It was the morning of a critical Big 12 opener against TCU, and Texas officials had a problem.
“Aloe Blacc’s flight has been canceled,” senior associate athletic director Drew Martin remembers a colleague frantically saying. The artist you probably remember as the one doing all the vocal work on Avicii’s “Wake Me Up” was due in Austin early Saturday afternoon to play Longhorn City Limits, one of a series of gameday initiatives Martin and first-year athletic director Chris Del Conte cooked up to help make Texas fans actually excited to attend Texas games. Martin, who arrived only two months ago from TCU—where he worked alongside Del Conte for five years—didn’t panic. Instead, he remembered he works at Texas now.
“We have three police escorts,” Martin remembers saying. “One for Bevo. One for the team. One for the opponent. So let’s get a fourth. Get Aloe Blacc at the airport and blaze him to campus.”
He made it.
Aloe Blacc’s presence on what Texas officials call Bevo Blvd. didn’t help the Longhorns score a single point in their 31–16 win against the Horned Frogs on Saturday, but, along with several other changes Del Conte and Martin have made for this season, it did help create an atmosphere that has given Texas something it hasn’t had in years—an honest-to-goodness home field advantage.
Del Conte and Martin have reconfigured the seating to give Texas students a contiguous bloc of seats with the Texas band blasting from the middle. They have made that student seating first-come, first-serve to get those students in the stadium and yelling. They have cut down on ads on the video boards and forbidden on-field, thanks-for-writing-that-big-check presentations if those presentations bring down the energy level in the stadium. The newcomers are trying to remind Texas fans that football games are supposed to be fun. And it just so happens that for the past two Saturdays, the team has given fans a reason to keep partying in the stands.
I used to call the Darrell K Royal–Texas Memorial Stadium crowd the quietest 100,000 people in America. Texas games in recent years felt more like golf tournaments—and not the U.S. Open or the one in Phoenix that’s sponsored by the garbage company. The gameday atmosphere was stuck in the 1980s, and the fans seemed as bored by the presentation as they did by the lackluster play on the field. Plus, Longhorns fans seemed to have a stuffiness about them that rivals often mocked. They acted as if all the yelling those Aggies did in College Station was terribly gauche. “I think they held themselves to a different standard, which is not necessarily bad,” says former Texas A&M employee Martin of Texas fans. “But they never really embraced the fact that your home field advantage is your weapon. Use it.”
People who have attended the Longhorns’ 37–14 win against USC on Sept. 15 and Saturday’s win against TCU have said the difference in the vibe is shocking. The energy feels more like a game at LSU or at Penn State. Here’s one attendee’s take. “Wow, was that really cool to see our students and our fans?” Texas coach Tom Herman said. “That was for two straight weeks and hats off to Chris Del Conte and Drew Martin for this new and improved gameday atmosphere. Our players really, really feed off that. And I can tell you this, when you go sing ‘The Eyes of Texas’ after a win against a Top 25 opponent in front of a student section that's as packed and as loud as that, that's special. That is a special, special feeling.”
So what did Texas do differently? Just about everything.
The Bevo Blvd. project on San Jacinto Boulevard was designed to get fans out to campus earlier. Auburn fans don’t need to be trained to show up early and party. They’ve done it for generations. Texas fans needed a push, and Martin figured the best way to attract Austinites was with two things Austinites have proven their love for time and again: food trucks and live music. Vendors charge happy hour prices for craft beer. Advertisers are allowed to set up in the area, but their engagements must add value. “When we activate, the onus falls on them to create an experience for the fan,” Martin says. “It can’t just be where you walk up and grab a coupon.” Texas officials also got permission from the company that stages Austin City Limits to call their concert series Longhorn City Limits. Texas-based Reckless Kelly headlined the show before the USC game. Aloe Blacc was there Saturday. Texas hasn’t announced who will play the remaining three home games, but Pat Green had better play one of them.
