Bill Little commentary: Red candles, history, and us
We might as well get this out of the way, because you will hear it elsewhere in the run-up to the Texas-Texas A&M game Friday.
Longtime followers of Texas A&M have resurrected a bitter memory in hopes of reversing it. And we are talking about a distant memory here.
In 1940, Texas A&M was unbeaten and ranked No. 1 in the country, and with a victory over Texas in Austin, the Aggies would have earned a trip to the Rose Bowl to play Stanford. In that day, since the polls were decided before the bowls, they would have gone as National Champions.
All that stood in their way was the game against Texas in Austin, and the mystique of the stadiums -- Kyle Field in College Station and Texas Memorial Stadium in Austin -- was a dominant factor in the series. Texas A&M had not won in Austin since the new stadium was constructed in 1924, nor had Texas won in College Station in that time. The 1940 Aggies had won 19 straight games, and were on track to repeat as National Champions with what was widely recognized as the best team in school history.
The ranks are dwindling of those who actually saw the game, but the fact is, Texas scored in the first minute of play on a touchdown set up by a long pass that culminated in Noble Doss' famous over the shoulder catch. Doss intercepted three passes, and Texas won, 7-0. The Aggies, who missed out on the Rose Bowl and the National Championship, finished the season at 10-1, defeating Fordham in the Cotton Bowl.
Texas was mentored by eventual Hall of Fame coach D. X. Bible, who was in his fourth season at UT after highly successful stints at Texas A&M and Nebraska. The Longhorns finished 8-2, and vaulted into the 1941 season with high hopes.
If shadows of the past begin to raise their heads as this current Longhorn season moves through the twilight of November, there are actually four comparable visits to College Station to recall.
In 1963, Texas took its No. 1 ranking to College Station and barely avoided disaster. The country was reeling from the assassination of President Kennedy less than a week before, and the concentration factor was in question as Texas A&M held a 13-3, then 13-9 lead before UT scored in the last two minutes to win 15-13. Texas went on to beat Navy in the Cotton Bowl to claim its first-ever National Championship. The A&M squad, which had fought so valiantly, ended the season at 2-7-1.
After that, future top-ranked Texas teams left no doubt at Kyle Field. In 1969, Darrell Royal's Wishbone juggernaut crushed the Aggies, 49-12. Texas followed that with victories over Arkansas and Notre Dame for its second National Championship, and Texas A&M, under favorite son Gene Stallings, wound up 3-7.
On paper, the best match-up for Texas A&M against a top-ranked Texas team came in 1977. That year, Emory Bellard had the Aggies only a couple of wins away from perhaps earning a three-way tie for the Southwest Conference championship and the league's Cotton Bowl berth. Trouble was, Fred Akers' No. 1 ranked Longhorns, led by future Heisman winner Earl Campbell were in the way. Texas beat the Aggies, 57-28, but lost its National Championship dream to Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl.
Then, in 1983, Texas entered the game at 10-0 and ranked No. 2 in the country. Texas A&M, in its second year under Jackie Sherrill, needed a win to earn a bowl bid. The Aggies took a 13-0 lead, but Texas came roaring back to a 45-13 victory. Texas went on to the Cotton Bowl, where it lost a possible chance at a National Championship, falling to Georgia, 10-9, and A&M finished its year at 5-5-1.
In Longhorn lore, all of those games pale in comparison to the Longhorns' trip to College Station 65 games ago.
The season of 1941 has long been remembered for the highest, and lowest points in the first 50 years of Texas football. The team had been featured on the cover of Life Magazine. It was destined for the Rose Bowl, and a possible national title until a tie with Baylor and a loss to TCU changed the dimension of the season.
But it also produced perhaps the most famous legend of Texas football, the legend of the Red Candles.
After the dreams of the season had been dulled by Baylor and TCU, the 1941 Longhorns faced the challenge of breaking the string of losses in College Station. It was then that a fortuneteller named Mrs. Augusta Hipple entered the picture. On a November night, several students in search of a secret potion to break the "curse" went to see "Madam" Hipple.
From the inner sanctum, they came with one piece of advice: burn red candles.
Throughout the campus and the city, the flame ignited. Longhorn supporters bought every red candle in town and orders went out for more. On Thanksgiving, Texas defeated Texas A&M, 23-0, and the Kyle Field jinx was broken.
The Legend of Red Candles lay dormant for twelve years. In 1953, with the Longhorns preparing to face a Baylor team that was unbeaten and battling for a national championship, Bill McReynolds, who was managing editor of The Daily Texan, broke out a call for red candles.
Again, the campus burned with frenzy. Time magazine called the candles "The most potent whammy in Texas tradition, and nothing to be lightly invoked...." A blocked extra point was the difference. Texas won, 21-20.
Efforts to revive the magic of the candles failed in the '50s, but with a team that won only one game in 1956, not much else helped, either.
In 1963, as Texas drove for its first National Championship ever, the red candles came out again for a Baylor game, and Texas won, 7-0.
During the 1980s, when environmentalists forced the halt of the Texas bonfire, Longhorn faithful turned to a midnight "Hex Rally," where red candles were again featured. That tradition continues today.
In the midst of all of this, the story has gone from being a visit to a fortuneteller to an old Chinese legend of hex-breaking.
When we were celebrating the Centennial year of Texas football in 1992, I looked in the phone book and sure enough, there was the name of "A. Hipple." I called her and sure enough, right there on 29th Street, there she was. On the telephone, from a lady I had never met, I was stunned to learn some really personal information, which few people knew. I had never believed in "fortunetellers," but if I did, she would have been my pick.
But the reason for my call was to find out, 50 years later, the "real truth" about Red Candles. There was a slight chuckle as she began to tell the story.
"Our boys were really down, and they needed something to help them," she said. "I had just begun my practice when the young people came to see me. I told them that 'red means alert' and that they needed something to show the team they were behind them."
After Texas beat Baylor in 1953, Dougal Cameron, a Longhorn player at the time, put the candles in perspective.
"Spirit," he said, "makes you play better than you can."
Mrs. Hipple, who insisted she never was a "madam," told fortunes until she was in her late eighties.
"The most important person, from the cradle to the grave, is the person that is within you. That is healthy ego, not diseased conceit," she said. "The boys were struggling so; they only needed something to relax the child that is within us all. The most important person, from the cradle to the grave, is the child that lives within us."
Mrs. Hipple lived until the early part of this 21st century, and it would be interesting to know if she knew how well, in 1992, she described the 2005 Longhorn football team.
There is a difference in confidence and cockiness, just as she described in "healthy ego" and "diseased conceit."
This 2005 team plays the game for the fun of it, and the players have helped awaken the child that lives in every member of the team and, for that matter, the staff. They play because they enjoy playing, and they celebrate each other. Spirit and togetherness do, after all, make you play better than you can.
So as you approach Monday night's Hex Rally on the UT campus, understand this: The message of the red candles wasn't magic; and it wasn't an ancient Chinese hex breaker. It was the simple truth that applies to whatever in life you choose to do.
History is important because of what it can teach us, not only about the past, but about ourselves. There is a "Force" out there when people band together in a common goal, and the strongest force of all is the bright, burning will that lives inside each of us. And in 65 years, that hasn't changed.