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The End of the Trail?

A season of Cowboys woes and Longhorns lows has rocked Texas football

How seriously do Texans take the sport of football? Well, football isn't exactly a sport in Texas, it's a reason to exist. I knew a junior college coach who posted a version of John Heisman's celebrated quote on the wall above his desk: GENTLEMEN, IT IS BETTER TO HAVE DIED A BABY THAN TO FUMBLE THIS FOOTBALL.

Texans recognize three seasons—football, spring football and deer. It is therefore understandable that folks in the Lone Star State are in shock that deep into 2010 their two iconic teams, which were both expected to contend for titles this year—the Cowboys (2--7) and the Longhorns (4--6)—are not just losing but are also becoming the butt of national jokes. Last week Jay Leno cracked in an opening monologue, "You know why they call it Turkey Day? That's the day the Dallas Cowboys play." Oh, dear. Will the apocalypse wait until after Christmas?

The Longhorns haven't had a sub-.500 year since 1997. It used to be that a losing season around here was when the team was 6--4. And the Cowboys have suffered only a handful of losing years since the team came of age in the 1960s. In 1989, the year Jerry Jones bought the club, it went 1--15. But there has seldom been a season when both Texas teams went quite so belly-up.

Heads are already rolling in Dallas. After watching his team get thrashed 45--7 by the Packers on Nov. 7, Jones fired coach Wade Phillips and named offensive coordinator Jason Garrett as interim replacement. (A win on Sunday over the Giants followed, providing at least temporary respite.) Meanwhile in Austin, while coach Mack Brown's job is secure, some Texas fans showed up for last Saturday's game against Oklahoma State wearing ski masks or sacks over their heads, shamed that a program that went 13--1 in 2009, played in the BCS title game and was expected to contend again could have stumbled so badly.

"The season has been like an eclipse," Longhorns fan John Beckworth tells me as we push through the mob at the pregame tailgate, maybe one third the size of ones in normal years. "I can't believe this is really happening." Beckworth and his wife, Laura, have driven from Houston to join their friends and my neighbors Rob and Molly Kohler for the pregame festivities. The Kohlers have invited me to accompany them and their three sons in a cherished family tradition: a stroll through the tailgate party to Band Hall, where a few members of a university honor group called the Texas Cowboys stand guard over Big Bertha, one of the world's largest bass drums.

In an ordinary season Rob Kohler wouldn't have time for any game-day chitchat; he would be too busy putting on his game face. But here are the Longhorns, flat as a dead armadillo on Interstate 35, and it's all Kohler can do to hold his head high. "The first sign of adversity," he says, his voice tight with shame, "all this team can do is worry about where they're going to party tonight." (That night I will make a point to drive through the parking lot at the Broken Spoke, where I'll count nearly a dozen Longhorns bumper stickers. Who knows if any are the property of actual players. But Texas got blistered by Oklahoma State 33--16 for its fourth straight loss, and those guys must be drowning their sorrows somewhere.)

Everyone at the tailgate has a theory or pet superstition to explain the plight of this Texas team, even those in Oklahoma State colors, who clearly aren't sure they can fully trust that Texas really is this far down. "I'll tell you a story," says Bubba Mitchell, wiping his hands on an orange napkin. "One time down in South Texas these guys are bird hunting when one of them spots an eight-foot rattlesnake and blows him in half. Well, their dogs proceed to eat the snake and, guess what, three of the dogs end up in the hospital. What I'm saying, Texas is that rattlesnake. They may be cut in two, but they're still a rattlesnake."

As many fans—and almost all the sportswriters—who follow the Cowboys have testified, the central problem with America's Team is Jones. "The Cowboys are going nowhere near another Super Bowl ... as long as Jerry the Owner keeps Jerry the G.M. as his football guru," Randy Galloway wrote in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

Jones insists that he is the perfect general manager because he doesn't have to worry about job security, which frees him to take the risks necessary for winning results. "It's not a bad rationale except for the fact that it simply hasn't worked that way," observes Tim Cowlishaw of The Dallas Morning News.

Some fans have compared Jones with George Steinbrenner, another hardheaded type who for years couldn't stop meddling. But Steinbrenner did stop, in the mid-1990s, after which his Yankees won five World Series. "I don't believe Jerry Jones has [that] in him," one blogger wrote. "With Steinbrenner, it was always about winning. With Jerry, it's about, well ... Jerry Jones."

Back in Austin, an hour before game time, the Kohlers reach Band Hall. A crowd of students and band members clusters about the drum, seemingly wary, as though some villain might run off with it. We walk to the drum, and I touch it with the back of my hand. It is firm and unyielding. "This is it," Rob tells me, his eyes sparkling in the fading light. "This is what I come for."

Gary Cartwright retired in August after 37 years as a writer for Texas Monthly.

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Texas's iconic teams are not just losing—they're becoming THE BUTT OF NATIONAL JOKES.