It’s hard to believe it now, but less than a year ago, the Dallas Cowboys were capable of winning a playoff game. It was a simpler time: Dirk Nowitzki was still the active icon of the Dallas Mavericks, the Astros were America’s sweethearts, and we had yet to comprehend the full extent of Simone Biles’s greatness. We were younger then.
In the year since, much has changed. The athletics landscape has been shaken up on many levels, and the hapless Cowboys barely crack the list of the biggest Texas sports stories of 2019. Because twelve months feel like they might as well be a lifetime in our current era, let’s recall the year that was.
January 2019: Kliff Kingsbury Somehow Becomes an NFL Head Coach
After being fired by Texas Tech following six wildly uneven seasons as head football coach, Kliff Kingsbury found himself on the path that most promising young coaches who fail in their first opportunity wind up on: he was hired by USC to be their offensive coordinator in late 2018, where a few successful seasons would probably put him back on track to getting his next head coaching opportunity. Things took a weird detour in January, though, when Kingsbury suddenly started attracting NFL interest—as a head coach, no less. USC blocked him from interviewing for those jobs, and Kingsbury responded by resigning from his position before he even started. Shortly afterward, he was feted by both the New York Jets and the Arizona Cardinals. He eventually took the job in Phoenix, where he’d go to work with the first overall pick in the NFL draft.
Kingsbury has since proved himself to be an, uh, ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ head coach. In his first year, the team got off to a 3-9-1 start with a few games left to play—a nominal improvement over its 3-13 record the year before Kingsbury arrived—but the record doesn’t tell the full story. Kingsbury’s offense is fun to watch, and the first-round pick he’s groomed at quarterback, Kyler Murray, shows a lot of promise. But they still can’t win games. Calling the team bad is an overstatement—they were a few plays away from beating much better teams—but they’re not exactly good, either. We’re less than a year into the experiment of making a guy who flopped out of his alma mater before his fortieth birthday into an instant NFL head coach, and the results aren’t in yet.
February 2019: Jason Witten Comes Out of Retirement
For a guy who was never part of a championship team, Jason Witten is one of the more iconic faces in Dallas Cowboys history. When he announced his retirement after the 2017-2018 season, he made the natural transition for a beloved player from America’s team: he went straight to the broadcast booth on Monday Night Football. Which was a great fit . . . except for the fact that, as an announcer, Witten makes a hell of a tight end.
Perhaps recognizing where his true talents lay, Witten announced at the end of February that his heart was still on the gridiron. The 37-year-old returned to the Cowboys, where he’s effectively a player-coach, putting up middling numbers on the field, inspiring teammates in the good times, and blowing his top in the bad ones. While his future is unwritten, there are only so many years left for Witten as a player—and whether he finds himself back in the broadcast booth or maybe on the sidelines, his return to the field is a nice way for fans to say goodbye to a favorite, even if they probably wish he were playing for a winning team.
March: Baylor and Texas Tech Dominate Women and Men’s March Madness
Two Texas teams were at the heart of the women’s and men’s NCAA basketball tournaments in March: the Baylor Lady Bears and the Texas Tech Red Raiders. Baylor, of course, won their tournament, earning their third national championship—while Tech got bounced in the final by Virginia.
Rooting for Baylor could be difficult, both because of issues with the university itself and because it’s never as much fun to root for a number one seed (we published a guide to help people figure out how to do it). Tech, meanwhile, enjoyed a role as the scrappy underdogs of the tournament: they were led by hometown player Jarrett Culver before eventually facing a defeat by the titans at Virginia. In the end, Baylor took the trophy, Tech took America’s hearts, and Texas was as relevant in college basketball as it had been in a long time.
April: Dirk Nowitzki Retires
No player in NBA history has meant as much to their team as Dirk Nowitzki meant to the Dallas Mavericks. He’s the only person in the league’s history to play 21 seasons with a single team, after all. The big German defined the team for more than two decades, spending much of his tenure as an all-star, bringing home a championship, and generally being one of the lovelier human beings to ever stride onto a basketball court.
In April, after months (years, even!) of speculation, Nowitzki announced that the 2019 NBA season would be his last. His final months became a farewell tour, with even opposing teams pausing to acknowledge his lasting contributions to the game and the class with which he played his 21 seasons. He played his final game in San Antonio, against a team that he had faced off against countless times over his career—and even fans who had spent decades rooting against him had no choice but to stan. The post-Nowitzki Mavs are off to a good start for the 2019-2020 season—Luka Doncic, who’s seamlessly slid into the “face of the franchise” role at just 20 years old—and nobody appears to be a bigger fan than the man whose name now adorns the street outside the arena.
