On October 13, 2012, at approximately 12:30 PM central time, an image of Mack Brown appeared on the television screen. Squinting into his notebook looking for answers in a 36-2 game, Brown appeared in that instant befuddled, defeated, and lost. Longhorn fans, students, and alumni felt their heart harden by at least ten percent as they watched.
For the last few years, darkness and bad feelings had been creeping around the Texas Longhorns, lurking, moving slowly at first -- but this was the inflection point. This was the point when the pace picked up, furiously racing off. Where anger at the powers that be took over, and where fans everywhere briefly shook their fists at the sky, before acquiescing; you must always acquiesce, as no one can stay angry at the machine forever.
This was the point when cynicism prepared to overpower disappointment.
How does one become a cynic? Cynicism is a defense mechanism; a way of separating ourselves from reality and a way to preserve our sanity and dignity. By detaching ourselves from the bitterness of life, rather than accepting it, we become a jaded and cool.
Cynicism is taught to us by life as we age. We start off young and hopeful. Life will be good to us, and things will work out. As we age, we learn that is not always true. Things don't always work out. Often times, these things seem hopelessly beyond our control; we learn that we simply cannot control everything.
When these failures are small, we can shrug and move on. But when they are big, it isn't so easy. We start out angry, but we cannot stay that way forever. Eventually, anger transforms to something else. For some, for people who are better at life than me, it is possible to eventually grow to accept these failures. For the rest of us, the best we can do is calm resignation. We build a shell of cynicism to protect us for the very real setbacks and failures -- particularly for those that we cannot hope to influence or prevent. All we can control is ourselves, and how we respond.
The beauty of being a sports fan is that under most circumstances, it is largely unspoiled by this sort of cynicism. We get an escape from it for four hours on Saturdays in the fall. And we like this escape, so many of us find that more and more of our free time becomes devoted to it. When the games aren't on, we find ourselves still reading about them, watching highlights and replays, commenting on message boards. This quickly turns into a weird obsession, almost an addiction.
There are so many reasons why we seek this refuge, but one is that sports fandom dispenses the powerful narcotic that we call hope. Hope keeps us going, it sustains us as fans. And when the hope is gone, something must be done.
Standing in the hot Austin sun, I felt as if I was melting. I was a college junior on September 13, 1997, a day that would become a major pivot point for Texas football. But I couldn't feel the pivoting while standing on the seat acquired with my $60 per semester sports pass, as the sweat poured down my face. All I felt was a strong urge to take a shower.
On the field, UCLA was throttling the Texas Longhorns. Up in the stands, people were mad.
In the broiling hot student section, on the east side of the stadium with the afternoon sun burning down, sarcastic chants of "Marty Cherry" started some time in the second quarter. I soon left the stadium and walked back to the dorm, sunburned and defeated.
Hope for the season had been flushed away in under two hours. This would be a bad football team. Something would have to be done about it.
Soon after, we received the quickest shot of our shared drug that a fanbase can get. Mack Brown arrived on campus, and ushered in a new era of hope. While replacing a coach may or may not work out, and it never washes away the problems as quickly as you would like, it at least revives hope for the future. It pushes disappointment back into our everyday lives, and out of the fantasy realm of our sports team.
15 falls later, the hope was again starting to fade. The sight of Mack Brown on the high definition TV that did not exist a decade and a half earlier caused Longhorn fans to simmer with 2.1 megapixels per frame rage. The failure in Dallas, happening yet again, was difficult to take. Something would have to be done about it.
But nothing was. The powers that be, more distant now, did not hear the anger. They shut it out. They stayed the course. This was the latest insult to a fanbase that had grown tired of its own interests running a distant third behind the interests of the Texas football power brokers and straight cash money. Bitterness and anger were now shifting into cool detachment. Texas Longhorns football was transformed into Longhorns, Inc. Saturdays were becoming like the rest of the week.
And so here we sit, at the start of a new season, in the midst of the new era of cynicism. On paper, the Texas Longhorns appear promising; there is reason to be hopeful. But it is hard. It is hard to push out the cynicism and reattach. It is hard to engage with a team that broadcasts two of its first three games on a network almost no one can see. And it is hard to yet again embrace Mack Brown.
And yet, the season is going to start. It is going to happen. Will we remain cool and detached? Will we remain cynical and hard-hearted? Or will we engage?
We will have to figure out what we are going to do.