|In search of love in football country|
By Jim Caple
Page 2 columnist
AUSTIN, Texas -- Two hours into my visit to the University of Texas campus, I still was looking for some evidence that the Longhorns actually are in the Final Four.
At Marquette, I waited for Final Four gear in lines so long there should have been little boats and animatronic pirates at the end. At Syracuse, I watched fans claw over tables of Final Four orangewear as ravenously as a reporter digging through Jim Harrick's desk. At Kansas, I saw fans ... well, those Jayhawks are so crazed they may still be purchasing memorabilia from the 1988 Final Four.
But I didn't see so much as a single student in a Final Four T-shirt as I walked around the UT campus Thursday afternon. The University Co-Op did have a table full of gray Final Four T-shirts but I didn't see anybody buying those (though a clerk assured me they were selling very well).
It was to the point that I began worrying that I had made some horrible mistake and gone to the wrong school for the final stop on my tour of Final Four campuses.
"That's true now that you mention it," sophomore Josh Wyrtzen said as we discussed the lack of visible Final Four hoopla in front of the UT Tower. "We have to do something about that. We need to put up a big poster or something. A poster that says, 'Kiss Our Ass.' Or 'T.J. Ford is God.' "
(Wyrtzen, by the way, is majoring in religious studies.)
The last time Texas reached the Final Four was 1947, the year before Lyndon Johnson reached the U.S. Senate and seven years before current coach Rick Barnes reached the delivery room. Jackie Robinson still had not broken baseball's color barrier. In other words, it was a long time ago. So it's going to take some time before Texas basketball can match Texas football for popularity (indeed, last weekend's Texas spring football game at Memorial Stadium outdrew the Longhorns' South Regional victory in nearby San Antonio).
As sophomore Alexa Magnan said, "Texas is a football state. We may love basketball but it's still a football state."
"This whole basketball thing is new to us," sophomore Ben Watson added. "We may not be wearing the T-shirts but that doesn't mean we're not excited. That's all we're talking about.''
Running with the ROTC
It was a different time when I was a college freshman in 1980. Back then, when we were still reasonably close to the Vietnam era and smack dab in the middle of the Hostage Crisis, we looked down our noses at ROTC students (or at least my group of friends did). With the outrageous certainty and stereotyping of youth, we saw them as a bunch of Niedermeyer's from "Animal House." A PLEDGE PIN ON YOUR UNIFORM!!! DROP AND GIVE ME 20!!!
Fortunately, attitudes have changed and we now have a healthy appreciation and respect for the extraordinary service our soldiers provide us for insufficient pay and gratitude. It was a pleasure to run with them and wear their T-shirt.
ROTC Captain Jason Fick said there was an increase in enrollment at UT after Sept. 11, but that it eventually returned to normal. If the Iraq war and its approach has had any effect, he said, it has generated a slight increase in interest. There are approximately 100 students currently in the ROTC program and a number of alumni serving in the war.
"Most of the people join because they want to do something that has meaning to the country," he said. "There are some people who join because they're interested in the scholarship, but they don't tend to last."
"I had a Canadian come up to me who was about to become an American citizen and she said she wanted to thank me and that she really appreciated what we were doing. I told her I hadn't done anything yet, but when someone does that, it makes you feel pretty good."
My running mate for the morning workout was staff sergeant Bobby Bostick, an Army Ranger and the world's leading authority on Oklahoma University sports. We ran through the UT campus, winding along the roads, past the Tower and around massive Memorial Stadium. While Bostick maintained an impressive stream of Oklahoma sports history for me, Cadet Command Sergeant Major Spencer Biah chanted a cadence for everyone else. And as we neared the end of the run, Biah did something very cool. He chanted, "E-S-P-N, E-S-P-N" and soon everyone was repeating it in spirited unison.
I had put in back-to-back all-nighters and hadn't been in bed for 48 hours, but I must say that right about then I felt like I could have run to New Orleans.
Biah has had quite the life. He was born in Liberia to a Liberian mother and an American father, who left the family in Africa and returned to the United States when Biah was 10 months old. His father kept in contact, though, and when a terrible war broke out in Liberia in 1989, Biah's father had the family emigrate to the U.S. Biah enlisted in the army after graduating from high school, then went to college to become an officer. A senior, he's one of the unit's top cadets and he will report to an artillery unit after graduation. He says he isn't concerned about the hazards of service at this time.
"Serving in the army meant a lot more to me (than others). I feel like I'm a representative for a lot of people. The impression people have of Liberia will be based on me and how I act."
Diversity means football rules
UT is less of a campus than a vibrant and diverse city (those 52,000 students represent more than 110 countries). There were a stunning number of people on campus after midnight (the Main building remains open until 3 a.m.). Thus, it was no surprise to walk across campus from the ROTC office Thursday afternoon and find the women of the Muslim Students Association sitting outside the Main for their weekly group study discussion on religious issues.
On the one hand, they said the UT campus remains extremely open and welcoming to the Muslim community over the past year and a half. On the other hand ...
It can be depressing. At a time when we should be coming together as a country, I worry that we're coming apart, viewing dissent and difference with suspicion and accusation instead of tolerance and respect.
Here in Austin, where President Bush served as governor and where noted Dixie Chick and presidential analyst Natalie Maines lives, the University of Texas Club just postponed its "April in Paris Night'' until an unspecified date out of fear it would offend someone. This is the same sort of ludicrous thinking that led Congressmen to rename French Fries and French Toast in the House cafeteria Freedom Fries and Freedom Toast. Freedom Fries? Freedom Toast? What's next? Operation Enduring Ketchup? The National House of Pancakes?
It's a poor reflection on all of us when one of the country's finest universities is afraid it might offend someone by holding a gourmet French dinner party.
Preferring to discuss more pleasant topics, I asked the Muslim women whether they were excited about the Final Four and several women smiled and nodded. When I commented about the lack of obvious visible excitement on campus, one shrugged.
"Texas,''she said, "is a football school.''
Hook 'em Horns
A Final Four commemorative T-shirt may come along once in 56 years at Texas but it's just that: A souvenir you can own with no more effort than opening up a wallet. A championship shirt, however, has to be earned. Not even fleece can feel so good against the body.
And the distinctive burnt orange color is always in fashion. Although, perhaps not in Lawrence.
"Well, Kansas," Magnan said with disgust. "Lawrence is out in the middle of nowhere. There isn't even an airport. If you want to fly to Lawrence, you have to fly into Missouri. They have nothing else to do there. We have Sixth Street -- that alone will keep you away from the basketball game."
The good-natured trash talk against a basketball rival flows easily and pretty soon the students are moaning about the Longhorns' three-point loss to Kansas earlier in the season and whether Texas can penetrate the Syracuse 2-3 zone (not surprisingly, the answer is yes) and who is the best Longhorn to put on Syracuse's brilliant forward Carmelo Anthony and how Barnes brought a welcome discipline to the program and suddenly it becomes apparent that there is a passion for basketball on this enormous campus after all.
"If you're at the Jester Center or in one of the apartments near campus, you can hear everyone when they're watching a game," Magnan said. "You'll hear everyone in the apartment yelling together and you'll go, 'Heck, yeah! I'm in Austin.' And we're all for Texas."
I might not have seen Final Four shirts Thursday but when Texas tips off against Syracuse this week, I know the Texas fans will echo throughout the apartment and dorm hallways, they will shout on Sixth Street and the Drag, and paint the city burnt orange. Heck, with any luck at all, some ex-ROTC officers in Iraq will steal a moment to bend their hand into a "Hook 'em Horns" sign.
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.