May: Art Briles Returns to Coaching
After his 2016 dismissal, following the Baylor sexual assault scandal, Art Briles was a radioactive presence in coaching circles. He’d been considered for assistant jobs in the Canadian Football League and in college football, before ending up in an amateur league in Italy. But in May—as its students were preparing to celebrate their graduation ceremony—the tiny Texas town of Mount Vernon announced that Briles would be the head coach of its high school football team in 2019 and 2020.
The move was immediately controversial—both in and outside of the town—though the town seemed to rally around Briles after his team got off to a hot start. That quickly faded after two players, who had moved to Mount Vernon after Briles was hired, were ruled ineligible. (UIL rules prevents students from moving to a district for athletics reasons, and the two players—brothers whose uncle was a former Baylor player and a volunteer coach alongside Briles—were found to have done so.) Mount Vernon ultimately lost in the first round of the playoffs, an earlier exit than in the previous seasons. Briles—who had told reporters that he’d be happy to have conversations about coaching at a higher level in the future—has thus far only been connected to one FBS head coaching vacancy (FCS school Lamar University in Beaumont acknowledged that his name had “briefly” come up in a meeting), when UTSA athletics director Lisa Campos singled him out as a coach that the school wouldn’t be considering. “It’s easy to cross off Art Briles,” she said, citing the scandal at Baylor that led Briles from the heights of NCAA Division I glory to 3A high school football in East Texas.
June: Kawhi Wins Another Championship—in Toronto
The 2014 San Antonio Spurs were one of the more charming teams to root for in recent NBA history—and a big part of that had to due with responsibilities passing from the old guard (Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker) to the new, in the form of finals MVP Kawhi Leonard. Of course, it wouldn’t last. Though Leonard was named Defensive Player of the Year, an NBA All-Star, and an All-NBA First Team selection across several seasons, his relationships in San Antonio soured, and by the summer of 2018, he sought a trade—which he ultimately received, to the Toronto Raptors.
Leonard was still Leonard in Toronto, though, a fact that led to a whole lot of conflicted feelings among the people who came to love him as a Spur. He led the team to a championship, earned his second finals MVP honors, and then bailed on his new team (it had always known that he was on board for just a year, and the team got all the mileage they could ever hope for out of him). Now, Kawhi Leonard is both a two-time champ and a Los Angeles Clipper, the Spurs are off to their worst start in a generation, and none of it seems quite fair in San Antonio.
July: The Rockets Trade for Russell Westbrook
With the NBA increasingly becoming an arms race between teams boasting a handful of bona fide superstars and teams that do not, the Houston Rockets were left to play catch-up—and they did just that over the summer, by trading for longtime Oklahoma City Thunder star Russell Westbrook.
Pairing Westbrook with incumbent team leader James Harden always looked like a big ol’ question mark—whether the mercurial point guard would mesh well with Harden, who is also something of a ball hog, made it a potentially disastrous pairing. Two months into the experiment, it’s still pretty up in the air—the duo has finally begun to work together, after a start to the season in which the team was statistically worse whenever Westbrook was on the court. Still, when it comes to splashy trades for potential high-impact stars, the Houston Rockets definitely went for it in July.
August: The Texans Trade for Laremy Tunsil
Just before the start of the NFL season, the Houston Texans made a bizarre trade, swapping two first-round picks for a good—but not dominant—left tackle in Laremy Tunsil. The decision mortgaged the team’s future in ways that NFL front offices (those who expect to be around more than a year) rarely do. It also gave its most important player, DeShaun Watson, a fighting chance of staying alive throughout the course of a season where his biggest worry was always going to be pass protection. Even if it led to a Texans Super Bowl win, it would have been a questionable choice, given the hole it put the team in heading forward.
With the season almost over, the move remains dubious. Heading into week fourteen, the Texans are in first place in the AFC South, so on one level, it’s working—Watson, with time to make plays, is performing at an MVP caliber, while Tunsil leads the league in false start penalties and is one of five linemen responsible for protecting the passer. The Texans’ future is unwritten (though they’re not among the AFC elite at the moment), but given what they gave up to get him, the trade for Tunsil will definitely have an impact for Houston beyond whatever happens on the field this season.
