J. Brady McCollough
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Sunday, August 26, 2007

Upping the ante

Emotions surrounding the Texas-Oklahoma rivalry have spilled into the stands, literally, in a facilities arms race between the powers.

By J. BRADY McCOLLOUGH and BLAIR KERKHOFF

The Kansas City Star


MARIETTA, Okla. | You canít see the Red River from here, but you can feel it.

 

At Robertsonís Ham, a barbecue sandwich joint off Interstate 35, more than half the cars in the parking lot have Texas license plates. The Oklahomans in this border town like to say that the Texans just canít wait to get over the river. But they know thatís not true.

 

The Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex is ballooning northward. The last burg before you cross the river, Gainesville, Texas, feels more like a suburb of Dallas now than its own town. The residents in southern Oklahoma hope they arenít next, but to some, itís already happened.

 

"We live in Greater North Texas," says Barbara Sessions, a Marietta resident and proud Okie. "Thatís what it is. Texas is moving our way."

 

The Texans are taking advantage of Oklahomaís cheaper real estate and taxes. Theyíre taking Oklahomaís jobs. At the Winstar Casino, just over the Oklahoma border, the majority of the work force is from Texas.

 

But there is still one weekend a year when Oklahoma likes its chances. Itís the annual football rivalry that unfolds at the Texas State Fair, where Oklahoma and Texas stand as equals, all the way down to the number of tickets sold.

 

"Itís a matter of what you choose to compete in," says Don Sessions, Barbaraís husband and a fellow Oklahoma grad. "Oklahoma is never going to have the population of Texas. Weíre never going to have the number of big cities theyíve got. But we choose to compete in college sports. In things that we compete in, we donít bow to anybody."

 

Sessionsí spirit is palpable. Itís the same feeling that sent a group of Oklahoma regents over the border and down to Austin a few years earlier. Like the border folk, the regents couldnít help looking over the river and seeing something better.

 

After all, the game of big-time college athletics had changed. It was no longer going to be enough to simply beat Texas at the Cotton Bowl. They had to match them in dollars and luxury suites and stadium expansions.

 

"Weíve had a lot of wins over Texas," says former Oklahoma regent Mary Jane Noble, "but we still havenít caught up with them."

 

Noble made that trip to Austin. Texas officials, including athletic director DeLoss Dodds, showed them around the improved Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium. She remembers being "horrified" by how far behind Oklahoma was.

 

"The locker rooms were beautiful," Noble says. "They were oak lockers with a Longhorn cut out of the thing. The seats were padded with Longhorn material."

 

How could lilí Okie ever keep up with Texas in this new game?

 

***

 

Oklahoma, the state, has always been playing catch-up. This year marks the centennial for Oklahoma, which became the 46th state in the union in 1907.

 

Barbara Sessionsí mother came to Oklahoma in 1913 from Kiev, Russia.

 

"Weíre one of the youngest states," Sessions says. "We have a lot to cover in 100 years."

 

There were roadblocks as Oklahoma tried to forge an identity. The Depression, and around the same time, the Dust Bowl devastated Oklahomaís farmers and sharecroppers.

 

Legendary Texas coach Darrell Royal grew up in Hollis, Okla., during the Dust Bowl.

 

"I remember my dad used to go down and wait in line to get a job with the WPA, one of Rooseveltís projects," Royal recalls. "Heíd come back dejected that he didnít get on that day for 10 cents an hour."

 

When the dust storms rolled through town, Royal slept with a wet washrag over his face so he could breathe. Eventually, Royal and his father left Oklahoma for California. John Steinbeckís "The Grapes of Wrath," the tale of Oklahoman Tom Joadís voyage westward with his family to escape the Dust Bowl, was Royalís reality.

 

"It was just a long line of Okies going out there," Royal says.

 

Oklahoma was known as a place where dreams died. But after World War II, the state began to carve out a new image, one tinged with Sooner colors. School president George Cross and regent Lloyd Noble decided they would put the soldiers coming back from overseas to work wearing crimson and cream on fall Saturdays.

 

"Noble said the university needs to do something to help the state gain some pride back," Don Sessions says, as if from memory. "There was a conscious decision there to build a powerhouse."

 

Oklahoma hired Jim Tatum as coach in 1946, but he left for Maryland after one season. Top assistant Bud Wilkinson took over that day.

 

Royal, back from his duty overseas, enrolled at Oklahoma to play quarterback and defensive back in 1946. He didnít lead the Sooners to a national championship, but a year after he graduated, Oklahoma won its first title in 1950. In a few short years, Wilkinson had changed Oklahomaís perception of itself.

 

"All of a sudden," Royal says, "it wasnít bad being called an Okie. It used to be a real downer when we moved to California and theyíd talk about Okies. It was a derogatory term. Coach Wilkinson changed that."

 

Before Wilkinson, the Oklahoma-Texas rivalry was so lopsided the Red River might as well have been burnt orange. Oklahoma had lost seven games in a row to Texas entering the 1947 season. In Wilkinsonís first 10 years on the job, though, the Sooners went 8-2.

 

For the first time, Oklahoma didnít feel like a little brother.

 

***

 

Financial rivalries are defined by resources. Oklahoma built its teams on Texas talent. And, as it turns out, Texas would find its greatest resource in Oklahoma.

 

Texas hired Royal, a 32-year-old whippersnapper, to run its program in 1956. Royal modeled his program after Wilkinsonís, and it wouldnít be long before the two were neck and neck. In 1958, Royal gained credibility throughout Texas when the Longhorns beat the Sooners, 15-14, preventing Oklahoma from winning a fourth national championship.

