Sept. 19, 2008
Bill Little, Texas Media Relations
In the Friday morning matches of the Ryder Cup, golf's premier competition between players from The United States and Europe, teammates Justin Leonard and Hunter Mahan found themselves in trouble.
The veteran Leonard, returning to the competition for the first time since his putt for a halve won the Cup for the United States in 1999, and Mahan, a rookie, found themselves losing the first two holes.
So, according to the TV announcers, to try to calm their nerves, Leonard, a UT-ex, and Mahan, a McKinney High School product who went to Oklahoma State, did what every self-respecting Texan would do - they started talking about football.
And that loosened them enough to win their morning match and send the U.S. team to a surprising morning lead.
Not surprising. In a state of over 20 million people, usually the subject will get around to football at some point.
All of which brings us to this match up between two of this state's most respected academic institutions, Rice and Texas.
Legend has it that President Kennedy, once when speaking at Rice Stadium in the early 1960s, was talking about America's quest to conquer space. "Why do we want to put a man on the moon?" Kennedy asked. "Why does Rice play Texas?"
And then he answered his own question: "To achieve higher things."
That is why Saturday's game is important, but not just for the Owls. The on-going series between Rice and Texas has roots that trace all the way back to the beginning of the Southwest Conference, almost 100 years ago.
There were years - many of them, actually - when this series was one of the premier matchups of the fall. I learned at an early age that it was important, and not just because it was the social event of the season when it came to football in Houston and Austin. My dad lettered in freshman tennis at Texas under the legendary Dr. Daniel Penick, and then got his degree from "The Rice Institute" as it was known in 1927.
This football game this year reflects, once again, a contest of respect. Not just from the two institutions of higher learning, but from the coaches. Both Rice coach David Baliff and Texas coach Mack Brown have committed to build their football programs on the solid foundation of character and integrity. Sadly, that can't be said of all programs today. Winning the right way is part of the fiber of these two schools.
It has been a long time since Jess Neely and D. X. Bible and Darrell Royal coached at these two institutions. But the principles for which they stand remain.
This game is particularly significant in that both schools, as part of this state, have felt the impact of the natural disaster that was Hurricane Ike. Texas players had families displaced and homes damaged. Rice returned from its road trip to Nashville to the awful reality of the storm.
Saturday night will give everybody a chance to put that aside for a few hours. In that time, they will think about football.
As Justin and Mahan proved, that is, after all, what we do in Texas.