The petty, wonderful and delightfully weird rise of Horns Down

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John Slate found himself stuck on the side of the highway amid a series of dangerous storms in May in Oklahoma.

Tornadoes had given way to flash flooding. There was nowhere to go in bumper-to-bumper traffic. A local news crew spotted him on the side of the road in El Reno, sitting on the tailgate of his pickup.

He'd tried to be slick, to be that guy who drives up the shoulder when nobody else is moving. Didn't work, he said, with a deadpan nod to the camera. Now, stranded with nothing but a bag of pork rinds to keep him company, Slate saw an opportunity. And he took it.

Bam. A Horns Down in the wild. A shot at the Texas Longhorns right there on the highway, on the news, in the middle of May without any real rhyme or reason.

Wonder all you want. Slate said it makes perfect sense.

"Nothing goes better together in Oklahoma than tornadoes, pork rinds and Horns Down," he told ESPN that afternoon. "It's an Oklahoma thing. It's something that brings us together. Whether you're a Sooner or a Cowpoke, we can all agree that Texas sucks. It's a universal sign of love for Okies."

Texas' Hook 'Em Horns sign is without a doubt one of the most iconic symbols in sports. But it's also unique in its widespread appropriation by rivals. Fans can sarcastically mock Florida's Gator Chomp or USC's V for Victory, but nothing quite has the vigor of a briskly delivered Horns Down. There's no simpler act of pettiness in college football.

And in Oklahoma, it might as well be as important a tradition as the Sooner Schooner.

"Nothing goes better together in Oklahoma than tornadoes, pork rinds and Horns Down." Oklahoma fan John Slate

"As long as Horns have been going up, Horns have been going down at Oklahoma," legendary Sooners coach Barry Switzer said this week. "No one's ever gonna stop doing it."

Between a bonus Texas-OU rematch in the conference title game for the first time in 115 years, new rivals getting taunting penalties, John Slate's pork-rind-fueled gesture and Baker Mayfield being Baker Mayfield, it's been the biggest year in the 64-year history of the inverted Hook 'Em Horns sign.

Rise of the controversy

More than 60 years ago, Henry "HK" Pitts showed Harley Clark, Texas' head yell leader, his hand in the shape of a fist, with his index and pinky fingers extended, and said it looked like the horns of Texas' mascot, the longhorn steer. That week, Clark, without any warning to or input from the administration, took it upon himself to declare the gesture "the official hand sign of the University of Texas, to be used whenever and wherever Longhorns gather" at a football rally ahead of a November 1955 game against TCU.

Clark's words became truth. The Hook 'Em Horns sign instantly became a beloved Texas tradition. Horns Down caught on almost as quickly among rivals, even without the aid of social media. The front page of Texas' student newspaper, the Daily Texan, featured a Baylor fan doing the Horns Down in 1963.

Texas fans certainly don't appreciate the gesture. But for Texas officials, saying anything about it is a no-win situation. The Longhorns politely declined to discuss the topic for this story.

It's not hard to see why. The makings of the modern Horns Down controversy came when Texas coach Mack Brown tried to make a point about what he considered to be one hypocritical call in a game.

In 2012, facing Texas Tech in Lubbock, Texas receiver Mike Davis was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct for using his hands to pretend he was putting guns in a holster, a play on Texas Tech's Guns Up hand sign.

Asked about it during his Monday news conference that week, Brown said, "That's something we ought to talk about as a league. The Horns Down are disrespectful for players on the field. If Horns Down are OK, we ought to have Guns Down be OK."

Of course, all fans heard was Brown appealing to the Big 12 on behalf of a behemoth -- Texas -- to deal with a hand sign that was a fan favorite of rivals. Twitter, even in 2012, went nuts. A story about Brown's quote in the Daily Oklahoman in Oklahoma City was the most-read story on the paper's website that day.

Last November, it became A Thing again when West Virginia came to Austin. In the first quarter, Mountaineers receiver David Sills V caught a 60-yard touchdown pass, trotted through the back of the end zone, looked up to the crowd and threw a double-barrel Horns Down, immediately drawing a 15-yard penalty for taunting. After scoring on what turned out to be the winning two-point conversion to make it 42-41 with 16 seconds left in the game, quarterback Will Grier reprised the two-fisted version to the crowd and drew another flag.

After the game, Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger, a lifelong Longhorns fan who grew up in Austin and whose family had Texas season tickets, tweeted, then deleted, what every Texas fan was feeling:

"I remember every single team/player that disrespects the rich tradition of the University of Texas by putting the Horns down. Do not think it will be forgotten in the future."

College football was soon engrossed in a full-fledged Horns Down debate, particularly ahead of a Texas-Oklahoma rematch in the Big 12 championship game, marking the first time the bitter rivals had met twice in a season since 1903. That week, Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley said he'd asked the league for a ruling on the gesture and told reporters, "Yeah, we can't do it."