September: Preseason College Football Rankings Wildly Off-Base
Heading into the 2019 NCAA football season, there were two strong buzz teams in Texas, and they were the ones you’d expect: Texas was back, baby! With a number ten ranking, the Longhorns were set up for a return to glory. Meanwhile, A&M and its $75 million man, head coach Jimbo Fisher, was nipping at its heels with a number twelve preseason rank. And then, uh, they actually had to play football.
By the end of the season, both teams were viable candidates not for a national championship but for the small potatoes Academy Sports and Outdoors Bowl, where cowardly officials wouldn’t even let them meet. Neither team is relevant to football right now—the Aggies are in fourth place in the SEC, and the Longhorns are tied for third in the Big 12, so there’s no real reason to believe either will be rising in the near future. Meanwhile, Baylor—after investing significant resources into maintaining top-tier athletics following the football program’s sexual assault scandal—succeeded in reestablishing itself on the gridiron, coming one overtime away from a likely playoff berth and settling on the Sugar Bowl as a consolation prize. Even long-troubled SMU, which finished the season 10-2 and was ranked for a stretch late in the season, delighted more fans than UT and A&M, despite the preseason hype. As for the Aggies and Longhorns, there’s always next year, or the year after that, to dream about.
October: Simone Biles Cements Herself as the Greatest of All Time
There are some athletes whose greatness is so indisputable, they have only two rivals: themselves and time. In 2019, Simone Biles overcame both with ease and grace.
There’s no longer any doubt that the Spring native is the greatest gymnast to ever live (in truth, there hasn’t been for a while). Now the questions we have to ask are more along the lines of “is Biles the greatest athlete to ever live?” Biles is on the short list with Serena Williams, Muhammad Ali, Jerry Rice, Michael Jordan, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Michael Phelps, and a handful of others. In October, Biles—who at 22 is already at an age when other gymnasts are eyeing retirement—took her fifth world all-around title, and did so with the highest-ever margin of victory under the current scoring system. And treating Biles as just a collection of stats ignores the beauty of her work, and her ability to innovate and push her body in ways that no one has ever done before. There’s so much to root for with her, and after the October she had, there’s an inescapable feeling heading into next year’s Olympics: As much as she’s already accomplished, she’s just getting started.
November: The Astros are Officially No Longer America’s Sweethearts
It was easy to root for the Astros, once. They were the scrappy underdogs from a championship-starved city, led by one of baseball’s most likable stars, earning their first World Series victory as the city they played was still in the midst of recovering from a devastating hurricane. Even heading into the 2019 season, having proved themselves one of the game’s dominant forces, it was still a blast to cheer for the Astros, waving their “Bring It Home” banners and determined to show that they were more than just a feel-good story riding a wave of emotion to a championship for their city.
Now, mentioning the Astros’ name inspires more groans than accolades. Their management made them almost impossible to root for them in the World Series, as they entered the championship amid a wave of belligerence and sexism, loudly shouting “fake news” at reports of an executive’s bizarre behavior—and whom the team supported until an 0-2 start to the series made it perhaps more expedient to fire him. Then, in November, it got worse. The Astros, we learned, weren’t just making despicable decisions about how to build their roster—they were also reportedly instructing scouts to steal signs, leading Major League Baseball to open a full-scale cheating investigation, fully transforming the Astros from lovable overachievers into a cautionary tale about what really might be going on when a team transforms itself into a winner so quickly.
December: Jason Garrett Loses the Cowboys
At press time, Jason Garrett is still the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys. He might keep that job for another few weeks, or even another year—Jerry Jones has proved himself to be fiercely loyal, despite pressure to move on from the underachieving head coach. But regardless of what Jerry does to right the ship on his six-win division leader, one thing is clear: the Cowboys’ players are no longer convinced that Jason Garrett is their leader, and they sure look like they’ve quit on the field.
Moving on from Garrett would be the biggest story for the Cowboys in years—bigger than Witten coming back, the emergence of Dak Prescott, or the retirement of Tony Romo—and choosing to keep him around, despite the team’s ongoing collapse, would probably be the biggest story too. The Cowboys have been many things throughout the years, but it’s rare that fans could call them quitters. Whatever his job title, the Cowboys aren’t behaving like a team that believes it has a qualified head coach, which means that—in some sense—they’ve already finally moved on.