 

"It was the most important victory that we had while I was there," Royal says. "It gave me some status and it gave our coaching staff acceptance."

 

Royal rolled up five more wins in a row over his mentor, who retired in 1963 with three national championships to his credit. That same year, Royal led Texas to its first title. They would win two more in 1969-70.

 

Texas experienced a drought after Royal retired, and by the early í90s, the Texas-Oklahoma game was mired in mediocrity.

 

But the creation of the Big 12 changed everything. For one, it awoke a sleeping giant in Texas, which realized that it couldnít return to national prominence without a Texas-sized plan for facility improvements.

 

Dodds brought Royal aboard, and Royal put in a call to his old buddy, Texas grad and millionaire Joe Jamail. All Royal had to say to Jamail was that Texas had worse facilities than new conference foe Iowa State.

 

"That motivated me," Jamail says.

 

Jamail signed a check for $5 million, and the Joe Jamail Field at Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium was born. Over a two-year period leading up to the 1998 season, Texas spent $67 million on renovations to the west and east sides of the stadium, including the addition of luxury boxes. Those suites would fuel the engine of the entire athletic department.

 

"We couldnít do any of what weíve done in the past 10 years without people leasing suites or buying club seats," Dodds says. "Thatís what drives the dollars."

 

Now the Longhorns have so much money coming in that they donít have to compare themselves to anybody. They are, without a doubt, the Big 12ís financial kingpin.

 

"What we do here is not driven by some other school," Dodds says. "Itís driven by what we need to do."

 

***

 

Oklahoma, under second-year head coach Bob Stoops, won a national championship in 2000. The Sooners embarrassed Texas 63-14 along the way.

 

But if the Sooners wanted to stay on top of the college football world, there was more work to be done -- and it had nothing to do with running crisper routes.

 

Thatís why the Oklahoma regents made that trip to Austin. They were planning a major renovation of Memorial Stadium and wanted to check out the luxury suites at Texas. If Oklahoma was going to keep up with Texas, it needed that revenue stream, too.

 

The regents came back from their visit to Texas with renewed purpose. They would find a way to get things done -- because they had to. Over the last nine years, Oklahoma has poured $150 million into sports facilities upgrades and will soon add a $9.6 million scoreboard to Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium.

 

Sounds impressive, right? Of course, across the river, Texas has trumped Oklahoma by embarking on a $176.5 million project to be completed next fall that will add seats in the north end zone and renovate the press box and club seats.

 

"We have great support with our donors and corporate culture," Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione says. "And while itís great for a state the size of Oklahoma, itís not the same as what Texas and Texas A&M have. Itís not whining. Itís just a fact."

 

Hereís the separation: Texas operated with an athletic budget of some $97 million and Oklahoma $64 million based on federal figures for the 2005-06 school year.

 

"They have resources that very few schools in the country have," Castiglione says.

 

To say Texas has more of everything isnít just Lone Star bravado. The school sits next to the capital building of the Big 12ís largest state -- a state so huge that the combined population of the six other states in the leagueís footprint falls short of Texasí 23 million.

 

The university boasts the leagueís largest athletic and football revenues. Texas has the Big 12ís largest enrollment and athletic department staff. The school has the nationís fourth-largest endowment. Texas has ... everything.

 

As Big 12 members, Oklahoma and Texas have reacted to each other. Theyíve kept an eye on each otherís coaching contracts, and Stoops and Texas coach Mack Brown are currently two of the gameís highest-paid coaches. Raises are closely watched.

 

"Weíre not unaware of those things," Castiglione says. "Coaches themselves are very aware of how they are viewed and valued against each other."

 

But Castiglioneís bottom line is a strong Texas benefits all Big 12 members.

 

"It doesnít mean other schools arenít trying to unseat them or arenít trying to get to their level of success," Castiglione says. "But the conference as a whole is better when traditionally strong programs remain strong."

 

The Big 12 has made that happen. Since its formation 11 years ago, Texas and Oklahoma have each won a national football title. The tally for league championships reads Oklahoma 4, Texas 2, and Oklahoma leads 6-5 in the head-to-head battle.

 

For all practical purposes, the Big 12 championship is decided each year in early October at the Cotton Bowl. With both programs ranked in the preseason top 10, this year should be no different.

 

***

 

When Cross, the former Oklahoma president, famously said, "Weíd like to have a university our football team could be proud of," people assumed it was a joke.

 

It wasnít.

 

More than 50 years later, Oklahoma football is still the window through which the nation views the Sooner State.

 

Things are just different at Oklahoma. Itís one of the few universities in the country where the athletic department doesnít receive any funding from the universityís central budget, according to school president David Boren. In fact, the athletic department provides subsidies to academic budgets each year. The opposite is true at most universities.

 

"Isnít that a switch?" Mary Jane Noble acknowledges.

 

Noble is 81 years old, a lifetime Oklahoman, and the daughter-in-law of Lloyd Noble. She thinks her father-in-law and Cross would be proud. She has seen what Sooners football has done for Oklahomaís visibility and morale during its first century as a state.

 

Thatís why Noble, a former chair of the regents, believes that Bob Stoops is worth every penny of his $3.4 million salary.

 

"For a long time," Noble says, "the professors were just furious because the football coaches make so much money. But they work four times harder than those professors did. Itís harder to be a coach."

 

Yes, in a brave new world, the tradition continues at Oklahoma.

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