Texas coach Tom Herman said after a practice, "We've been disrespected for as long as that hand signal has been around. We're kinda used to it."

Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby called the Horns Down controversy a "tempest in a teapot" for the league in an interview on "The Dan Patrick Show."

And now, it seems, the Horns Down are up everywhere.

Cleveland Browns quarterback and Oklahoma legend Baker Mayfield taught campers how to do it at his football camp in Austin.

• Junior golfers did it in a photo with former Texas star Jordan Spieth.

• West Virginia put the Texas logo upside down on the schedule inside its football facility.

• Texas A&M track athletes wore their bibs upside down so the Horns would be down on them at the Texas Relays in Austin.

• A camper from Norman, Oklahoma, did it while standing next to Herman at a Texas football camp.

But if this many people are thinking about Texas, is that necessarily a bad thing for the Longhorns?

"There are plenty of sports franchises built on how much people hate them," said Whitney Wagoner, director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon.

It's why Oklahoma and Texas A&M fans will buy Longhorns decals -- paying a royalty to the University of Texas -- to put a sticker on their truck upside down, or in the Aggies' case, with the horns "sawed off," as indicated in their fight song.

Given the intense nature of those rivalries, Texas fans almost are willing to understand why Oklahoma or A&M fans will celebrate with a Horns Down rather than simply cheer their own team.

But the West Virginia incident is new territory. Realignment has spread the field, so to speak.

University of Memphis professor Cody Havard, Ph.D., studies fan behavior. One area of his research is measuring perceptions fans have toward their favorite team's rival.

"We polled college fans and asked them who their biggest rival was," Havard said. "Texas has 11 different teams identifying them as a rival, by far the most in the country."

"Our rivals are different," said Cari Clark, an Austin realtor and the daughter of the late Harley Clark, who introduced the sign. "So that's what it takes now. You don't have these long-standing rivalries, so they're trying to create drama where there isn't."

Havard understands the psychology, because that's his job. But as a native Texan who got an undergraduate degree from Texas, he also understands the Longhorns fans' sentiment.

"You don't like when anybody does it," he said. "But if someone in the extended family does it, it's better than a complete stranger."

That still doesn't mean the Horns like it. Houston Nutt can testify to the longevity of their memory.

Nutt was born and raised in Little Rock, Arkansas. He grew up watching revered Arkansas coach Frank Broyles take on Darrell Royal and the Longhorns when the rivalry had national championship implications in the 1960s and '70s. Then, Nutt played for Broyles and the Hogs.

Years later, at the end of his second season as the Razorbacks' head coach, on the sidelines of the 2000 Cotton Bowl, he was about to close out a 27-6 win for Arkansas' first bowl victory since 1985. And best of all? It was coming against the dreaded Longhorns.

This meant something to him, going all the way back to his childhood.

"When Texas came to play Arkansas, it was this huge, huge thing," he said. "I remember being taught at the age of 6 outside War Memorial Stadium [in Little Rock] how to do the Hook 'Em Horns Down sign."

With about two minutes left and the game well in hand, Nutt turned around to the fans to soak it in. Muscle memory took over.

"It was a sea of red, and they were mostly doing the Hook 'Em Horns Down," Nutt said. "What did I do? I can't help it. I'm right there with 'em."

In that moment, he wasn't prepared for the aftershock. For the screengrabs that would live forever. For the opposing coach to get so upset.

"I remember being taught at the age of 6 ... how to do the Hook 'Em Horns Down sign." Houston Nutt

"Mack [Brown] told me he wasn't too appreciative," said Nutt, now a college football analyst for CBS. "He said, 'I can understand your players doing it. But not you, Coach.'"

Sonny Dykes, now the coach at SMU, was on the sidelines for another of the all-time Horns Down indignities. In 2016, when he was the head coach at Cal, Texas traveled to Berkeley to face the Golden Bears. In addition to the Bears winning 50-43, some Cal players gave Texas the business.

Cal mocks Longhorns after touchdown

Davis Webb lasers a touchdown pass to Chad Hansen to put Cal up 34-33 on Texas and then Hanson celebrates by mocking the Longhorns.

"My dad was on the staff at Texas," Dykes said, referring to Spike Dykes, the longtime Texas Tech coach. "I grew up going to games at Memorial Stadium. That place always meant a little something to me."

So he understood how much the moment meant even when his team didn't. Sure, his players shouldn't have done it, Dykes said, before a little bit of his Lubbock started showing.

"Texas probably shouldn't have let us beat them twice, either."

Yes, the Longhorns know winning is the best antidote. But a sports psychologist with a little experience in the matter thinks Horns Down can actually help with that, too.

