What's this? No Texas college football team was even remotely in the fight for No. 1. The Dallas Cowboys, who hadn't gotten past the first round of the playoffs since the 1982 season, were giving the term America's Team an ironic ring. The Houston Oilers' uprising followed years of ineptitude. The Texas schoolboys were whipped by the Oklahoma schoolboys in the annual late-summer matchup called (of course) the Oil Bowl. What's going on here?
In Texas, football takes on a significance not found elsewhere. At least that has been the standard line for years. We have been told the game there goes beyond mere sport to headier spheres: it is a microcosm of society itself, maybe even a religion. Gridiron heroes are the stuff of Lone Star mythmaking, from Slingin' Sammy Baugh to Bobby Layne and from Doak Walker to Earl Campbell. Whole towns turn out for high school football games. For Texans, winning at football ranks right up there with defending chili without beans.
So how come Texas football has become so, well, mediocre during the mid-1980s? Jan Reid's Vain Glory (Shearer Publishing, 406 Post Oak Road, Fredericksburg, Texas 78624, $15.95) is not about the decline of Texas football per se (it's about "an American game," Reid writes in the preface. "The province of Texas offers an eccentric case study"), but it does offer some insights.
Reid looks at three levels of Texas football (high school, college and professional) with comforting evenhandedness. As one might anticipate, there are profiles of Darrell Royal, Bum Phillips, Roger Staubach, Campbell and everyone's favorite football eccentric (Texas or otherwise), Joe Don Looney. But Vain Glory also abounds in the unexpected. Consider what Royal has to say in his assessment of Meat on the Hoof, a blistering exposè of the Longhorn football program written in 1972 by Gary Shaw, a onetime University of Texas player: "I read that book. And I'd have to say that Gary mostly told the truth—as he experienced it.... But for Gary it was a powerful experience, and I think he was entirely truthful in ninety, maybe ninety-five percent of the book.... But there's not much in that book that wasn't true."
Reid, a former sportswriter for a small Texas newspaper who became a novelist and magazine journalist (much of Vain Glory is drawn from magazine pieces he has written over the past decade), makes many acute observations.
•On the sport of choice among Texas children of the 1980s: "In the warmth of the coffee shop, pretty children laughed and ran between tables in brightly colored shorts, numbered shirts, striped knee socks, and rubber-cleated shoes. The boys and girls—teammates—[were in town] to participate in a soccer tournament.... [Soccer] has caught on in this country in the best and most durable of places—the grass roots. Parks and recreation departments love soccer. It doesn't require expensive facilities and equipment, the risk of injury is slight, and kids of any size, gender, and athletic talent can play."
•On the mind-set of the alumni of the various Southwest Conference schools, out to procure winning teams at any cost: "As for the boosters, forget the dewy odes to diplomas on the walls. The spectacle [on the field] was an elaborate parlor game, a Christmas toy befitting their gender and station in life. For all the bluster and rhetorical enmity, these were not the sort of people who got into fistfights in bars. They were family men and civic leaders. Their opponents were business associates and members of the same churches and country clubs. Wind those boys up and watch 'em run. What the hell. It's only money."
Soccer instead of football, kids making choices different from those their parents made; alums willing to spend their schools into the NCAA's "death penalty"—these are a couple of reasons why football is not the same as it once was in the Lone Star State. But, as much as anything, Texas football players and coaches seem to be victims of their own successes. In the telling segment about Royal, Reid quotes the former Longhorn coach on the burden of winning:
"I don't miss those days much at all. I didn't realize how much pressure I was under or how tight I was wound, until after I quit. People talk about how hard it is to climb that ladder. Let me tell you, it ain't no easy task to stay up there when everybody's shootin' at your ass. My coattails were flapping all the time. I was fidgeting and moving and didn't even realize it. I used to say I wished I had a pill that contained all the necessary vitamins and nutrients, so I wouldn't have to slow down and eat. I was serious at the time. I used to think everybody gagged when they brushed their teeth. And that's in July! It's sho' hard to get by in October and November. Listen here. I don't gag no more."
Anyone who remembers the photograph of Royal bent over with the dry heaves following the 1976 Oklahoma-Texas meeting in the Cotton Bowl (a 6-6 tie) must wonder if the struggle for glory was indeed in vain.
W.K. Stratton is a free-lance writer and a reporter for the Ponca City (Okla.) News.