SB Nation

Peter Bean & Cody Cheek | March 4, 2013

The Road Less Traveled

Ryan Clark's Epic Journey With Texas Basketball

Ryan Clark has attended every single college basketball game played by his favorite team for seven straight seasons. But he isn't a fan of Kentucky, Kansas or UCLA... Ryan Clark is a fan of the Texas Longhorns. This is his story.

By Peter Bean and Cody Cheek

"Somewhere along the way, my reasons for doing this changed. I’ve just found that I love the open road, and I love writing about college basketball. If I could afford it or even get paid a peasant’s wage to do it, I’d be on the road from November to March."

-- Ryan Clark

On March 12, 2006, the Texas Longhorns played the Kansas Jayhawks in the championship game of the Big 12 Basketball Tournament. At the time, Texas athletics were on top of the collegiate world. J. Brent Cox and the baseball team had won the 2005 College World Series, and six months later Vince Young and the football team won the 2006 BCS National Championship.

The stage was set for the basketball team. Heading into their final game before the NCAA Tournament, the Longhorns were poised to make a run at history: if they could manage six wins to cut down the nets in Indianapolis, the University of Texas would become the first school in NCAA history to win consecutive titles in baseball, football, and basketball.

Alas, it wasn't meant to be. Texas lost the conference championship game to Kansas and fell in overtime of the Elite Eight to LSU, as Lamarcus Aldridge was outplayed by Glen "Big Baby" Davis, who turned in a monster line of 26 points and 9 boards, knocking Texas out three wins shy of back-to-back-to-back national championships. As heartbreaking as the loss was, Texas fans' spirits remained sky high overall, looking forward to winning additional championships in the three big sports soon.

We're still waiting. Texas has come close on several occasions, but in each bid for another national championship the Longhorns have fallen short. And following a string of disappointing seasons, the mood among the Texas faithful is as pessimistic as it was excited seven years ago, with a sizable portion of the fan base ready to make a change and replace Mack Brown, Rick Barnes, or both. Throw in resentment fueled by Longhorn Network inaccessibility, various scandals, and a growing perception that Bellmont lacks accountability and the picture is not an especially pretty one across the Forty Acres. The basketball game against Kansas on March 12, 2006 feels like a long time ago.

It was a long time ago; in the seven years since, Texas football and baseball have played 78 and 374 games, respectively, while the basketball team has competed in almost 250.

Amazingly, one Longhorns fan has been at every single one of those 250 basketball games.

Origins of a Crazy Idea

Ryan Clark is a 29 year-old bookkeeper and Austin native who graduated from UT in 2007. He's been a passionate Longhorns hoops fan for as long as he can remember, but it was in college when his interest developed into something much more than that.

"I grew up watching the Runnin’ Horns and got wrapped up in March Madness every year, but I completely fell in love with college basketball on my very first road trip," Ryan explains. "I was in Gallagher-Iba Arena my sophomore year on the night that Oklahoma State clinched a Big 12 title in 2004. The electricity and excitement that overtakes a college gym, filled to capacity and at a fever pitch... that fan experience is unlike anything else in sports."

From there, what followed was in many ways inevitable. "I wanted to experience that feeling over and over, across the country, and try my best to pass it along to other fans who wouldn't get that same opportunity. And so I came up with the idea that I would follow the Texas basketball team to every single game for an entire season, and write about it all on a blog."

Arrangements were quickly made for an incredible UT hoops journey: one season, more than 30 games, and 15 road trips, all to be chronicled by Ryan at his new online home, Longhorn Road Trip.

Seven Years Later...

Seven years and 249 games later, Ryan Clark is still on that same journey.

Every year, there seemed to be another reason to keep the streak going.

"Longhorn Road Trip started six years ago as a crazy idea to attend every game for one season," Ryan recollects. "But every year, there seemed to be another reason to keep it going. The unbalanced Big 12 schedule meant I didn’t travel to Hilton Coliseum, Mizzou Arena, or Bramlage Coliseum during that first year, so doing a second season almost seemed required. Then the 2009 Maui Invitational and the goal of attending 100 consecutive games drew me back in for a third season, while Season Four presented a chance for me to have attended every game during the college careers of Damion James, Justin Mason, and Dexter Pittman, from start to finish. Road games in Greensboro, East Lansing, and L.A. made Season Five appealing, and the quest for 200 consecutive games meant there was no way I was missing a sixth year of trips."

Yes, you read that correctly. When Texas hosts Baylor tonight, Ryan will be attending his 250th straight UT basketball game. His streak even includes exhibition games against Lenoir-Rhyne and Xavier (twice). No, not that Xavier. This Xavier. During his streak, Ryan has attended UT basketball games in 23 different states, including New York, New Jersey, North Carolina, Washington, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Arizona, and Hawaii.

"I wanted to experience it over and over across the country..."

