Strong’s face. They mill around until they’re finally allowed inside of the ballroom, where they stand around tables topped off with orange tableclothes (more carrot-hued than burnt), holding drinks they buy from the cash bar and eating snacks that came complimentary with their $15 ticket. Others talk with Albert Santos, who is the hotel’s sales manager but is more famous today for being the father of UT defensive lineman Dalton. One well-wisher asks Albert about Dalton’s campaign to raise money for his mother, Vista, who is in need of heart surgery, and has no health insurance. “Up to 50 grand!” Albert, who wears a black golf shirt stitched with his son’s number (#55) and a green and gold Holiday Inn pin, reports. He lets another fan, 28-year-old George Hightower, try on his son’s massive Alamo Bowl ring (from the 2012 win over Oregon State).
“Gonna Instagram that?” I ask as he takes a picture of the ring.
“Yes sir. I’m gonna Instagram it, Facebook it, tweet it. Whatever I can get it on!”
We may be far from Austin, the epicenter of Longhorn country, but the scene this day is testament to the long arm of Longhorns, Inc., which clearly never stops marketing. Hightower, who works for the Tyler-based supermarket chain Brookshire’s, tells me he “bleeds orange.” The only people not wearing the ubiquitous color in the building are the local high school coaches, repping for the Gilmer Buckeyes or the Tatum Eagles. Even the staff of the Holiday Inn is all decked out in UT gear, as if it’s game day in Austin. And one of the UT’s greatest spokesmen, a native to this town, is on the premises: the Tyler Rose himself, Earl Campbell’s (though his official presence is restricted to a “private poolside event” with the Longhorn Foundation).
Once the flesh is pressed, Strong signs autographs in a small room off the lobby, taking Sharpie to poster faster than the line can move. There’s no time for chit-chat, but after the first wave gets through the room, fans are allowed to come back in to get additional signatures on their own footballs and mini-helmets. Then it’s time to step into the big room for the main event, hosted by former UT cornerback and Longhorn Network reporter Ahmad Brooks.
Brooks has got his banquet patter down. “I knew I was in East Texas when they had sweet tea that was actually good in the back!” he says. The mention of tour sponsor Dish Network gets cheers, as the satellite company now carries the Longhorn Network. The opening acts for Strong—Brooks, BCS championship team member (and Tyler native) Tim Crowder, former UT running back Tre Newton and former women’s basketball star Amie Bradley—deliver a feel-good infomercial for UT pride, and, especially, for what college sports still sees as its core values: hard work, discipline, and especially, an education. Crowder tells the audience he wears his “T” ring, not his BCS title ring, and Strong will later say his motto for this season is to “Put the T back into Texas.”
“All of you have been reading about what’s wrong with [college sports]… we’re what’s right with it,” says Skip Prince, UT’s Executive Senior Associate Athletics Director for Strategic Branding. That’s a somewhat selective self-assessment, as the current negative discourse about what’s “wrong” with college sports isn’t like the old days, when it was about who broke NCAA rules and didn’t graduate players. Now, it’s about the gulf between the value of a college education compared to how much revenue NCAA schools and its many corporate and broadcast partners generate, a business strategy that no school has been more successful at than UT.
But that’s a topic for a panel at Tribune Fest, not a Longhorns lovefest. Before Strong speaks, we sit through a highlight film, which generates huge cheers for Ricky Williams and Vince Young’s championship-winning play, but just as huge for the Justin Tucker field goal that gave UT the win in 2011’s last-ever (?) A&M game. Then Strong, wearing a black polo shirt with a Longhorn over his heart and a Nike swoosh on the right, the collar buttoned all the way up, finally takes his place behind the podium, the crowd serenading him with a raucous yells and claps of “Texas Fight.”
“I wish I had some of these players coming back,” Strong jokes. He then launches into his 20-minute-long, somewhat rambling speech. It’s been said a million times that Strong is not the smooth personality Mack Brown was, and that’s because he isn’t. His canned speech is a nervous, hyped-up monologue that has the tone of a motivational speaker, but stays in that one gear the whole time, with no pacing or drama. He barely takes a breath, not speaking in sentences or paragraphs, jumping from subject to subject—the quarterback, academics, laugh lines about the strength coach, how there’s “no resentment” from the Brown-recruited players he inherited. But Strong’s speaking abilities won’t matter much to anyone so long as the scoreboard at the Oklahoma game has a higher number next to the “UT” side. It’s more important that he’s new, and hungry, and the fans are hungry for a new day.
He then answers questions for for a few minutes, taken off a form that fans were able to fill out earlier that evening. Most of the questions did not make the cut, due to either time constraints or tone, including each of these:
“Are you going to clap clap clap when we throw an interception,” readsone, a cheap shot at Mack.
“What is your take on playing a home game in Mexico,” says another, referring to new athletic director Steve Patterson’s floating of that idea.
“How many years will it take for Texas to be a consistent Top 10 team.” another asks.
“Why can’t we the national championship next year” (sic)
That last one, omitting the word “win,” refers to Strong’s comment on the first day of the tour, when he said, perhaps too bluntly, that his squad would not be playing in the national championship game this season. People haven’t stopped asking him about that since, including myself and two other reporters when Strong met with the Tyler media contingent earlier in the day.
“Guys, it’s April. Okay?” Strong told us. “We just finished spring practice. You guys see spring practice? Y’all watch that?” The look on his face was somewhere between a grin and a glare.
One of the fan-submitted questions that does get asked is actually more of a statement: “I just want to thank you for stopping OU in the ‘09 national title game, Coach,” the card reads, acknowledging Strong’s role as the University of Florida’s defensive coordinator against the Sooners that year. He’s also asked what the fans can do to become more involved, the answer to which is a partial reprise of Brown’s famous, “Come early, be loud, wear orange, stay late,” which had obviously dwindled over the last few years.
“What gives guys energy, what gives guys excitement?” Strong says. “Before the game starts, when you’re sittin’ in the stands when they run out to warm up… we don’t need to see empty seats.”
The evening ends the only way any public event full of people dressed in every different kind of burnt orange apparel can, whether you’re inside a Holiday Inn or at DKR-Memorial. “At this time, we always like to finish it off, of course, with The Eyes of Texas,” Brooks says. The background recording begins to play, and he and Strong lead the crowd through a rousing version. “The Eyes of Texas are upon you, all the live long day.” Yes they are, Coach.