Last year in Texas sports was summed up by the cover of Texas Monthly‘s “Bum Steer” issue: Jerry Jones and Bevo, the faces of two struggling franchises, sat together, drowning their sorrows. It wasn’t exactly a sports year to remember . . . with the exception of the Texas Rangers making their first-ever World Series appearance.
This year was a different story. From August on, 2011’s sports narrative was dominated by the apparent dissolution of our state’s signature college sports rivalry, but beyond that soap opera, it was a pretty excellent year for many different Texas sports in many different corners of the state . . . with the exception of the Texas Rangers losing the World Series for the second year in a row.
Here are the five most memorable Texas sports stories of the year:
1. ______ of the Year: The Longhorn Network
Time magazine has infamously named everyone from Adolf Hitler and Ayatollah Khomeini to “You” and “The Protester” as its man or person of the year. In that spirit, where the “honor” doesn’t have to be a compliment, we have no trouble anointing the Longhorn Network, the University of Texas’s joint television venture with ESPN, as the most influential sports entity in the state.
The channel, which is still largely unavailable on most cable and satellite systems, spurred Texas A&M to leave for the Southeastern Conference, brought TCU and West Virginia into the Big 12, and, for now at least, put an end to Texas and Texas A&M’s annual rivalry in football and beyond. (Though at the moment, the Aggies are still listed in every future UT schedule).
On the field, a season of high expectations for the Aggies and hopeful comeback plans for the Longhorns turned out to be defined by the rivalry and nothing else: uninspiring 7-5 UT scored a huge win to go with its $300 million LHN payday, and the hugely disappointing 6-6 Aggies (which had begun the season ranked ninth in the country) ended up firing head coach Mike Sherman.
A&M then plucked Kevin Sumlin from the University of Houston to be its new head coach—its first-ever African-American coach and only the fourth one ever in the SEC.
As for UT, Forbes just named it the most valuable college football program in America, despite the two-season record of 12-12, and without even including the finanical windfall of the LHN.
2. The Championship Aggies: Texas A&M Women’s Basketball Team Takes It All
You think LSU has it rough, having to play Alabama a second time to win the BCS football championship? Baylor’s women’s basketball team beat Texas A&M not once, not twice, but three times before the NCAA tournament. The number-one ranked Bears looked to be on the path to the championship, but when the two schools ended up in the same regional bracket, the Aggies took the one that mattered most, then upset Stanford and handled Notre Dame to give the school its first-ever title, making head coach Gary Blair (pictured above), a Texas Tech alum and former Dallas high school bench boss, a folk hero in the process. Even ESPN’s the Sports Guy, Bill Simmons, tuned in and noticed that the A&M-Notre Dame game was far more entertaining than its men’s equivalent this year.
3. The O’Brien Trophy Belongs to Dallas
This doesn’t rank higher because it’s not like the state of Texas hasn’t seen an NBA champion more than a few times in the past two decades (ducks). That aside, who’d have guessed that it would be the Mavericks, not the Rangers (or, heh, the Cowboys), that would lose the “long-suffering” adjective this year? Heck, who’d have guessed that knocking off the Lakers wouldn’t be the high point of the post-season? Or that Mark Cuban’s team would become American’s team, if only because everybody hated LeBron, Wade, Bosh, and the Miami Heat so much.
And no less extraordinary than what the team did on the court was the Mark Cuban we saw off it: low-key (he went into Twitter radio silence for the post-season), classy (letting original Mavs owner Donald Carter get the trophy first), and finally, amusingly jubilant:
4. The Texans Get Their Day
This had to be the year the Houston Texans finally made the playoffs, but back when they were 3-3, with star players getting injured every week, even their most devoted fans had doubts. All the team has done since then was win seven straight games behind third-string quarterback T.J. Yates to wrap up the division early. Having gone from fired Cowboys head coach to genius Texans defensive coordinator, Wade Phillips has the chance to be as beloved as his father, Bum, if the Texans can do some damange in the playoffs. And if they somehow win the Super Bowl, he’s our sportsman of the year (unless Yates is).
5. One Strike Away
Repeat after us: There’s no such thing as a Texas Monthly cover jinx.
Given the crazy (and painful) circumstances in which the Rangers lost to the St. Louis Cardinals—and considering that the team has now gone 51 years without a championship—the organization has certainly re-earned its place in the annals of tragic baseball teams. Relive the pain with ESPN’s Jayson Stark, who has all the unlikely and astounding facts from that fateful Game 6.
The good news? The Rangers should be back. The bad news? Baseball is cruel, and they could just as easily lose in the best-of-five round as fellow powerhouse teams the Yankees and the Phillies did this past season.
The Superman socks. The perfect humblebrag quote (“This is unbelievably believable.”). The ridiculous 36 touchdown passes to just six interceptions. How did Baylor go 9-3 again? And which fellow Texan will Griffin follow in the footsteps of on Sunday—Drew Brees or Vince Young?
New Ownership for Astros
The long, long wait for Jim Crane to take over from Drayton McLane (who received a sentimental goodbye hug from former Houston Chronicle columnist Richard Justice on Christmas Eve) ultimately ended with the Astros ticketed to join the American League before the 2013 baseball season.
Don’t Mess With Texas Chess
Guns up, bishop, knight, and queen! Texas Tech’s chess team (the Knight Raiders, natch) won the collegiate national championship this year, in a Final Four that also featured the University of Texas at Dallas (which has won eight times since 2000) and the University of Texas at Brownsville.
Cougar High, Cradle of Texas Coaches?
With Art Briles at Baylor and Kevin Sumlin now at A&M, does that mean we can expect new UH coach Tony Levine to get Mack Brown’s job (or at least Tommy Tuberville’s) in four years? Levine’s Cougars get the chance to finish 12-1 on January 2 at the Cotton Bowl (where they play the Ticket City Bowl) against scandal-stricken but still challenging Penn State.
And finally, the only 2011 Texas sports story that can still end on the highest possible note in 2012 (unless you really do think that the Cowboys or the Texans may yet win the Super Bowl): undefeated Sam Houston State plays North Dakota State in the (sold out) FCS National Championship game on January 7 in Frisco.