Ryan’s streak has produced a wealth of fascinating facts and stories, some of the best of which owing to the fact that Ryan attempted the first season of the streak as a UT student. Most college students struggle to make it from their apartment to campus two times a week, let alone coordinate back-to-back road trips to Stillwater and College Station in a four-day span. Ryan managed to pull it off, although not without some close calls, like the time in December 2007 when he attended his graduation ceremonies in the early afternoon and then drove the three hours straight to the Toyota Center in downtown Houston, arriving just in time for Texas' evening tip against the Rice Owls. Not Kentucky. Not Kansas. Not Duke. Rice.

As Ryan joked in a previous interview with BON, "I ran inside and watched the first four minutes of the game from a random section because I didn't want to miss any of the hard-hitting, high-flying action that typifies Rice Owl basketball."

Ryan says that the most common question he gets about his streak is the obvious one: how in the hell does he manage to do it?

It’s a good question. In order to maintain his Longhorn Road Trip for each of the past seven seasons, from November through March Ryan constantly has to juggle the busy basketball schedule, long hours of travel on I-35, his full-time job as a bookkeeper, and the time required to produce his outstanding in-depth game previews and recaps. Not that he does it without a little bit of help.

"I use caffeine," Ryan laughs when asked how he pulls it off. "I used to drink two or three Monsters a day, and I’ve had suitcases under my eyes the last seven years. I actually managed to kick the Monster habit this season, but I’ve just replaced it with diet sodas. There’s no way to stretch myself this much without the caffeine."

Ryan Clark is not the only Texas fan to attend a long string of consecutive games. There are lots of great stories about super-fans who attend every UT football game -- the legendary Frank Denius didn't miss a UT football game between 1949 and 2008, which is truly remarkable. With that said, attending a streak of basketball games requires a much larger and more intense level of commitment. Instead of 12 games in a season (all conveniently scheduled on Saturdays), a college basketball season contains over 30 games, many of which are scheduled on weekdays. Additionally, instead of a single bowl game announced three to five weeks before kick off, the March Madness bracket is revealed only a four days before the first game tips off.

All told, the time, energy, and effort required to attend every basketball game in a single season is extraordinarily daunting, and that's before considering the monetary costs, which are substantial. Attending every game across two consecutive seasons would be a monumental achievement. Three seasons would be heroic. Seven seasons is Longhorn Road Trip.

Let that sink in a minute.

Equally amazing is the fact that Longhorn Road Trip has expanded beyond UT games as Ryan has ventured onto the road to take in other venues and games in which Texas is not even a participant. In Season Two, for instance, Ryan turned a road trip to watch Texas play Michigan State into a week-long sojourn with additional stops at Belmont and Illinois. In Season Four, he flew to Oregon to see one of the final contests at the historic McArthur Court. (See sidebar, at right.) Last season, Ryan used UT’s road games against Missouri and Kansas State as an opportunity to drive to see games at Indiana State and Marquette.

When Cody asked about these extra trips, Ryan captured the entire essence of what makes Longhorn Road Trip such a special, beautiful endeavor.

"Somewhere along the way, my reasons for doing this changed. I’ve just found that I love the open road, and I love writing about college basketball. If I could afford it or even get paid a peasant’s wage to do it, I’d be on the road from November to March."

Road Tripping with Ryan

Both of the authors of this article have had had the pleasure of taking in UT road games with Ryan. Most recently, PB sat in the bleachers of the Lahaina Civic Center with Ryan and his lovely fiance to watch Texas drop games to Chaminade and USC before closing out with a win over Mississippi State. We all agreed -- and Ryan confirmed from firsthand experience -- that if you're going to watch your favorite team play bad basketball, there could be absolutely no better place to be than Maui. It's hard to get too worked up about a loss when you step out of the gym into paradise.

Cody has actually traveled with Ryan on several road trips to watch Texas basketball games, and observed that throughout each trip, Ryan remains constantly energized -- fueled by his excitement about the upcoming match up and never seeming to slow down, even when logging over 350 miles between rest stops. Traveling with Ryan is a great experience for many reasons, not the least of which is the absolute treasure trove of anecdotes and stories he has accumulated over seven years of trips. A question as simple as ranking the best road environments during his streak generates a fascinating thirty minute education from one of only a handful of people who can provide a similarly in depth analysis. (And unlike the others, Ryan is the only one who actually pays his own way to every game.)

During his trip with Ryan to Greensboro, Cody asked about the best feeling Ryan has ever had driving home from a road trip. "Was it after the Paulino shot?" Cody suggested, but Ryan reminded him that Texas wound up losing a heartbreaker in overtime to LSU before he drove home. After thinking for a while, probably about each crushing tournament loss (is there any other kind?), Ryan finally said that his favorite had to be when we knocked off UCLA at Pauley Pavilion.

