Bitter Texas-Texas A&M rivalry prepares for a sudden ending
With Texas A&M going to SEC, Aggies and Texas play for final time Thursday
Texas once considered school for elite, while A&M was a farming institution
"I'm bitter," said McLemore. "How do you kiss off 100-plus years of history?"
The week before Thanksgiving, in 1999, the Texas A&M Aggies and the Texas Longhorns bonded in a way that they had never done before and never could again. Twelve sons and daughters of A&M had died in the collapse of the 59-foot-high Bonfire, a hands-on Aggies tradition in which students had been participating annually since 1909.
The visible sympathy of the Texas players and students had been a healing touch. In Austin, thousands gathered on campus for a candlelight ceremony; the Tower chimes rang out in tribute, and the band played The Spirit of Aggieland.
Before the game in College Station, 12 white doves were released and circled Kyle Field before flying away, and four F-16 jets, piloted by A&M graduates, did a flyover in the missing-man formation. At halftime, the Longhorn band played Amazing Grace, and the game ended the only way dramatic license could allow, with a 20-16 Aggies' upset of a Texas team that would win the Big 12 South. The result wasn't sealed until the final 23 seconds, when linebacker Brian Gamble swept up a Texas fumble. Then, in front of the A&M sideline, he fell to his knees, raised both arms and pointed to the heavens.
In more than a century -- Texas and A&M first played in 1894 -- the rivalry did not always rise to this level of life-and-death emotion, although on a football scale the teams surely tried. Now here we are, a dozen years later, bracing for the last encounter in the state's oldest and most storied football series. A&M is bound for the SEC next fall, its defection a response to Texas's iron-fist ruling of Big 12 politics and the school's landing a $300 million deal from ESPN to launch the Longhorn Network. Where to place the blame -- Longhorn greed or Aggie envy -- hardly matters. But what the game has meant to the fans of the schools and to the public passions matters greatly.
Texas will remain in the Big 12, for now, counting its blessings -- and its money. A&M athletic director Bill Byrne wants to continue the series in nonconference play, but his counterpart at Texas, DeLoss Dodds, has told Byrne, thanks but no thanks; the Longhorns' schedule is full through at least 2018.
Across the Lone Star State, reactions have been angry, sad, disappointed, even dumbfounded. "I'm bitter," says Ivy McLemore, former sports editor of The Houston Post. "It's all about money. How do you kiss off 100-plus years of all that history?"
Most Texas exes have stayed true to their school, but admit to being disturbed. "You can't explain this rivalry, you have to experience it," says former Longhorns running back Chris Gilbert, a College Football Hall of Famer. "But I'm like anyone else. I can't imagine Thanksgiving Day without the game."
To the purists among us, and those fluent in Latin, it is tempting to ask, "Et tu, UT?" And the same can be said, of course, for the Aggies. When they fled hand-in-hand to the Big 12 in the mid 1990s, the state's football addicts gave those programs their devotion, their hearts and their coin, buying bobbleheads and replica jerseys. They wished them packed stadiums and television dollars that fell like raindrops upon their heads. They wished them happy trails. They accept the reality that this is sports in the 21st century. It looks suspiciously like Big Business. They feel betrayed. Frank Merriwell doesn't live here anymore.
For one last time, those who attended neither school will be drawn into the drama on this Thanksgiving doomsday. Ranked No. 8 in the preseason, A&M has been a bust in its farewell tour of the Big 12. The 6-5 Aggies have emerged as the best five-loss team in America. They blew double-digit leads in the second half to Oklahoma State, Arkansas and Missouri. They outscored Oklahoma, except for giving up 28 straight points in the third quarter. They fell in four overtimes to Kansas State, 53-50.
Meanwhile, Texas is 6-4 after consecutive losses to Missouri and Kansas State. On Thanksgiving there will be little at stake in terms of national importance, and yet there will be everything at stake: the right of one to lord it over the other. The shelf life of these bragging rights used to be one year. Now the winner of the last one can gloat forever.
You marvel that the vendetta has retained its intensity, given that Texas has won twice as often over the years (75-37-5.) As early as the 1950s, A&M coach Paul "Bear" Bryant was asked why the 'Horns had been so dominant, and without hesitation he replied, "Texas hates us more than we hate them."
The Bonfire tragedy tempered that animosity, but the teams and their faithful have continued to bleed for a win and feel diminished by defeat. Some of the insanity disappeared when Texas put together long stretches of wins, and those shootouts against Arkansas took on a higher meaning. And there was always Oklahoma. The Aggies only had eyes for Texas.