When Clemson’s DeShaun Watson threw that two-yard touchdown pass with just a single second left in last year’s college football championship, there was much rejoicing among Tigers fans, and also among college football fans. For one thing, Alabama didn’t win. For another, Alabama didn’t win. But more important, it was the best national championship finish since Vince Young’s dash into the Rose Bowl end zone against USC.
But as I watched the unburnt orange post-game celebration from Austin, something else occurred to me: I had now personally seen this school from South Carolina that I probably couldn’t find on a map win more national championships than the University of Texas.
To be clear, UT has four all-time versus Clemson’s two, the Tigers’ other title having come in 1981. But I wasn’t alive when Darrell K. Royal won the Horns’ first championship, in 1963. I also have no toddler memories of either 1969 (when President Nixon pre-awarded the national championship to the winner of the “Game of the Century” against Arkansas) or 1970 (when Texas shared the title with Nebraska).
“Football is about winning. And at UT that means national championships,” Texas Monthly’s John Spong wrote in a column about Charlie Strong last year. But is that really true, when there’s been only one national championship in 47 years? That’s not referring just to UT but to every major college football program in the state. Along with UT’s four, TCU, SMU and Texas A&M have four between them… all during the FDR administration.
College football is a different game—and business—these days. When it comes to branding, nobody can beat Burnt Orange or Maroon. But when the ball is snapped, Texas, Texas A&M and the state’s other teams are no better or worse than any other region’s schools (and, ahem, UT and A&M are worse than Maryland and UCLA).
Texas exceptionalism is our birthright. Everything is better in Texas, not just bigger. We’ve got the best barbecue. The best tacos. The best music. Dr Pepper. Whataburger. Beyonce. The superiority of these things is a matter of opinion, and our opinion is correct.
But Texas college football? That’s harder to defend. Even in a sport that’s never been too good about resolving the question of which team is the best in any given year, the scoreboard and the record book deliver cold hard truth. And the truth is that the state’s college football self-image and accompanying high expectations and sense of entitlement have long been at odds with its achievements.
So much of what makes Texas football great is history—Davey O’Brien, the Junction Boys, Earl Campbell, the Triplets. The dominance of Darrell Royal at Texas is a relic of a bygone era—the time of all-white rosters, the Southwest Conference, and a college football universe that was both smaller and more regional, without ESPN or mega-televison contracts. By the ‘80s, Florida had bypassed Texas (and every other state) as the center of the college football universe. Miami, Florida and Florida State had zero national championships between them, ever, during Royal’s time as a UT’s coach, but 11 between 1983 and 2013.
Thanks to Royal, Mack Brown and its success in the ‘40s and ‘50s, UT has won the third-most games in college football history, with the eighth-best winning percentage. The university’s four national championships are the eighth-most of any school in the nation, which puts UT ahead of Florida and Florida State (three each) but tied with Minnesota (another FDR-era power, though the Golden Gophers also won in 1960). Alabama, of course, is first with ten, followed by Notre Dame, with eight, and Oklahoma, seven.
So: There is no doubt UT is one of the five or ten premier teams in college football history, which is impressive. But is it exceptional? Would we let anyone outside of Texas get away with calling Whataburger the fifth-best fast food chain in the country? Is Willie just the third-best country singer? Is it okay to be behind Oklahoma in anything?
The problem with Texas exceptionalism, the corollary to Texas being the best place in the world, is that it also means we need not ever leave Texas. This reality is reflected in everything from those old Pace Picante commercials to our politicians’ feelings about California. We don’t actually have to go and eat whole-hog barbecue in North Carolina, because we’ve got brisket, thanks. Why visit Robert’s Western Wear in Nashville when we’ve already got Gruene Hall? With college football, though, this sort of parochialism isn’t an option. The very nature of modern college football runs counter to exceptionalism. For all the regional rivalries and conferences, it’s a national game. Texas players go all over, and players from all over come to Texas. And when it comes to the actual games, you have to go to other places, and people have to come to you, and in the end, if you’re good enough, you settle everything on a neutral site.
The reality is, for all their money, marketing, recruiting chops and fan passion, neither the University of Texas nor Texas A&M has been elite in our lifetime. Even the BCS-winning Horns (as every Mack-basher and Oklahoma fan can tell you) spent next to no time as the Big 12’s dominant team. And can you truly be a college football paragon when your coach has to tell you to come early and stay late? Then came the Longhorn Network and realignment, which instead of being the powerhouse of DeLoss Dodds’ dreams, made the Big 12 small and weak (which was good for Baylor and TCU, until they got left out of the 2014 playoff).
Meanwhile, A&M’s move to the SEC has been a financial win (A&M now boasts the highest-revenue athletic program in the land, with UT at number two, according to USA Today), and the Aggies have also defied those who predicted that, having spent so many years as the third or fourth or fifth-best team in the Big 12, they’d be a disaster in the SEC. Instead they are the third or fourth or fifth-best team in the SEC.
The high points for Texas college football since UT won it all in 2006 have been:
- a television network that even UT’s football coaches don’t seem to love;
- a transcendent but troubled Aggie Heisman winner;
- a Baptist school that used to be known for losing football games and prudishness becoming known for winning football games and sexual assault.
Not that this is really new. The golden age of the SWC included those all-white teams, six of nine schools on probation, and Texas A&M regents making Jackie Sherrill not just the highest paid college football coach in history but the highest-paid public university employee ever. That is just normal now. If there’s one area where Texas is the most important place in college football, it’s the money. And bigger isn’t always better.
Of course, college football is cyclical. Even Alabama was terrible (and coached by Dennis Franchione) not that long ago. Tom Herman has a pretty good chance of bringing UT back (with Charlie Strong’s recruits), if a less good chance of consistently making UT fans happy. It’s already been written that Herman is going to fix UT’s culture of entitlement, which Charlie Strong was also supposed to fix.
But coaches can only fix the players. What of the fan bases, or, especially, the mega-boosters and regents, many of whom are no calmer than the average online message-board poster? The exceptionalism of Texas college football fans directly contributes to the lack of success by fostering instability in the athletic department, insane expectations and misplaced priorities.
Texas fans’ tunnel vision and their expectations defy the more reasonable (but no less ambitious) mindset of most elite football schools, where you just want to have a good program overall and maybe every five or ten years you get a title if things break right. As the losingest coach in UT history, Charlie Strong was doomed, but he could have just as easily lost his job after a few nine-win seasons. Nick Saban and Urban Meyer are the exceptions who prove the rule. So the question is, does the right coach at UT do what Saban and Meyer did? Maybe, but probably not. And that should be ok, except it won’t be. It’s no different at A&M, where regent Tony Buzbee went on Facebook Sunday night to call for Kevin Sumlin’s head.
As any Cowboys fans can tell you, a team is only as good as its owner. And in college football, the owners are us.