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Runnin' With The Big Dogs

by: Mike Shropshire

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Part of [beating Texas] is that old Okie inferiority complex. There’s no better cure for that than whipping Texas’s butt.
-Barry Switzer, former Oklahoma coach

In 1929 at the height of the Great Depression, the Texas-Oklahoma game was moved to Dallas to coincide with the State Fair of Texas. Back then, it was seen as merely one more attraction to bring people out. By the next year, the Cotton Bowl was built on the same site. That stadium has hosted the Texas-OU game ever since. Lying midway between the two schools, this annual spectacle attracts large crowds from both state schools.

Mike Shropshire gets the story dead on, right from the get go. After quickly giving a little modern context to Oklahoma and Texas’s current football success (both teams are in the top ten as this review is written in the fall of 2007), Shropshire chronicles the event surrounding the game as the Texas and Oklahoma faithful arrive for a weekend of glory or despair.  After all, it is the fans that make give this game meaning.

The storyline pretty much stays the same year after year.  Texas is usually wearing the white hat, seeming to always play the role of the favored. Oklahoma has the chip on its shoulder.  Over the decades of play in this annual rivalry, both teams have had runs of dominance.

Shropshire introduces us to the coaches that defined the game like Oklahoma's Bud Wilkinson, a man of decorum and class originally from Minnesota, as well as Darrell Royal, one of Wilkinson's QBs at Oklahoma who later ended up becoming one of Texas's most revered coaches. 

The colorful anti-Wilkinson, Barry Switzer, later leads Oklahoma on a long campaign of national title runs and NCAA violation scrapes.  (Shropshire also duly notes that Switzer was orginally from Arkansas another state whose biggest college team has cast a long shadow across college football in Texas.)  With Wilkinson coming from the north, Royal from Oklahoma, and Switzer from Arkansas, the whole context of the Texas-Oklahoma game has new meaning for that region of the country.  It's more than just a simple border war.

Beyond the coaches, there are several other hilarious player profiles from Joe Don Looney to Earl Campbell to Billy Sims to Marcus DuPree.  Some of the players made it to the NFL.   Some didn't.  Regardless, each is a legend in this rivalry. 

Sadly, the spirit of the whole series is in jeopardy. 

First, the old moniker for the game, the Red River Shootout, has been changed to "The Red River Rivalry" to make it more politically correct.  

Next, the Cotton Bowl venue, an aging facility, is in danger of losing the game.  The city of Dallas stepped up and agreed to renovate the stadium to keep it there until 2010, but one wonders how long beyond that.  As he notes, "Dallas developers fear and abhor history even more than they do trees because they haven't devised strategies to exploit and cash in on either."

The knowledge of this game's potential departure from the Cotton Bowl site gives a certain poignancy to Shropshire's book.   Referencing the idea that Texas and Oklahoma may move the game to a "home and home" format, he writes, "the impact and sense of loss will fall mostly on the Oklahomans, whose fire and zeal provide the catalyst that makes the annual Dallas collison so visceral, so genuine."

Glittz vs. Grit.  That about sums it up.

- Jim Markel   

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