Texas and Oklahoma are playing football against one another this week again. The purplish faces and bulging arteries protruding from those burnt orange T-shirts are evidence of the virus that strikes the U.S. every fall. College football rivalries pop out like measles this time of year.
This one, called the Red River Rivalry, is the most virulent and analyzed in recent seasons. Other symptoms of the rapidly mutating strain are raspy breathing, constant trash talk and sleeplessness. If one of the teams hits a losing streak the response is hysteria, as in the near stampede among current Longhorns boosters.
Great college football rivalries engage the healthy, activate the disturbed, fascinate the thoughtful, amaze the detached, mystify the rational, horrify the scholarly, encourage the immature, enrich the greedy, and terrify the faint of heart. Most of all, they take over every waking hour of the cultures they invade. I have been involved in rivalries that dominate folks' lives literally 365 days each year.
They also motivate and drive young football players, who have grown up dreaming of stepping onto the arena with the right jersey against just the right opponent. By the time the more industrious dreamers make their way onto the field, they are surrounded by thousands of others who share their dreams, and while they never make it to the gridiron, they seek to will their teams' success. It is contagious obsession.
How does all this happen?
In his book, "The Tipping Point," Malcolm Gladwell states, "The Tipping Point is the biography of an idea, and the idea is very simple. It is that the best way to understand the emergence of fashion trends, the ebb and flow of crime waves, or, for that matter, the transformation of unknown books into bestsellers, or the rise of teenage smoking, or the phenomena of word of mouth, or any number of the other mysterious changes that mark everyday life is to think of them as epidemics. Ideas and products and messages and behaviors spread just like viruses do."
Perfect. Think of your basic college football rivalry as an epidemic.
Gladwell goes on to delineate three characteristics of epidemics: (1) contagiousness; (2) the fact that little causes can have big effects; and (3) that change happens not gradually but at dramatic moments. Perfect again. That one dramatic moment is what Gladwell has named the Tipping Point. The latent virus asserts itself and goes on a rampage.
College football games affect their participants, fans, campuses, communities and even their states' economies in demonstrable ways. People go into low-grade depressions, stop buying goods or going to restaurants, play hooky from church, all because of the score of a game. For many, the rivalry game becomes the transforming moment in their lives, even for spectators.
The specific Tipping Point in football rivalries that draws the most interest and conjecture is the one concerning the occupational status of the coaches. In this case, Bob Stoops and Mack Brown are among the most successful head coaches of the last two decades. As Casey Stengel would say, "You can look it up."
Stoops has a national championship to his credit, has completely revived the moribund Oklahoma tradition and has earned the respect of all his peers. At one point his teams had won 10 of 11 games against top-10 opponents, a stunning achievement. In the matter of the crucial Red River Rivalry, he and his teams have run up five wins in a row, all by double digits, with a cumulative score of 189-54.
But Oklahoma lost in the 2003 Big 12 Championship Game, the BCS Championship Game in the Sugar Bowl that year, the BCS Championship Game in the Orange Bowl again last year, and got off to a slow start this year. As absurd as it is, Stoops faces a Tipping Point in the public perception of his program.
Mack Brown has produced the most successful coaching start of any head coach in Texas history. His teams are the only ones in all of college football to have won at least nine games each year for the last nine years, the last seven at Texas.
But Texas has been beaten in the Red River Rivalry five years running, and Mack Brown faces a Tipping Point of his own. The outcome of this one game could appear to negate the great success his teams have enjoyed.
When Tipping Points Go Awry
One of Vince Lombardi's best statements was about the rewards of winning. He constantly preached that the winners get 100 percent joy (he said, "One Hunnert Percent!"), 100 percent fun and 100 percent celebration! As for the losers, well, all they get is the resolution to get up and try again. He said it, we players believed it, and more importantly, the public believed it.
Don't blame it on Lombardi, but top coaches really are expected to win every big game, have national championship teams most years and always appear in a BCS bowl. Such is obviously impossible, but owing to the prevailing fan expectations, programs approach Tipping Points at ridiculous times. The loudest critics are the ones who know the least, yet can turn the tide of public opinion into its epidemic form. This is such a time for Stoops and Brown.
The consequences of such thinking are obvious for coaches who are fired. Neither of these guys will experience that. But what can happen that is not readily apparent is that the media, fans and administrations turn negative and that recruiting suffers, contributions drop, desperation sets in and programs falter. I have seen it again and again.
When Tom Osborne was winning almost every game during the '70s at Nebraska, the most frequently repeated phrase about him was "Yeah, he's OK, but he can't beat Oklahoma. Osborne ought to be fired if he doesn't beat the Sooners, and soon!" Osborne lost his first five in a row and eight of his first nine to Barry Switzer and the Sooners. Suppose Nebraska had been stupid enough to get rid of Osborne? In the next 17 years, Osborne won two national championships and defeated Oklahoma 12 times. The Cornhuskers won the last seven in a row over OU at the end of Osborne's amazing run.
Traditionalists long for steady hands at the rudders of our top programs. Universities such as Texas and Oklahoma have a special responsibility to be the standard-bearers in patience, forbearance and support while demanding top performance. That includes remaining supportive of outstanding coaches like Brown, Stoops and Osborne during the times when tipping points go awry.
ESPN college football analyst Bill Curry was an NFL center for 10 seasons and coached for 17 years on the college stage. His Center Stage examinations appear each week during the college football season.