Cody nodded, satisfied with the answer, but before he could say anything, Ryan added, "You know what? The more I think about it, the best feeling I've ever had after one of these road trips might have been driving home from Texas' triple overtime loss in Stillwater in January 2007. The night when Durant took on Mario Boggan. We wound up falling just short, but the entire drive home I kept thinking, 'That was some amazing f*cking basketball.'"

January 16, 2007: OSU 105, Texas 103, 3 OT

It can be easy to miss the forest for the trees with a consecutive game streak like Ryan's. And not without reason: 250 consecutive games is an amazing, thoroughly fascinating feat.

Throughout the duration of his streak, however, Ryan has remained focused on the basketball. Instead of attempting guerrilla-style marketing, pranking opposing fans, or using The Stare of the Gator, Ryan's course was simple and pure: he wanted to go to UT basketball games and write about them.

And the operative word here is games -- a point that BON co-founder Andrew Wiggins captured perfectly a year ago in a comment to a post Cody wrote about Ryan's streak:

I'm blown away by Ryan Clark's passion for college basketball, his dedication to UT hoops, and his amazing ability to make it about the game and not about himself.

Above and beyond the streak itself and all that goes into it is the fact that when you go to 250 consecutive Texas basketball games, you're there when lightning strikes. As it did on January 16, 2007 in Stillwater, OK.

It was actually an ice storm that was blanketing the southwest, but the game that unfolded inside Gallagher-Iba arena was electrifying. Fans got their first hint that something special was brewing early in the second half, when Byron Eaton chased down an errant pass as the shot clock was about to expire and heaved in one of the most miraculous buzzer beaters you will ever see. And from that moment on, Texas and Oklahoma State engaged in one of the best, most dramatic, hardest fought back-and-forth battles imaginable.

It's still entertaining to read through the Burnt Orange Nation game thread, the cheers and devastation as fans peaked and crashed with each lead change. When it was finally over, as much as the pain of losing a classic battle like that, it was impossible for the fans in the game thread not to talk about what a thrilling treat it had been just to watch that game:

That game the rest of us felt privileged to have seen on TV? Ryan Clark was there. He heard the thud of each chest pound after Kevin Durant made yet another big bucket, and he not merely heard but felt the explosion of cheers when Boggan's game-winning three pointer went in. He was there, in the stands, right in the middle of it all. Many Texas fans will never forget watching that game. Ryan Clark will never forget living it.

The Best of the Rest

How amazing was that Oklahoma State game? So great that it topped a list of games that included a game-winning three-pointer at the buzzer to advance to the Elite Eight.

Yes, Ryan was there for the Paulino miracle, the fourth game in his streak, as well as all of these memorable games:

GAME #38: Big XII Tournament vs Baylor, March 9th, 2007

In one of the most impressive UT games from the last decade, Ryan watched Texas overcome a 20-point deficit against Baylor in the Big 12 Tournament thanks to Kevin Durant, who put on a second-half show for the ages. After missing his first 12 shots from the field, Durant scored 24 points in the second half, including an unfathomable 19 points in 7 minutes, while Craig Winder (Craigory!) played the role of shocking hero out of nowhere, scoring 8 points on 4-4 shooting in only 12 minutes.

GAME #50: Texas at UCLA, December 2nd, 2007

Facing a UCLA team led by future NBA stars Russell Westbrook, Kevin Love, and Darren Collison, Ryan watched the Longhorns pull off a dramatic upset victory over the top-ranked Bruins. The victory ended UCLA’s winning streak at Pauley Pavilion and represented a huge breakout game for Damion James, who scored 19 points and grabbed 10 rebounds. As Ryan wrote in his game recap, "This Texas team . . . took every punch that the Bruins threw in a brutal heavyweight fight and came back swinging. The Longhorns refused to let UCLA get further than four points ahead down the stretch, putting themselves in position for a game-winning Damion James dunk with only eight seconds left. This team not only weathered the storm; they came out on top for the first-ever road victory over a #1 team in school history."

GAME #107: OU vs Texas, February 21st, 2009

After losing 4 of their last 6 conference games, Texas played host to #2 Oklahoma and Blake Griffin, in desperate need of a big win. Led by a vintage shooting performance from AJ Abrams, Ryan and a rollicking crowd at the Erwin Center crowd watched the Longhorns knock off the Sooners.

GAME #169: Texas at Kansas, January 22nd, 2011

Facing second-ranked and undefeated Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse, the Longhorns scored an incredible 48 points over the final 16 minutes to end KU’s 69-game home winning streak. In Ryan’s game recap, he poetically wrote "Things were different in Allen Fieldhouse on Saturday afternoon. There was no ‘Rock, Chalk, Jayhawk.’ There was no waving of the wheat. There was simply stunned silence and a mass exodus that began with more than a minute left on the clock. The air was filled with a mix of confusion, dejection, and disgust. One of the things taken for granted in the Midwest, a certainty on par with the sun rising each day, was suddenly turned on its head. Kansas had finally lost at home."

