I enrolled at the University of Texas in the fall of 2002. It was a golden era of Longhorn sports; the football team was consistently contending for titles as the Mack Brown Machine was up and running, the basketball team was on the verge of a top seed and Final Four run, and the baseball team was coming off a national championship.
Purely from a sports perspective, there has arguably never been a better year to be a freshman. By the time four years had passed, I had witnessed Texas go to three more College World Series in a row, bringing home another title in 2005. I had traveled to the Superdome to watch the Longhorns in the Final Four--a spectacular experience even if Brandon Mouton did somehow forget how to make a free throw and Gerry McNamara forgot how to miss a three pointer. And I had attended two Rose Bowls which Texas had won in classic fashion. The fact that I started in 2002 is the only reason I was able to go to the USC game; the only students requesting tickets who actually got them were seniors, and guess whose senior year it was?*
*Jeff will point out that I had foolishly graduated in three years, and it was in fact his status as a senior that got us a pair of tickets to the game. In exchange for giving me the ticket at face value he demanded the right to name my first born son Vincent Paul Young Jeffrey Asher Orlansky. My son's name is not that, for the record.
Those were heady days to be a Longhorn, and I appreciate them even more as I watch my two first cousins have a fantastic student experience at UT, but not one that involves the kind of sports success I enjoyed. Those were also the days in which my hate for OU was forged.
Like other out-of-staters, I had to be indoctrinated into the Texas culture upon arrival. One thing that was made clear early on was that the Oklahoma and A&M rivalries were very different beasts. Losing to A&M was completely unacceptable in any circumstances, like allowing your little brother to beat you in one-on-one. It's going to happen every now and then, but the sheer annoyance of hearing about it for the next year makes you want to win that one every time just to shut them up.
Oklahoma, though? That's not annoyance or disdain you feel. That's sports hate. Maybe a little sports anger, exacerbated in the early 2000s by--if we're being honest--a hint of jealousy. Mack had brought Texas to the forefront of college football, but standing between the Longhorns and the very top of the mountain was a program with an equally great coach, equally great players, an even more impressive tradition of winning, and a psychological edge over us every year in the Cotton Bowl. We knew to expect 10-2 seasons, and we knew one of the "2" was going to be OU.
The Sooners also happened to be a basketball power at the same time as the TJ Ford/Mouton/James Thomas/Royal Ivey glory days in Austin, making the rivalry intense for the entirety of the school year. Every ounce of success experienced in Norman was something I took as a personal affront, and I think my classmates largely felt the same way. My only experience rushing a field or court came after beating Oklahoma for the first time in eight basketball games in 2003. I found myself standing next to Brian Boddicker, who was hugging and high fiving all his fellow students and all he could think to say was: "OU, baby! That's OU!"
It was a pure, fun, and wonderful sports hate. And I don't feel it today. Don't get me wrong; if you told me Texas could only win one game this year, I would still go with Oklahoma every day of the week. But the Sooners' loss to TCU last week, which a decade ago would have filled me with utter glee, provoked a shrug and perhaps even a shred of empathy this time. What's happened to me?
It's possible I've matured some, but that's almost certainly not the case. Rather, I think the relationship between the two athletic departments has changed. Part of that is on the field, obviously--when you spend your time worrying about how your program is going to resuscitate itself, you're less worried about what other people are doing. Anxiety about Texas' place in the world takes up some of the brain space that used to be reserved for OU sports hate.
But I think there's also a part of me that has legitimately developed a modicum of--dare I say it--respect for the Sooners. I'm as happy as ever to call them a bunch of cheating land thieves, and to wonder aloud why on earth any football player from Texas would ever choose Norman over Austin. But in the upheaval college football has experienced over the last few years, wherein Texas was being demonized as an excuse for Nebraska, Missouri, and especially A&M to leave the conference, our most "hated" rival has stood by us.
The Aggie and Husker version of events surrounding the Longhorn Network (wherein Texas bullied its way to media dominance, forcing them to leave the conference) and our own version (wherein we attempted several times to get the rest of the conference to see the future and start a Big 12 Network, then attempted to get the Aggies to join us in the Lone Star Network, then finally went it alone when everyone else lacked vision) are well known. And while the Ags and Huskers were using Texas' perceived "bullying" as an excuse for making their own money grabs from the SEC and Big Ten, respectively, Oklahoma could have blown the conference up by insisting on a move as well.
Texas was and is a powerful brand in college sports, but it's not powerful enough on its own to hold an entire league together. The fact that OU and Texas have presented a united front is what kept the league together. And I know there is some sentiment among the fan base that perhaps keeping the league together wasn't the best thing for Texas; while I respectfully disagree, I think it's also important that the fall of the conference would have meant the end of major college sports for the likes of Iowa State, Kansas State, TCU, and very possibly Baylor, Kansas, and Tech. It would, in other words, have weakened the state of Texas as a college sports entity.
More importantly, whether you believe Texas was standing for the right policy or the wrong one, Oklahoma stood for it with us. I'll now admit to getting a little joy from Bob Stoops' new habit of sending unprovoked verbal barbs toward the SEC every few weeks or so. And I will more readily admit to being thrilled with his dismantling of Alabama in the Sugar Bowl last January.
The relationship with the Aggies has always been one of disdain, while the relationship with the Sooners has always been more complex. There's some level of grudging respect for their long tradition of on-field quality, but it never before came with even an ounce of respect for the institution off the field. So I acknowledge this is a new phenomenon. And maybe it's just me. OU still sucks, but it's more complicated than it used to be, is all I'm saying.
Please don't hurt me.