"I don't think it's bad for Texas at all, whether it's penalized or not," said Lyn McDonald, a certified mental performance consultant at the Texas Center for Sports Psychology in San Antonio. "If they're penalized, great. But the psychological advantage is more beneficial than the 15 yards. It can hone in the motivation to kick ass."

Former Texas linebacker Emmanuel Acho agrees.

"If the opposing team is gonna throw the Horns Down, you better believe I will throw them up even harder, even faster, even more aggressively after I make a big play," said Acho, an ESPN NFL and college football analyst who started 26 games at Texas, where he also earned a master's degree in sports psychology.

McDonald, too, has a little first-hand experience in the rivalry as a former 12th Man on the Texas A&M kickoff team, graduating in 1990. He's seen a few Horns Downs up close.

"I didn't do it while I was playing," he said. "But I may have done it at a Spurs game on the JumboTron once."

The big debate: Should Horns Down be a penalty?

There is one Texas villain who is surprisingly empathetic to Longhorns fans: former Miami receiver Randal "Thrill" Hill, who famously kept running up the tunnel after scoring on a 48-yard touchdown pass in No. 4 Miami's 46-3 throttling of No. 3 Texas in the 1991 Cotton Bowl, punctuating it with a six-shooter celebration. Hill's performance, along with Miami's record 15 penalties for 202 yards, led to the adoption of the "Miami Rule" by the NCAA just weeks later, which added a clause prohibiting excessive celebration, or "behavior demeaning to the image of college football," to its unsportsmanlike conduct guidelines.

"As far as someone getting penalized for Longhorns Down, I guess you can thank me for that," Hill said.

"I can understand why people get super sensitive about it," said Hill, who in a delightful bit of college football coming full circle says his daughter might attend Texas. "It's kind of like putting [Miami's] The U sign upside down. It's gonna cause a problem. I challenge you to go to some areas of South Florida and throw The U upside down and see what happens. You ain't gonna get too far."

Without testing that theory, there's only the on-field debate. The celebration rule Hill helped force is still open to interpretation by officials, which is why Horns Down will continue to be hotly debated.

West Virginia's penalties were based on NCAA Rule 9-2-1, which says, "No player, substitute, coach or other person subject to the rules shall use abusive, threatening or obscene language or gestures, or engage in such acts that provoke ill will or are demeaning to an opponent, to game officials or to the image of the game."

Brown, now at North Carolina, told ESPN.com this offseason he thinks Horns Down qualifies.

"If you're being derogatory to the other school, why wouldn't that be a penalty? I've always thought that. I would've thought the same thing with any sign of any team that was used in a derogatory manner," he said. "We're trying to teach kids to be positive about your university and not be negative about the other. For fans to use it, that's fine. But I didn't think we should use it on the field and in front of the other team because it was definitely derogatory and unsportsmanlike."

But that almost only applies at Texas, even in a state where every major team has a hand symbol. Last season, just down the road, Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant did a double Gig 'Em Down after scoring a touchdown against Texas A&M, which just gives off more of a Siskel and Ebert vibe and came and went without much notice.

The Hook 'Em sign is "an iconic hand signal when you think of college sports," McDonald conceded. But simply turn it upside down, he said, and it has "become this untouchable signal you can't do as opposed to the 2,000 other hand signals in American football."

"It's a childish gesture," said Diane Gottsman, a national etiquette expert and founder of The Protocol School of Texas. "It can easily escalate into an act of aggression when emotions, liquor and the wrong personalities are involved."

But manners aside, should it be a penalty in a football game?

"One thing the NCAA does not want to do is get into being the gesture police," Walt Anderson, then the Big 12 coordinator of officials, told Austin American-Statesman columnist Kirk Bohls in 2012 after Brown's assertion that the conference should get involved.

Last year, six years later, Big 12 spokesman Bob Burda told ESPN after the West Virginia kerfuffle that the decision to flag players for taunting because of gestures is up to "officials' judgment."

Slate, a self-described "frequent Horns Down user," won't be swayed. "By God, we're sure not going to stop doing it as fans," he said. "We're talking about a hand gesture of a rivalry -- of a friendly rivalry -- that's been around a hundred years."

Nutt said his Horns Down incident was a "one-time deal" and that he'd made peace with Brown, a good friend. But he still understands its allure.

"Why is everybody so enthralled with this thing?" he asked. "Well, when you beat Texas, you look back at Darrell Royal, Earl Campbell, little James Street, I've watched 'em all, man. They broke my heart many days. It's a respect."

Acho thinks it's painless.

"If you can't throw the Horns Down, what can you do?" he said. "It's the most polite disrespect that you can do in the game of football. It's not a kick in the nuts."

And Switzer, well, he's got his own reasons.

"S---," he said. "It's just fun!"

ESPN's David M. Hale contributed to this report.