(This story was published in 2006).
By: Todd Heustess
The Texas-Oklahoma rivalry has always held a special fascination for me because the circumstances surrounding it are so unique. I loved the idea of a stadium divided in half and tailgating at the Texas State Fair. On Oct. 7, I was lucky enough to be able to attend the Red River Rivalry (that’s the official name as “Shootout” is apparently not PC enough) in Dallas and I brought my good friend Kirk Campbell, a sports fan not terribly interested in college football, along for the ride.
My contact for this trip was Mark, a longtime Texas fan who lives in Austin. Mark had read my story on tailgating in Austin from last year and was interested in introducing me to his group of friends who go to all the Longhorn games. Mark and his group of eight friends have season tickets to UT home games, always go to the Texas-OU game in Dallas, and plan one road-trip a year to a UT away game. Mark has gone to every Texas home game since 1980.
Mark was my ticket connection too, getting two coveted tickets on the UT side for the game. We met up Friday night along at the Crossroads, the strip of gay bars on Oak Lawn Ave, the official gay neighborhood in Dallas. What surprised me was that all the bars had signs up welcoming OU and Texas fans and in fact I saw a number of red and burnt orange clad fans walking along the street. It didn’t quite qualify as a “street party” but it was refreshing to me to see gay bars not only acknowledge a sporting event but market to gay sports fans as well. I’ve seen this in Chicago during the Big Ten basketball tournament, but that’s the only other occasion I can remember seeing gay bars collectively include a sports event in their promotional efforts.
The Texas-OU game started at 2:30 so tailgating began in earnest with very Bloody Mary’s at Kurt’s house in Dallas. Kurt and his partner Randy live in Dallas and are UT grads. The rest of the group was up from Austin and after the Mary’s were drained, we made our way to the State Fairgrounds where the Cotton Bowl is located. My friend Kirk, a southern California native, was fascinated by all the people cooking out by their cars and RVs. I reminded Kirk that there are RVs at both USC and UCLA games and he agreed but added that at the SC games the RVs come with their own electric fences and bodyguards. I noticed more coolers on wheels than I ever can remember seeing. What’s interesting about the pregame tailgate scene at the Texas-OU game is that while some of the crowd tailgate in groups around their cars and RVs, the real tailgate scene is happening inside the State Fair.
The Cotton Bowl is inside the State Fairgrounds. Your ticket to the game is your ticket to the State Fair. Pregame tailgating for the Texas-OU game is really walking around and enjoying the rides, fried foods and beer at the Texas State Fair. Thousands of red-clad Oklahoma fans mingled with their burnt orange UT counterparts while eating fried Coke (Coke batter that’s fried and dipped in syrup), fried Snickers bars and corny dogs (they call them corny dogs in Texas instead of corn dogs). I know that Texas-OU is a huge rivalry that almost always has national title implications so I expected more animosity between the fans and was surprised that everyone seemed to get along so well. I think the setting had a lot to do with it because State Fairs are inherently happy places with all the rides, games, shows and food keeping people occupied. Don’t get me wrong, the fans definitely don’t like each other but it never felt overly aggressive or mean spirited to me.
The Cotton Bowl itself is a lot like the Orange Bowl in Miami: Old, dumpy and charming. There are few amenities in the ancient stadium, the seats are small and cramped and fans at both schools love it anyway. There has been talk of moving the game to the new Cowboy’s stadium in Irving, but fans of both teams that I talked to were 100% against that, saying it would ruin what’s so unique and fun about the game.
The Cotton Bowl may be old and dilapidated but its location inside the State Fairgrounds is what gets everyone excited about going to the Red River Rivalry. My curiosity about the game has always been the 50/50 split of fans inside the Cotton Bowl. I always wondered what it would look and feel like to be in a stadium that is divided equally between the fans. Each school has approximately 36,000 fans at the game with the dividing line being the 50-yard line seats in the center sections of both sides of the stadium. It is a clear division too between the red and burnt orange-clad fans with the noise factor only coming into play when play moves towards one of the end zones. Needless to say the Texas side of the field was a lot noisier and festive as Texas pulled away in the fourth quarter for a 28-10 win.
After the game, Kirk and I started talking to a group dressed in typical Texas style: The guy in tight jeans, white button down shirt and cowboy hat and the girls in skirts and cowboy boots. It turns out that they were from Oklahoma and that two of the girls, Jenny and Kate, were “undercover” lesbians. I asked them what brought them to the game and that if they enjoyed sports. They dramatically turned up their noses and said that they were not sports fans but since they live in Dallas they “ALWAYS!” go to the Texas-OU games because of the “hot chicks, big beers, and even bigger boobs.”
Both Jenna and Kate were OU grads and said that they went to the pre- and postgame tailgate parties for Sooner games but rarely went to the games themselves. They said OU games in Norman were “serious parties” and they love tailgating and that the Texas-OU weekend in Dallas was bigger than New Year’s as far as they were concerned. I asked them why they were still “undercover lesbians” after moving from Norman to Dallas and they said that they were out in Dallas but didn’t want anyone back home to see the article. When I told them that most of the readers would be gay men and women who like sports, they said “what the hell!” and agreed to let me use their photos.
Their friend Stacy was not gay and looked younger and in fact she was a senior at UT. She was toting a little painted cooler on wheels, something I had seen a lot of the day before at the hotel and in all the tailgate areas outside the Fairgrounds. I asked Stacy what was the deal with all the painted coolers. She said that all the fraternities at UT had a tradition on OU weekend that the guys buy and fill up the rolling coolers and the girls paint them. That certainly explained the loading areas under the many buses with college students packed not with suitcases and luggage but literally hundreds of painted rolling coolers.
Kirk thought this was just “way over the top” which meant that he loved it. I asked Kirk what he thought about his first college football game outside of California and he said that he had no idea that tailgating was such a big deal and that he now understood why even non-football fans like going to college football games. He said the pre and post game experience at the Texas-OU game was like a giant cocktail party with beer and that the constant socializing was very appealing to an outsider like him and that in fact the fans from both schools were so nice and friendly that he never felt like an outsider. He said he’s ready to go to Eugene, Ore., and quack like crazy.