The Eyes of Austin are Upon Texas Football
In Austin, blues, rockabilly and country music all ring out of world-renowned venues like Stubb's, the Continental Club and Antone's, effectively turning the entire town into one sprawling, Texas-size club.
On Saturday afternoons in the fall, however, center stage shifts from the bars and honkytonks of Sixth Street and South Congress Avenue, to the heart of the University of Texas campus.
It's there, at Darrell K Royal-Memorial Stadium, sandwiched on cramped bleacher space between a 5-year-old with an oversize, foam Hook 'Em Horns hand and a pair of middle-age alums dripping in burnt orange and passion, that I feel the eyes of Texas upon me for the first time. And, at a Longhorn football game, "The Eyes of Texas" is a song you feel more than you hear.
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At 5:45 p.m., some 15 minutes prior to kickoff, the Longhorn Band strikes up the school's alma mater as an overture to the 2007 season. If you can stand above the field during its playing without getting goose bumps, you can probably stop by Stubb's without ordering a slab of ribs, or belly up to the bar at the Continental Club without quaffing a longneck Lone Star or two. Good luck trying.
Coach Mack Brown's Longhorns haven't even taken the field, yet there's the band, beating the Texas heat in crisp, khaki shorts, white tennis shoes and burnt-orange polo shirts, while beating the drum in this case, Big Bertha, one of the world's largest bass drums for the Longhorns, ranked as high as No. 4 in preseason polls.
The world's largest Texas flag (25 yards by 45 yards) is unfurled, and the band proceeds to hijack both the game and the city's music scene by playing one of college football's signature sounds. Fans flash the famous Hook 'Em Horns hand sign, and like that, you're Hooked, too.
On this, the first Saturday in September, there are 84,440 of us jam-packed into the stadium, approximately 84,439 of whom are wearing burnt orange, an unofficial stat that leaves me feeling a lot like a guy at a Halloween party without a costume.
But, at Texas, the sensation of being an outsider doesn't last for long; even if you have no ties to the school, or the state. And even if you stick out more than an American tourist in Paris.
Pregame weather is 90 degrees and oppressive, but while the sun beats down, the Longhorn Band lifts up. "The Eyes of Texas" sweeps a chill through the stadium like a summer breeze.
The song is really just the juvenile tune from "I've Been Working on the Railroad," with localized lyrics. But the simple, if not tired schoolhouse staple is elevated to a larger-than-life sing-along in this rousing rendition.
Austin likes to bill itself as the "Live Music Capitol of the World," and, already, the Longhorn Band has done its part to make sure there's truth in advertising.
My game day in Austin began three hours earlier with a stroll of the campus, where the Texas student body, alumni and fans who make their way to the endless pregame tailgate gatherings do so in a sartorial style that's decidedly more party than preppy: The guys tend to favor flip-flops and T-shirts; the gals rock a decidedly Texas outfit of denim skirts and cowboy boots, all accented with the obligatory burnt-orange top.
Those outfits offer a nice complement to the school's original Spanish Renaissance architecture. Maybe it's a mirage, or maybe it's the eyes playing tricks after seeing so many bodies shuffling through the campus in Texas gear, but the Spanish tile rooftops on the main buildings surrounding the school's signature UT Tower sure look to be burnt orange to me.
With an easy, breezy, hacienda feel accented by sun-dappled fountains, the UT campus has a laid-back aura befitting a place where one of the most famous recent alums is Matthew McConaughey.
The Main Mall of the campus offers a dynamite view of the Texas Capitol, but politics and ambition seem to take a back seat to football and fun in Austin. This is the town, after all, where director Richard Linklater shot the movie "Slacker." Here's guessing he didn't have to leave town to cast it.
Directly across Guadalupe Street known locally as The Drag the UT Co-Op keeps the crowd garbed in all things burnt orange. In addition to the standard bookstore fare, the inventory includes everything from burnt-orange Converse sneaker knockoffs to burnt-orange "Keep Austin Weird" T-shirts, and they all fly off the shelves on game day.
Dell and IBM both have a strong presence in the Austin area, but it's hard to imagine those high-tech giants having a greater effect on the local economy than the sale of burnt-orange Texas tees.
Away from the UT campus, there is still a significant segment of townspeople who prefer their shirts tie-dyed. Still, for all the city's diverse interests, which in addition to music include a thriving independent-film scene, Austin is undeniably a place that gives itself totally to college football on Saturdays in fall.
Austin, which ranks as America's tenth most passionate college football market in an ESPN Sports Poll, mixes the pigskin passion of a place like South Bend with the diverse entertainment options of a city like Los Angeles.
If, as they say, football is a religion at Notre Dame and a way of life in the South, here in the Southwest it feels a lot like one big party.
Austin offers plenty of diversions, which might partly explain how it is that several players in the Texas football program have been arrested since June.
A football Saturday begins with a pregame soiree that surrounds the campus, as rabid but largely law-abiding fans float from tent to tent, and tailgate to tailgate, working their way to Royal-Memorial Stadium.
The stadium is undergoing a $176 million renovation and facelift that will increase capacity to more than 90,000 in 2008. Originally a concrete monolithic structure, its new brick exterior on the east side is a huge improvement. Still, the new facade does feel more like a contemporary ballpark than a historic football stadium.
When it opened in 1923 the facility was christened Memorial Stadium as tribute to the 198,520 Texans who fought in World War I, including the 5,280 who sacrificed their lives. In 1977, the stadium was rededicated to honor all Texas alumni and alumna who had fought in American wars.