From the apex of the Texas Star, the tallest Ferris wheel in North
America, the Cotton Bowl looks like a big ashtray. So commanding
is the view from 212 feet above the Texas State Fairgrounds, so
card-table flat the surrounding countryside, you can almost see
into Arkansas. ¬∂ That wasn't necessary last Saturday, however, if
you happened to be sharing a mesh-enclosed compartment with Judy
Randall of Van Buren, Ark., who'd just gotten off the phone with
a friend back home. "Zero-zero in the second quarter," she
reported during the second of our four rotations on the Ferris
wheel--a solid value, we agreed, for eleven 50-cent coupons. She
was referring to the score of the Auburn-Arkansas game, unfolding
back in Fayetteville as we spoke. It was still a couple of hours
before kickoff at the 98th Red River Shootout, between top-ranked
Oklahoma and No. 11 Texas. "It's going to be hard to root for
Texas," said Judy's daughter, Sandy, who was riding with us, "but
we need OU to lose a game." ¬∂ It turned out to be a tough
afternoon for the Randalls but a wild, wonderful weekend for
college football. Ten teams in the Top 25 faced each other; and
six unbeatens--Minnesota, Nebraska, LSU, Florida State, Judy's
Razorbacks and defending national champion Ohio State--went down.
Unfortunately for those first-time losers, the college football
season does not work like a Ferris wheel. What goes down does not
necessarily come back up.
We all knew going in that this would be a transforming weekend.
But who was ready for what Oklahoma did at the fairgrounds, the
neutral-site backdrop to the Red River Shootout since 1929? By
the time the game was 34 seconds old, the Sooners were up 7-nil
on a Renaldo Works score. That was set up by a 30-yard
interception return by Derrick Strait, a senior who has shone for
four straight years against the Longhorns and whose hometown is
Austin, an added pinch of salt in the wound. While it lacked the
drama of Miami's 22-14 upset of Florida State (box, page 46) or
of Ohio State's choke job (literally) against Wisconsin (box,
page 48), Oklahoma's 65-13 embarrassment of the Longhorns was the
day's most revealing result. Right now the Sooners are playing at
a different level from even the best of the rest.
What else did we learn on Revelation Saturday? While Miami might
be less physically talented this season than last, the Hurricanes
are mentally just as tough, maybe more so. They're also excellent
mudders. We learned that Auburn (a 10-3 winner over the
Razorbacks) actually deserved some of those preseason hosannas,
that a team like Florida (which beat LSU 19-7) can discover its
heart after a players-only meeting, that Nebraska (a 41-24 loser
to Missouri) was overrated and that Notre Dame, if possible, was
underrated (the Irish topped Pitt 20-14). We learned that you
cannot stop Matt Schabert, you can only hope to contain him.
Schabert was the unknown understudy of Jim Sorgi, the Wisconsin
quarterback rendered mute by an after-the-whistle, under-the-pile
throat massage from Ohio State linebacker Robert Reynolds. Forced
into the game in the third quarter of a nail-biter without so
much as a warmup throw, Schabert will now go down in Badgers
annals as the hero of one of the most stirring victories in
Wisconsin's history. It is Reynolds's fate to grow old wondering
if the Buckeyes would have been better off with Sorgi in the
October 19, 2003
Wisconsin's win in particular, and Saturday's games in general,
provided multiple reminders of why college football is so much
more captivating than the brand played on Sundays. How could a
team that lost to UNLV a month ago knock off the defending
Because that sort of thing happens all the time in college
football. Washington State loses to Notre Dame, which is
dismantled by Michigan, which is dominated by Oregon, which is
handed its worst home defeat in a quarter century by ...
Washington State. Keen though they are to affect the mannerisms
of the pros, the guys playing on Saturdays (and Tuesdays,
Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays) are still 18-to-23-year-old
amateurs prone to homesickness, lovesickness and brain cramps.
Sooners coach Bob Stoops says that the "incredible passion" of
college fans, combined with the fact that "the players are still
young, still learning," results in "a kind of purity in the
college game." While there was a decided absence of purity in the
choke hold that knocked Sorgi out, Stoops is right. Because of
the parity brought about by scholarship limits, college football
has never been less predictable, or more fun. Its
unruliness--even its arcane formula for determining which two
teams will play in the BCS title game, which is understood only
by Stephen Hawking, Jeff Sagarin and a handful of other
eggheads--adds to its charm.
Is the Cotton Bowl a moldering concrete pit begging for the
wrecking ball? That's fair to say. But I'd rather watch a game
there than in any of the corporate-sponsored behemoths blighting
the NFL landscape. The people running college football understand
that they don't need NFL-type bells and whistles: instant replay,
radios in helmets, coaches with red "review" flags. They don't
need to kick off their season with a concert featuring Britney
Spears or some superannuated '70s band. College football trusts
the product it is selling: high drama. Unlike in the NBA, NHL,
NFL or major league baseball, there are immediate, permanent
consequences for defeat in college football. This isn't the NFL,
in which you lose six games and still have a solid shot at a
wild-card spot. In college if you lose once you might still be
able to play for the national title. Lose twice, you're out.
In college football the stakes are high on opening day. The
postseason is now. "That's what makes the regular season so
special," says Tennessee coach Phil Fulmer. "Every week in this
country a playoff is going on." In their de facto playoff at
Neyland Stadium last Saturday, the Volunteers spit the bit
against Georgia after Bulldogs safety Sean Jones took a fumble 92
yards for a touchdown on the final play of the first half, a
14-point swing from which Tennessee couldn't recover. The only
other team to collapse as completely was Texas, which like
Tennessee now finds both the national championship and its
conference title out of reach.