"Kansas had finally lost at home."

GAME #200: Texas at Iowa State, January 4th, 2012

While each of the previous games in this list were significant wins, the 200th game of the Longhorn Road Trip streak was neither. Instead, Ryan traveled to Ames and watched the Longhorns stumble against the Iowa State Cyclones. In recapping the game, Ryan said "The old adage holds that the best thing about freshmen is that they eventually become sophomores. Fans of the Longhorns can surely identify with that statement after Texas dropped their conference opener to Iowa State last night in Ames. Texas was without the services of J’Covan Brown down the stretch, leaving the six-man freshman class and Clint Chapman in charge of a comeback bid that fell just short."

GAME #231: UNC at Texas, December 19th, 2012

In a miserable season filled with embarrassing losses and missed opportunities, Texas finally pulled it all together in a home victory over North Carolina. But any good vibes from the victory over the Tar Heels were short-lived. As Ryan explained, "On Wednesday night, Texas pulled off its biggest win of the season . . . as the final minutes of the victory ticked away, a Yahoo! report quickly spread through the sports world, breaking the news of a season-long suspension for sophomore point guard Myck Kabongo."

The last two games in this list say as much about the streak as do the exhilarating games anyone would want to have attended. As many exciting and entertaining games as Ryan has seen during his streak, the last two years have produced a number of dreadful performances. Texas' showing against Iowa State in Game #200 was pretty terrible. And this year has featured much worse, particularly in losses to Chaminade, Georgetown, Kansas State, and Kansas.

But it's these games--the ones where Texas loses its best player, shoots 2 for 20 from beyond the arc, and gets blown out--that exemplify the true labor of love involved with Ryan's 250-game streak. Because it's one thing to get fired up for a home tilt with the Jayhawks... And another thing entirely to travel a thousand miles to watch Texas play like crap in a loss to Iowa State.

That, Longhorns fans, is true dedication.

The End of an Era

Discussions of alumni involvement in UT Athletics almost always focus on two things: money and power. And not without reason.

However, over the course of his streak, Ryan Clark has given something to the UT basketball program unique and -- in many ways, more valuable -- than a blank check. He gave them his time. He gave them his attention. And, most importantly (and most uniquely), he gave them his loyalty. On a campus and community obsessed with football, Ryan chose to follow the road less traveled. And over the past seven seasons, he chose to follow it more than anyone else.

It's hard not to conclude that Ryan’s streak was never able to escape the trap outlined in the excellent SB Nation article about Eric Kelly and his boxing gym, in which Kelly warns us: "Don’t be a gimmick, be a brand."

Unfortunately, many if not most Texas fans who know of Ryan's streak (and perhaps even the UT Athletic Department itself) have merely viewed Ryan's streak as some sort of gimmick.

Nothing could be further from the truth. And you know that if you've ever spent ten minutes at Longhorn Road Trip. Ryan knows his stuff cold and consistently writes some of the best game previews around. How he finds time to stay on top of all the opponents Texas faces is a mystery, but the source of his energy is not: it's passion. Passion of the purest, deepest kind. And together those cut to the heart of what is so amazing about Ryan and his streak: he's a terrific basketball observer and writer, and he does it all out of nothing but pure love -- for the sport, and for UT.

When Ryan decided that Season Seven would be the last of the streak, he didn't expect this year to unravel as quickly and spectacularly as it actually did. No one did. But then again, the great thing is it wouldn't have made a difference; Ryan would have gone along for the ride, either way. The streak may be ending soon, but Ryan promises that this next chapter in his life will still involve writing about college basketball.

"No matter what, I plan to keep writing about college basketball. At this point, I just can’t imagine my life without that piece."

Tonight, when Baylor takes the floor against the Longhorns at the Erwin Center, it will be the 250th consecutive Texas game that Ryan Clark has attended. For Ryan, each of the seasons during the streak has been about the journey as much as the destination, but never more so than this seventh and final season. With the streak drawing to an end, Ryan has been seeking closure to his journey, while preparing to move on to the next chapter of his life, having found the one thing that could compete with his love for the road less traveled.... his fiancée.

To whom he became engaged -- where else? -- in Hawaii, prior to this year's Maui Invitational.

By Peter Bean and Cody Cheek
  • Design and Layout: PB
  • J'Covan Brown Photo Credit: Denny Medley, US Presswire
  • All Other Photos: courtesy Ryan Clark, Longhorn Road Trip

About the Author

Cody Cheek is a contributing author at Burnt Orange Nation and UT graduate who hails from a long line of Longhorns. Cody is proud to be an honorary member of the Texas Pom Squad.

Peter Bean is co-founder and editor of Burnt Orange Nation.