Scenes from a Texas college football Saturday amid the possible demise of regional rivalries

ARLINGTON, Texas — On a Saturday in September 2022, the Southwest Conference itself had a weekend. In Dallas, SMU had a record crowd to greet traitor Sonny Dykes, who had jumped to rival TCU only to watch the Horned Frogs get away with the Iron Skillet in their 101st meeting.

Just 24 miles away, Texas A&M in their 79th two-step together beat a top-10 Arkansas in a strange, tense game typical of their matchups since their old rivalry resumed at AT&T Stadium in Arlington. And in Lubbock, about another 336 miles from Arlington, Texas Tech no. 22 Texas in front of the Red Raiders’ first sell-out crowd since 2018, and many of the 60,975 in attendance flooded the field in the aftermath.

Well, the SWC hasn’t existed since 1996, but the passion will never die, despite attempts to kill it. On a Saturday in Texas, there were three games with three full stadiums amid an attendance crisis for administrators at many schools, a reminder that sometimes it’s more fun to play someone who has a little more hate on the line.

Since the SWC disbanded, TCU has attended four conferences (WAC, Conference USA, Mountain West and now the Big 12), while SMU was aligned in WAC and CUSA before ending up in the American. However, despite their nomadic travels in search of future relevance, they have managed to sustain a regional rivalry for more than a century.

“I think it makes sense for teams that are close to each other to play against each other,” Dykes said two weeks ago as the bang for his Dallas return started. “You know, that’s why it makes so much sense for USC to be in the Big Ten … they’re right next to each other.”

Dykes’ sarcasm comes at a time when the realignment continues to pull the strings of college football’s fabric, unraveling longstanding rivalries and making it harder for fans to get to the games or even care. The Iron Skillet – once so acclaimed that legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice dubbed the 1935 edition the “Game of the Century” – has no guarantee it will continue past 2024 when the current contract ends.

As leagues go to more conference games and athletic budgets are dictated by home games, Power 5 teams like TCU don’t often make trips to Group of 5 schools, so TCU may choose to step out of every other year Dallas to play if this is scheduled could be another home game. Oklahoma and Oklahoma State have already made it clear that the chaos will not continue if the Sooners go to the SEC, just as the rivalry between Texas A&M and Texas has been dormant since the Aggies move Southeast.

Texas Tech’s excitement this weekend came from Texas’ recent trip to Lubbock with the Longhorns’ upcoming SEC transfer likely ending a 72-play streak.

Dykes understood the appeal of his return, saying in the week leading up to the game: “I’d boo too”. It was a boon for SMU as the Mustangs sold more than 35,000 tickets at a venue that struggled to draw large crowds. And while at times the stadium never quite filled up due to the searing heat, the middle of the SMU campus was crowded along the boulevard with rear gates.

“The energy, the excitement, just can’t be repeated,” said Rogge Dunn, attorney and SMU fan. “We’re not in the Big 12. We’re not in the Southwest Conference. All our traditional rivals are gone. It’s hard to stand up for UAB or East Carolina. The great thing about this rivalry is that it’s so close.”

At the end of the boulevard, Chipper Haynes, a 2003 SMU graduate, lamented the possible demise of a game that’s circled on his calendar each year, in a tent selling red T-shirts that read “TCU SUCKS.”

“It means everything to us,” Haynes said. “That’s probably what breaks my heart the most about the big realignment things, that you’re losing these huge rivalries. We’ve been making these shirts for the last 20 years, it sucks. It takes away some of the spirit of college football.

Dykes agreed, saying in his post-match press conference he knew the fans were ready for his return and would give him their best.

“I thought the off-field stuff was college football,” Dykes said. “That’s why this game was well attended. That’s why Kansas is sold out today. That’s why Texas A&M-Arkansas is sold out at JerryWorld [it wasn’t a sellout, but 63,580 was the largest crowd for the game since 2017], that’s why we’re sold out next week. Because it’s just so exciting. It’s great for the fans. Sometimes it’s hard to take the brunt of it. But you have a job to do.”

He said he was happy to have this week behind him but could focus on the game and not the emotions around it.

