Pilgrim in an Unholy Land: Notes of a Lonely Cowboy

   Everyone seems scared of my Oklahoma State Cowboys. Let me tell you, I’ve seen this team, up close and in person. Make no mistake – they will beat someone this Saturday. The question is who? It could, just maybe, be the high and mighty Longhorns. State has knocked off bigger game: even Texas fans remember the Cowboys’ beatings of the very teams Mack Brown & Co. were regularly embarrassed by in Bob Stoops and those hated and feared Oklahoma Sooners.
   It could be that Oklahoma State comes waltzing across Texas and winds up beating the No. 4 team in the land. But it will more likely be themselves the Pokes lay waste to.

   This is a team that at times seems astonishingly poorly coached, and there have been many grumblings in Cowboyland, where fans of the team in hunter-safety orange have also learned, just like the big boys down in Texas, to take to the Internet with their complaints. Apparently overhearing the acrid whispers on the harsh prairie winds in that land to the north, Cowboys’ defensive coordinator Vance Bedford, a former UT player, went so far as to call OSU fans “roaches.”
   Whether or not there is any truth to the claim remains to be seen.
   What is important to keep in mind is that this Oklahoma State team has blown what would be, for any self-respecting Top-25 team, at least, insurmountable leads. Against A&M. Against K-State. Before that, there was a game against the University of Houston where a field-goal call that most 14-year-olds wouldn’t hesitate to make on the Xbox was neglected by head coach Mike Gundy. This is not a team that performs well in the clutch.
   Ah, but then came the Nebraska game. Everyone knew OSU had talent. Last Saturday the talent held it together. Bobby Reid is a better player than Vince Young was at the same point in his career. He has a cannon for an arm, lacks the screwy throwing motion, and can run just as fast.
   I pray three or four years at OSU doesn’t ruin him.
   It has ruined many a man. I am such a one. Stillwater is a good town. A small town with little for students to do but behave like beasts, it nonetheless encourages a fierce loyalty. OSU fans are people who actually attended the university. Unlike the UTs, A&Ms, and OUs of the world, it does not have a fan base partly composed of people who simply like the trademark but who never set foot on the campus.
   Oklahoma State has a proud and winning athletic tradition, though you’d never know it judging by the sorry state of its football program. The story of Oklahoma State football is a tragicomedy of epic proportions, for Oklahomans, like Texans, crave football like a junkie craves his smack. Or Baptists crave hellfire.
   It is a state of minuscule population. Both Houston and Dallas have more residents than the entire state of Oklahoma. But its people know the game of football and need it, each and every weekend of the fall. The Oklahoma State Cowboys are a team that historically takes one step forward followed by three or four back. If you are a fan, this wears on you after, say, 50 or 60 years. Two or three good seasons are followed by nearly full decades of mediocrity.
   The highs of the Thurman Thomas and Barry Sanders backfields of the late Eighties (led by then-quarterback Mike Gundy) were followed by the lows of probation in the early Nineties, as the Cowboys narrowly avoided the dreaded NCAA death penalty. Bob Simmons rode into town and beat OU in 1995, which hadn’t happened before in my lifetime. In ’97, OSU beat Texas and went to its first bowl game since 1988. Heady stuff for a program which could never seem to quite get over the hump. In ’98, though, the wheels again fell off, and it was back to the Dark Ages. Simmons never had another winning season and has not been a head coach since 2001, when OSU fired him.
   That season, Les Miles arrived and even though his first-year squad went 4-7, he established somewhat of a habit of beating Bob Stoops. Just when things were looking promising, though, Miles took the money and ran off to Louisiana State, leaving the Cowboys with – Mike Gundy, the former Cowboy quarterback and present offensive coordinator, a man whose résumé was built on career stops at college football powerhouses Baylor and Maryland.
   Gundy promptly went 4-7, ending a three-year run of bowl games, one of the longest such runs in the program’s bleak history.
   Why this history lesson? Why trouble you, gentle reader, with the agonies and ecstasies of life as a Cowboy fan?
   Because you’re facing a terribly talented, poorly coached team from Oklahoma this Saturday, and like it or not, you’re scared. There’s a dirty word floating around Austin this week, and it ain’t “roaches” (though the smell is unmistakable). No, the word is “upset,” and if you listen with the right kind of ears you’ll hear it.
   You’ll hear it on sports talk radio and you’ll hear it from fans.
   You won’t hear it from Mack Brown, and the man should be commended for it. He has, after all, led UT back from halftime deficits against O-State for three years running, outscoring the Cowboys 118-0 in the second half of those games. One hundred eighteen points. To zero points. That’s almost 40 points per game, in the second half. And Mack has finally learned to beat OU. And oh yes … he won a national championship.
   I’m still angry that Vince Young was able to so easily guide UT back from those halftime deficits. The 118 second-half points are a statistic I don’t like to dwell on, and one I doubt OSU players and coaches want to, either. They must, though, if they are to have any hope at all this Saturday.
   OSU will pass on Texas. Make no mistake about it. The 112th-ranked pass defense in the country will be exposed yet again. And I’m guessing the Cowboys will run for more yards than the Horns have yielded to any team thus far. Yet take heart, ye terrified Texans … this is the same old OSU: staggeringly powerful offense with a defense that belongs in high school Class 3A.
   Still, one has to wonder: what if UT loses this game? Every Horns fan I’ve talked to seems worried about Saturday. I can only laugh at how so many UT fans have such a feeling of entitlement to victory, that their team’s place must be, by divine will, in the BCS. I have friends who are waiting at the edge of their seats for Mack Brown to somehow screw it all up, still hoping the man will get fired.
   It’s sick.
   It’s also why I love being an OSU fan. We’re not Sooners. We’re not Longhorns. We lose, and we are used to it. Sure, it sucks. “Learn to Enjoy Losing” is a hard mantra to live by. But it beats the hell out of the alternative: becoming a vicious prick who is ready to fire a coach regardless of the success he’s had.
   I recently expressed as much in an e-mail exchange with longtime Chronicle contributor Joe O’ Connell. “Jesus, Joe,” I wrote, “you all are as bad as OU fans. It’s sad, too, because you should be so much above their level. Now, there may be some truth to the opinion floated around by a legion of UT fans I know and confer with regularly that if not for Vince Young, UT would have by now returned to their place of mediocrity, which they occupied for nearly thirty years … but I doubt it. I think Mack’s a good coach and a fine human being. I’d kill to have him back in Oklahoma (where he once worked) and have this gang of frat-boy rejects we have calling the shots for our team back in high school, where they can be lecherous pederasts, and is, ultimately, where they belong.”
   Maybe I’m being too hard on coach Gundy. The Cowboys do seem, after all, to be getting better as the season drags on. Which OSU team will show up in Austin on Saturday – the one that pummeled Nebraska, or the one that blew a double-digit lead to lowly Kansas State with under three minutes to play? Will O-State run out to another early lead, only to watch it wither away and die, like one more football season full of promise but short on delivery?
   Everything points to a Texas victory. The Longhorns are 16-point favorites. OSU may have lunatics for coaches, including a man-child who hallucinates roaches instead of fans who are sick and tired of losing while finding new and embarrassing ways to do so.
   It’s a crazy man’s game, though, and that’s why they play it.
   OSU 38 … UT 45.

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