Inside the stadium, the change in vibe begins in the student section. Texas controversially displaced some season-ticket holders to create a contiguous student section, but officials considered this a critical element. (Texas sought the advice of consultant Guido D’Elia, the man responsible for creating the gameday atmosphere at Penn State, which is home to one of the nation’s great student sections.)
Martin and Del Conte eliminated a lottery-based student ticketing system that gave students assigned seats in favor of a first-come, best-served approach. “It’s like the difference between having a flight on Southwest Airlines versus a flight on United,” Martin says, referencing the Lone Star State-based airline that famously does not assign seats. “If you’re flying Southwest, you’re going to get your butt to the airport early.”
Texas has also tried to change the experience once the game begins. No longer will the Longhorns score a touchdown, fire their cannon and then pause to honor a big donor on the field. “The place wants to go nuts. But we say, ‘Hang on. Be quiet for a second while we present a game ball to the president of a company.’ It just sucks the air out of the stadium,” Martin says. “We need to keep the hype going.” Martin also has asked PA announcer Bob Cole to change his approach as well. “Talk like a fan would talk,” Martin says. “We need less news anchor and more buddy sitting in the seat next to you.”
Soundtrack matters, too. Martin wants something he compares to “the best wedding reception you’ve ever been to.” “The DJ is playing the current music that the young couple and the bridesmaids and groomsmen know,” Martin says, “but he also plays ‘Twist and Shout’.” Martin says the best gameday environments strike a balance between the current hip-hop hits the students and players want and the power ballads the donors want. He made sure the person who controls the music during the game sits outside. That way, it’s easier to discern when to play a singalong like Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ On A Prayer” or something new by Kendrick Lamar. Or, when it’s the start of the fourth quarter and your team is up eight but needs a stop, perhaps it’s time to play something by DMX from the Golden Age of Bangers that is guaranteed to get every booty shaking.
“Let them keep partying all the way until the next snap,” Martin says.
If Texas fans and players can recreate their performances from the past two weekends, they’ll be partying up all the way through “The Eyes of Texas”.
A Random Ranking
I spent a few minutes on my radio show (Playbook, 1-4 p.m. ET Monday-Friday on SiriusXM Channel 84) last week explaining to co-host Jason Horowitz why he’s a sucker for ordering iceberg wedge salads. Think about it this way. It’s half a head of lettuce with so little nutritional value that your veterinarian would tell you it’s unfit to feed to a turtle. Then that lettuce is then drenched with roughly one bottle of bleu cheese dressing. For this, people pay $12. Those people are suckers.
These are the top 10 salads. (Generally speaking, of course. None of these is unique to a specific restaurant. The best of those is the Fuji Apple Chicken Salad from Panera Bread.) Obviously, feel free to add bacon to any of these if the recipe doesn’t already call for it.
1. The grilled Caesar*
2. The Italian chopped salad
3. The Greek salad
4. The Cobb salad
5. The regular Caesar salad
6. The spinach and strawberry salad
7. The chef salad
8. The classic garden side salad
9. The taco salad
10. The broccoli salad
*I’m not referring to a grilled chicken Caesar, though you certainly could add grilled chicken to this one. I’m talking about when a steakhouse takes half a head of Romaine and kisses it to the grill before coating it—but not drowning it—in Caesar dressing.
1. Alabama (4–0)
Last week: 1
Last game: Beat Texas A&M, 45–23
Next game: vs. Louisiana
Those seeking a weakness in the Crimson Tide can take (very little) solace in the fact that Alabama didn’t cover this week’s insane 26-point spread against a ranked opponent. But yes, the Tide did win by 22, and Tua Tagovailoa completed 22 of 30 passes for 387 yards and four touchdowns.
2. Ohio State (4–0)
Last week: 2
Last game: Beat Tulane, 49–6
Next game: at Penn State
The biggest drama on the day Urban Meyer returned to the sideline for the Buckeyes was a (quickly denied by the athletic director) story that Ohio State was contemplating designating Ryan Day as Meyer’s successor with a coach-in-waiting agreement. Most of the interesting stuff should happen on the field this week, though. Ohio State’s def