“I am 52 years old. … If I can’t do that, I have to work for Ricky Chicken over at Chicken Express,” he said, referring to fast-food chicken tycoon Ricky Stuart II, a TCU trustee.

At Jerry Jones’ home in Arlington, as Dykes mentioned, the Aggies and Razorbacks met in a streak that ended in 1991 when the Hogs left the SWC and returned as a neutral in 2009. Both schools are keen to bring the series back to campus starting in 2025 after it turned into a heated conference game with the potential to sell a lot of tickets.

While the Aggies and the Hogs never harbored the hatred for each other that they harbored for the Longhorns before the end of SWC, their SEC era was sparked by their closeness as Arkansas enrollments surged. In 2021, 6,720 of Arkansas’ 24,265 students were Texans.

Texas A&M graduate Tommy Shiflett and his daughter Logan, one of those Texans who are freshmen in Arkansas, walked the hall Saturday with their divided loyalties on their shirts.

“It’s a bigger rivalry now because she’s been talking to me for 12 months and I need it back,” Shiflett said of the Razorbacks, who ended the Aggies’ nine-game winning streak last year. “I need to be able to guide my mouth a bit. That’s why there are only two of us here. The rest of the family is not here.”

For his part, Logan couldn’t handle the Aggies taking the lead. “I can’t do this now,” she said, laughing.

But even as a freshman, Logan agreed that rivalries are fun. Arkansas fans even booed a dog – Texas A&M mascot Reveille – as she was shown on Jerry Jones’ giant video screen. And yet, all the ags and hogs in town could get together as the highlights of Texas’ loss to Texas Tech were covered on the big screen, leading to one of the biggest cheers of the night.

In places like Texas, where rivalries dating back more than 100 years are in danger of being lost—if they aren’t already—there’s more at stake than just wins and losses. Houston and Rice met for the 44th time Saturday for the Bayou Bucket, another crosstown rivalry scheduled only through 2023 and may not continue if Houston moves to the Big 12.

“In the state of Texas, you want to be number 1,” said Drew Hogan, a TCU fan at the SMU game. “It doesn’t matter what game it is, who it is, you want to win at dinner with bragging rights.”

John Jenkins, the flamboyant coach best known for beating the SMU 95-21 while returning from the NCAA “death penalty” with Houston in the Mustangs’ first season in 1989, grew up and coached in the Panhandle of Texas at all levels of the state and was present at the Aggies’ victory over his alma mater, Arkansas.

“Playing my high school ball in Texas, coaching high school football in Texas, all the way up to the college ranks and pro football, that means everything to me, with the rivalries that come with it, you’ll see in this one.” state,” said Jenkins. “It really hurts to see this thing getting splintered and fragmented. It is ridiculous. Doesn’t matter, doesn’t care about rivalries or soccer strength. It’s all about media markets.”

As the Big Ten snaps up USC and UCLA to conquer those elusive markets, followed by what’s next in the realignment derby, more tradition will be lost.

“I realize that some of the mega conferences are now going to have fewer off-conference games,” Dunn said. “But there is still room for these games. They may have other goals, but that’s what the fans want.”

Even new die-hards who didn’t grow up watching the sport, like Tony Simulik, a Canadian from Ottawa who was drawn to the passion of college football, are worried about the future.

Simulik travels to SEC land every year to watch big games. Coming to Arlington hoping to see the Aggies and Hogs play at Cowboys Stadium, he said, “It was just an amazing experience.”

“It’s like cultural history,” he said. “It’s iconic. The fans, the chants, the singing, the activity. It’s worth the price of admission just to see that and feel it in this stadium. It’s the atmosphere. I’ve often thought that the game sometimes is almost anticlimactic.”

Almost, but not quite, for the tens of thousands of fans celebrating victories over longtime rivals, and in some cases wondering if they would do it again.

https://www.espn.com/college-football/story/_/id/34671556/scenes-texas-college-football-saturday-amid-possible-demise-regional-rivalries Scenes from a Texas college football Saturday amid the possible demise of regional rivalries

Emma Bowman

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