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Oklahoma Sooners Football - OU-Texas: Life behind enemy lines

In small-town Texas, Longhorns football is king. Except when you’re an Oklahoma grad.

Oklahoma v Texas Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

Last year as I prepared for an interview with the man who would eventually become my editor and boss, I did some online research on him.

Our 10 minute, get-to-know-you phone interview went well, and he invited me to visit Brownwood, Texas for an in-person follow up to see the town for myself. But I had to ask before we hung up — was that your Twitter page I found with the Texas Longhorns logo for a profile picture?

“That’s me,” he said.

And that’s how I found out my boss is a die-hard Longhorns fan. “Heh,” I stammered. “At least hiring me would create some fan diversity in the workplace.”

Brownwood is a small town of about 20,000 people located almost exactly in the middle of Texas. It’s an hour south of Abilene, three hours away from Dallas and two hours away from Austin. And it’s the kind of town where, even if you attended a local college like Howard Payne, Hardin-Simmons or Tarleton State, you’re probably a Longhorns fan anyway.

It’s rare for local players to go on to big-time college football, but the ones who go to Texas will be legends forever. Brownwood recently produced the Shipley brothers, Jaxon and Jordan, and Kenny Vaccaro went to high school nearby in Early. Those guys won’t have to buy a drink in this town ever again.

Sure, there’s a healthy number of Texas Tech fans in town, with a smattering of A&M and TCU thrown in for good measure. And you could argue that high school football is even more important, ever since legendary coach Gordon Wood led the Lions to seven titles in the 1960s and ‘70s. But when I arrived in Brownwood last September, I realized quickly I had the only “Boomer Sooner” bumper sticker in the area.

My editor, I gathered, was a ‘90s graduate of UT who hadn’t attended a Longhorns home game since a late-’90s upset made him swear off the practice entirely. Apparently not even a national championship changed his mind.

He’s prone to the sort of fatalist social media posts that one usually associates with, say, New York Knicks fans or that one friend who’s completely jaded about politics. Can’t believe I let myself get my hopes up for that one, he’ll say after Texas is upset by Maryland, or Fire everybody when the ‘Horns take a loss to lowly Kansas.

My editor and I came up with a bet before the Red River game last season — if UT wins, I’ll wear his favorite Texas hat around the office all day. When OU won, though, he had to keep my decorative OU garden gnome on his desk for a week.

The gnome was a strange gift from an uncle from a couple of Christmases ago, but I’ve learned to love it, and it adorns my desk in the Brownwood newsroom where I work as a reporter. Yet its presence is not entirely welcome in this pro-Longhorns office — more than once the gnome went missing, only to turn up facing the wall in a UT fan’s corner office, and once it was affixed with a Texas-themed paper hat.

One day I walked into the office wearing an OU basketball jersey over my button-down, and a coworker stopped me at the door. “Ew,” she said, “why do you like them?”

“Because I actually went there,” I replied.

That’s not to say I haven’t found any allies in the town, even if they’re a lot more quiet about it. Last year on Election Night I met a local woman with OU grad relatives, and she sang Boomer Sooner as we playfully argued with a Horned Frogs fan at the watch party.

Another time I found out that a woman I was interviewing was originally an Okie from Muskogee, and a Sooners fan. “Oh, yes,” she said, “I miss Oklahoma. I really enjoyed it up there.” She paused. “Though I must say, the roads here in Texas are a lot better.”

I suspect that if the Longhorns were actually good, my Sooner State biases wouldn’t be so easily overlooked. But local ‘Horns supporters don’t have much to hold over me these days.

Last year after the Red River game, I wore one of my OU polos in the press box while covering a local high school football contest. “Is that an OU shirt?” one of my hosts angrily demanded. “Yeah,” I said. “I figured after last weekend it was safe to wear.”

He sighed. “That just makes it worse,” he said.

Oklahoma is a pretty small state, but the scope and influence of Sooner Nation reaches far beyond it. There are probably more than a million Sooners fans living outside the Oklahoma borders — and hundreds of thousands of them are right here in Texas, living with the enemy.

I grew up in DFW, where college allegiance was a big mishmash of Longhorns and Aggies and Raiders and Horned Frogs and Sooners and Mustangs and Bears. Being an OU fan didn’t make you popular, per se, but it certainly wasn’t unusual. In Brownwood, though, being a Sooners fan is basically just a painful reminder to others of UT’s shortcomings since Colt McCoy left campus and Mack Brown quit trying.

The schools should be equals and their rivalry should be the best in the game. And though the Longhorns are good for a regular scare and occasional upset, the full fury of Texas fandom will lie dormant until the school is actually competing for conference titles again.

Then I might need to think twice about my Boomer Sooner bumper sticker.

Yesterday when I left the office for the night, I grabbed my gnome and set it down quickly on the corner of my editor’s desk, giving a rushed, “Have a good weekend,” and trying to leave before any hurt feelings could surface. But he wanted to talk about Tom Herman.

“Tom Herman is the worst in-game playcaller I’ve ever seen,” he said. “I never liked this hire, ever since he lost to SMU last season. Why did we trade in one coach who gets up for big games and loses the easy ones, for another coach who does the same thing?”

We’re six games in to the Herman era, and my editor is already fed up. “I’m just tired,” he said, “of hearing about how good we’re going to be.”

He’ll have my gnome as a helpful reminder for the next week.