By Susan Elizabeth Shepard
AUSTIN, Texas -- If I had to put my finger on the moment Mack Brown irreversibly lost the support of Texas fans, it might have been in the middle of the third quarter of Saturday's loss to Ole Miss. Or it might have been Nov. 29, 2011, when NickSaban-TexasFootball.com was registered. Or maybe Sept. 2, when WeWereTexas.com started selling the elevation training masks that sideline reporters demonstrated at the BYU game alongside burnt orange "Fire Everyone" buttons. Or maybe it was when I saw the first paper-bag-wearing fan walking across the Erwin Center grounds on Saturday. No matter, there's no turning back now. Texas fans are so anxious to see Coach Brown dispatched that the sentiment rolled upwards and rumors of athletic director DeLoss Dodds' retirement began to spread last week. Screw it -- UT president Bill Powers should step down, too. Possibly the entire Board of Regents alongside him; after all, many of them were appointed by Governor Rick Perry, an Aggie, who clearly has no interest in improving UT's football futures.
Texas lost to Ole Miss in fairly predictable fashion. I knew it was going to happen, I was saying before the game while I hit tailgates and the alumni center, because for the last three years, Longhorns losses have come in pairs, save for once. It's as if the team becomes depressed and, once beaten, loses its collective self-esteem. This was an extra-special pair of losses, too. Not since John Mackovic's penultimate season, when the Longhorns lost to ranked Notre Dame and Virginia teams back-to-back, had Texas dropped two consecutive nonconference games. Four seasons after the last happy time in Texas football fandom, the part of the 2010 BCS National Championship Game before Colt McCoy was injured, Texas fans are done with Brown. So now we know exactly how much time an appearance in a title game buys you at Texas. And the clock's ticking not just on fan support for Brown, but also for interest in the team in general. As much as college football is supposed to be about tradition, and supporting your team no matter what, enthusiasm at UT is highly contingent on winning.
The assumption by fans that they should be seeing a spectacularly high caliber of football every week is hardly unique to Longhorns fans, but their entitlement comes nested within Texas exceptionalism and Austin exceptionalism, like attitudinal matryoshka dolls. We should be special because we're special, in other words. And if this football isn't special, by God, the fans will make some noise. It might be with their feet, while leaving the game early. (Full disclosure, in case it wasn't clear already, I'm a Texas grad myself.)
When Mack Brown came to Texas he told the fans, "Come early. Be loud. Stay late. Wear orange." It's a slogan that, like "We're Texas," seems to come from the annals of the obvious. Showing up, wearing the school colors and cheering for them seems like it would be default fan behavior, no?
No. Texas rooter Chip Bundick straight up called out his fellow fans on Saturday: "They put 100,000 people in that stadium and it's like a mausoleum, it's so quiet in there," he said. "The students are great. I sit on the alumni side and we're just quiet, old, lame. We just are."
Local attorney (and former UT fundraiser) Jenner Gorn is a University of Florida fan, and expressed continued surprise after 18 years in Austin at some of the Texas fan behaviors she saw. "I never sat at the University of Florida in the stands. Everyone stands. It doesn't matter how young, how old. And when I started working here and had to go to games professionally, I was shocked that people sat through the game or would leave at halftime, even if we were losing. I never understood that. I don't understand why you would leave a game, ever." What, not even down 37-23 in the third after having allowed 23 unanswered points?
While anyone watching Saturday's game in person or on television could see the stands emptying after the half, there were still plenty of people in them, and the hardcore, the tailgaters who are there for every home game, had plenty of passion for the team, taking it almost personally what was happening to the Longhorns. Over at the Texas Inebriated Tailgaters Society ("it's a coincidental acronym," I was told), Kurt Bradley ('03) said, "We should be a Top 10 -- if not a BCS contender -- every season, and if we don't do that, there's something wrong." I brought up that last month, Dodds told alumni mag The Alcalde, "In athletics, you go through cycles. And at Texas, it's different than at other places when cyclical means you stay pretty close to the top. Fans are not cyclical. Fans want to be at the top all the time." Bradley responded, "We are not allowed to have cycles of up and down years."
I asked Bradley to tell me some programs that came to mind when he thought of places that didn't have up and down years. "You think of teams like Bama, LSU, Oregon. USC has slacked off a little bit this year, but there are some bigger programs out there that get recruits every season, are always in the Top 10, always end up competing down the stretch." Everyone has cycles, in other words, except for the teams at the top right now. Alabama went from 1992 to 2009 without a national championship, LSU from 1958 to 2003, USC from 1978 to 2003, Oregon has never won one. All of those schools have faced NCAA sanctions regarding activities during their successful years, but what you think about that depends on your feelings about the legitimacy of the NCAA.
Bradley's fellow tailgaters cheered as Alabama scored on Texas A&M, a game that most, but not all fans were keeping an eye on. Over at Steve Chase's party, at the Horn Bus, they weren't watching because that took away from the social aspect of the tailgate, Chase told me. "I don't come here for Mack Brown, I come here because our friends come here to be together," he said. Chase had traveled to Provo the previous weekend to see the BYU game. "Last week was the first time ever that I've been coming to games -- and I mean I have sat through some bad ones -- that I didn't stay all the way to the end. It was just so bad. Just. So. Bad." He's part of the camp that thinks meaningful change involves a new athletic director.
"I think DeLoss is at the point in time where structurally this is the right time. He's got three programs that are the moneymakers that aren't where they need to be and the last thing we need is for him to make the hires for those programs." But Chase went on to tell me a story about how, when he had a problem with stadium police blocking his view toward the end of games, he snapped a photo of the offending law enforcement presence and emailed it to the AD, who responded immediately. "The next week, I show up to my seats, we get down to the three-and-a-half minute mark -- no police show up," he said. "And everybody I know has got a story like that about DeLoss if they've ever needed it. He's been phenomenal. Look what he's done for the program. I just think it's that time."
One thing Gorn told me earlier stuck in my head. "A lot of Texas fans are fans of Texas, not fans of football. So if you're sitting in the stadium with them or you're watching a game, they're not really paying attention, except if Texas is doing really well. And I heard a friend of mine say recently that Texas fans are terrible when they're winning, they're good when they've won."
And when they're losing? As I walked out of the stadium, a proud dad stood on the sidewalk next to the alumni center keeping an eye on three boys. Two were playing catch and the third, maybe 5 years old, was leisurely watering the bushes as Dad stood by on the sidewalk. "You almost done, buddy?" They were wearing orange, at least.
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Susan Elizabeth Shepard is a writer in Austin. She is also a fourth-generation University of Texas graduate.