During their respective postgame inquisitions by the media, both
Fulmer and Longhorns coach Mack Brown apologized to their team's
followers. Smart men. Another difference between the college game
and almost every other major sport is the rabidity and depth of
the fans' passion. You don't want these people turning on you.
Walking the Midway after I got off the Ferris wheel, I saw a
Sooners fan pushing a wheelchair bearing an elderly gentleman.
The oldster sported an Oklahoma cap and seemed to be enjoying the
fair, until a muscle-bound Texas rooter leaned over and shouted
in his face, "OU sucks!"
You can't blame Longhorns fans for being inhospitable. Their team
has dropped four in a row to Oklahoma, and the Sooners' dominance
is now extending to other areas--namely recruiting. Oklahoma has
an oral commitment from Rhett Bomar of Grand Prairie, Texas, the
top high school quarterback in the Lone Star State. This after
the Sooners went into Killeen, Texas, three years ago and signed
defensive tackle Tommie Harris, arguably the best high school
player in the state that year. "You lose this game once or even
twice in a row, you can live with it," says Tim Lashar, a native
of Plano, Texas, who kicked for the Sooners in the mid-'80s. "You
start losing three, four, five times in a row, guys are gonna
start going up north. That's what happened to me."
Having attached a little OU flag to his car before driving to the
fairgrounds on Saturday morning, Lashar and his wife pulled up
beside a carload of Texas sorority girls, who cheerfully flipped
them off. It's a tough crowd. Not that the Oklahoma faithful are
any less cutting. One woman on the Midway wore a crimson T-shirt
bearing the legend YOU CAN'T SPELL SLUT WITHOUT UT.
No sport does tradition like college football. Upon toppling the
uprights on their home field after their team's upset of Nebraska
on Saturday--Missouri's first win over the Cornhuskers since
1978--Mizzou students bore one of the uprights to a Columbia
watering hole called Harpo's because ... because that's what they
do in Columbia after a huge win.
College football tradition is the coaches at Hawaii wearing leis
on the sideline, the Iowa band making the rounds of public houses
in downtown Iowa City on Saturday nights, standing on countertops
and tables and playing the school fight song or, say, an
off-color version of Michigan's. It's "War Eagle!" and "Roll
Tide!" It's the Volunteer Navy, a flotilla of boats up to 90 feet
long that dock on the Tennessee River, a mile or so from Neyland
Stadium. It's a set of rites and customs so disparate that they
could not be contained, you would think, by a single sport.
The Texas-Oklahoma game transcends tradition. It is American
history overlaid on an athletic contest, a game that's been
played for a century, an outlet for marrow-deep passions and
ancient grudges. But it is still 60 minutes of football, and in
keeping with a more recent tradition at the Red River Shootout,
the Sooners beat the snot out of the Longhorns. In the wreckage
of the most lopsided loss in Brown's six-year tenure in Austin,
Texas fans glimpsed the player who may lead them out of this
desert. Redshirt freshman quarterback Vince Young was, at times,
electrifying, spinning and hip-faking his way through the
Oklahoma defense for serious chunks of yardage. For every big
play Young broke, however, the Sooners had 10. The Cotton Bowl
was a stereo system with one speaker out of whack: The orange
half as quiet as, well, Jim Sorgi; the crimson half pumped up to 11.
The few moments of success the Longhorns enjoyed were
short-lived. When Texas scored its second touchdown, Dusty Mangum
missed the extra point. Standing not far away, Bevo the Longhorn
defecated immediately and prodigiously. While it might have been
a coincidence, the beast might also have been communicating his
displeasure with his fellow Horns.
In the game's final minutes I spoke to the steer's handler,
Justin Moers, an accounting major who cleans up after his charge
with a shovel. He'd slipped earlier and gotten a bit of Bevo's
ordure on his pants leg. "That's about how my day is going," said
"We're seniors," added Janaan Lorimer, who was standing nearby,
"and we're 0 and 4 against Oklahoma." I did what I could to cheer
them up, reminding them that keepers of an animal mascot are
stewards of yet another cool college football tradition.
The outcome of Oklahoma-Texas having long since been decided, my
thoughts turned to the Badgers. Starting around 3:30 p.m. I'd
begun to receive voice mails from a Wisconsin alum who felt
compelled to update me.
"T minus about four hours and 45 minutes until we shock the
world," said the oddly familiar voice.
"Just got off the golf course, now it's time to put on some red
and white, head down to Camp Randall and get some bratwurst and
cheese curds with a little ranch dip. On Wisconsin!"
"Forty-five minutes till we kick their ass. You went to the wrong
By then I had figured out who the caller was. David Finnane is
the staid, responsible assistant principal at the Northern
California elementary school my children attend. I vaguely
remember his telling me that he intended to blow off Octoberfest,
an annual school fund-raiser (at which he's always a popular
target in the dunk tank) in order to be in Madison for this game.
He phoned twice during the game, and it wasn't to talk about,
say, the advantages of class looping. My man was out of his mind.
It was riveting, watching the broadcast, seeing Schabert casually
drop back and float a gorgeous spiral to wide receiver Lee
Evans--who'd burned superb Buckeyes cornerback Chris Gamble on a
sideline-and-up route--for the touchdown that ended Ohio State's
19-game winning streak. It was equally fascinating to bear
long-distance witness to the devolution of this pillar of the
community into a baying, wild-eyed hominid. In his final call,
placed just after the clock ran down to zeros, assistant
principal Finnane shouted at me, "DO YOU LOVE IT?" repeating the
question a half-dozen times.
Since you hung up before I could answer, David--you were storming
the field, no doubt--I'm telling you now: Of course I loved it.
If you're a college football fan, you had to love Oct. 11.
More college coverage, including a photo gallery from the week,