The image is still there, over 60 years later. In the movie "The Wizard of Oz" there is a young Judy Garland as Dorothy, surrounded by the Scarecrow, the Cowardly Lion and the Tin Man. They are about to enter a scary part of a forest that somebody says is full of enemies just waiting to capture them.
"Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!" says Dorothy, and the four repeat it, over and over.
Fast-forward to the forest of Texas football, 2002, and welcome, my friends, to the Big 12.
After an impressive 4-0 start in non-conference play, today's game with the Cowboys of Oklahoma State marks the beginning of the seventh season of Big 12 competition for the Texas Longhorns. And the league everybody thought — when it was formed — would be the toughest in the country is exactly as predicted.
The names may be different from the movie, but the creatures waiting to attack seem just as perilously potent.
Today's opponent has made that abundantly clear. Oklahoma State led the Longhorns in Stillwater last year, 10-0, before UT scored 31 second-quarter points and rallied for a 45-17 victory. Then, a little over a month later, the Cowboys stunned the college football world by upsetting their arch-rival, the Oklahoma Sooners, 16-13, at Norman. This season, OSU is 2-2, and had last weekend off after a 51-16 thrashing of SMU two Saturdays ago.
When Mack Brown spent a season as offensive coordinator at Oklahoma in 1984, he got some sound advice from his head coach, Barry Switzer. Switzer told Brown that, in order to have a great season and win all the games, a team generally would have seven games it knew it could win, and four that would be battles. His theory — and it served him pretty well — was to work really hard on the four.
There have been times in the history of the schools of the former Big 8 and the Southwest Conference that Switzer's premise appeared to be true. But the landscape of college football, particularly in the gridiron cradle that became the Big 12, has changed completely.
Fifteen or 20 years ago, if somebody said that Nebraska and Iowa State would be a big game and that the Cyclones would win convincingly, and network television would feature Kansas State and Colorado, nobody would have believed it.
Today, this much is certain — nothing is certain.
To be sure, this is not a new thing in Longhorns football. History tells us national championship hopes at UT were dashed by a 3-5-2 TCU team in 1961 and a 2-6-2 Rice team in 1962. Traditional Southwest Conference power Arkansas did not have many wins over the Longhorns, but Razorback victories in 1979 and 1981 derailed two of Fred Akers' best teams at Texas. And Texas Tech was always pesky in Lubbock, as was Baylor in Waco, in the time of the SWC.
But for the most part, Texas fans will remember seasons where the tough games were centered on traditional rivals Oklahoma and Texas A&M, and a revolving door of opponents de jour including Arkansas and SMU, among others.
That was then and this is now, and as Texas begins Big 12 play today, here is what lies ahead. When the season started, there were at least seven teams — Texas, Colorado, Iowa State, Kansas State, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas A&M — who honestly believed they had a chance to win all of their games.
A second tier of Oklahoma State, Texas Tech and Missouri felt that on any given Saturday, they could beat anybody, and Baylor and Kansas hoped they would be good enough to do that, also.
Since the season began, many media members and fans have focused the Texas season on next week's game with Oklahoma. To that, Mack Brown has pointed out two things. First, Texas has been unbeaten only one time since 1985 (and that was last year) entering the Oklahoma game, and second, last year Texas lost the game and still was only a field goal away from playing for the National Championship — thanks, in part, to OSU's upset of the Sooners so that the Horns could be outright champions of the Big 12 South Division.
As far as Brown is concerned, the record speaks for itself. Either Texas played opponents that were better than them; they got caught overlooking somebody or both.
But with today's game, Texas enters a gauntlet that is unmatched in recent scheduling history. The Cowboys have proved they deserve respect. Their solid victory in Norman last year was no fluke. The significance of the Oklahoma game is obvious, but what follows makes the season like a video game with dangers that are both visible and hidden.
After today's game, Texas is on the road three of the next four weeks, with the only home game against North Division upstart Iowa State. The Horns play Oklahoma in Dallas and then must venture to Kansas State, which is showing signs of restocking its power banks. Then it is back home to Austin to play Iowa State, and the next week Texas is at Nebraska.
The Horns return to Austin on November 9 to take on Baylor, and finish the season with a trip to Lubbock to play Texas Tech and a Thanksgiving weekend game here against rival Texas A&M. Then, if everything has fallen right in its quest to win them all, Texas would play in the Big 12 Championship game in Houston.
That's 12, maybe 13 ball games, and of the last eight, four are against teams that entered this weekend ranked in the AP Top 25.
With Texas' schedule and the equality that has come to college football, the figures Switzer once quoted probably are now reversed. There are very few, if any, automatic wins in college football today and those that are aren't on Texas' schedule. When you are Texas — and the motto says "We're Texas" — it makes everybody's season if they knock you off. As memory serves, Oklahoma State was one of four opponents to tear down the goal posts after home victories over a 4-7 Longhorn team in 1997.
So what is there to do?
In the mundane language of games, coaches say "we're gonna take 'em one game at a time," and that is incredibly critical right now. You can't overlook Oklahoma State, and after what the media defines as a "big win" (and that could be defined as a victory over any of the following four opponents), you can't let down.
In 1981, Texas crushed Oklahoma to move to No. 1 in the country, only to get blind-sided by Arkansas in Fayetteville, 42-11. In 1962, Texas made it past Oklahoma and Arkansas, only to get tied by Rice.
To make it to Emerald City where the Wizard lives, you have to go through the forest with all of its dangers. The Scarecrow had to have a brain, the Tin Man needed to have a heart and the Lion needed courage. Significantly, the characters in the movie would learn that their greatest danger did not come from the lions and tigers and bears, for they never saw them. They were most vulnerable when they had left the frightful forest and fell asleep in the poppy field.
The most important thing to realize is, this is not unique to this year. The Big 12 shows every sign of getting better and better, so winning all of the games will get harder and harder. What you hope is that the joy of winning never becomes overshadowed by the fear of losing.
The message of the Wizard of Oz was not about conquering the lions and tigers and bears, or even about going to sleep when you have transcended their dangers.
The message was about being the best you can be, and being happy with that when the movie ends.