Longhorns-Sooners: best college town?

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Ever notice the "best rivalry" polls always roll out during Michigan-Ohio State week? Well, considering either Oklahoma or Texas has played for five of the past nine BCS championships, no one can trump the Red River Rivalry outright.

More for the road

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The bickering began after Oklahoma's first win (a 2-0 "thriller" in 1905), when OU players allegedly dragged a Texas ball carrier behind the goal line after the whistle for the winning safety. Things got uglier in years since, capped a few years ago when a church deacon nearly tore off the ... er, well ... private parts of a guy for wearing a "Texas" shirt in an Oklahoma City bar.

Who said it's just a game?

"College GameDay" descends on the half-orange, half-red Cotton Bowl this Saturday, beginning at 9 a.m., for the next edition of the unfriendly rivalry, which has been held in Dallas since 1929. We'll see which team is triumphant on the field.

But what of Austin and Norman? Which wins as a college-town destination? I've rated seven aspects of each to tab a winner (judging each on a one- to eight-point scale):


Austin has the festivals (South by Southwest), the TV legacy ("Austin City Limits") and the endless venues. The late Stevie Ray Vaughan cut his teeth here after dropping out of high school in Dallas in the late '70s. And the scene has fostered the punk legends Butthole Surfers and the "New Sincerity" folk scene in the '80s, led by Daniel Johnston. More recently, and with more testosterone, wordy bands clicked the distortion pedals, like ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead. In all, the music in Austin is as good as it gets in America.

Though events are scarcer, Norman can hold its own with bands, which more frequently genre-bend than in Austin. The Flaming Lips set cymbals on fire and dragged on psychedelic renderings of Led Zeppelin songs in Norman, way before evolving into the kings of alternative rock. And now they have their own "alley" in Oklahoma City's Bricktown. Members of the alt Starlight Mints run Opolis, an arty venue off downtown's Main Street. More at street level are the irresistible, goofball, folk anthems like "Oklahoma Breakdown" by Mike Hosty, who can be seen and heard at the sticky-floor, pint-sized Deli in Campus Corner on Sundays. Score: Austin 8, Norman 5

Mexican food

You can get into fights in Austin debating which Mexican restaurant is best. Quentin Tarantino apparently favored Guero's (seen in his film "Death Proof"), a cheap dive great for mornings after or evenings before, with excellent huevos rancheros, tamales and a stream of "Longhorn" margaritas.

The best in Norman, just north of campus, is Pepe Delgado's. Most go for the "burrito loco," but ask for an off-the-menu Pepe secret: "the Thing" (a giant burrito covered in three sauces and served with a side of grilled onions). "It's the size of a child's head; it's only for the very hungry," said Pepe Delgado's regular John Whitaker. Austin 7, Norman 5

Swimming hole

This isn't close. Austin's Barton Springs Pool, in Zilker Park south of Town Lake, is a natural spring pool that stays 68 degrees all year. You can have a swim in January if you want -- some do -- then enjoy a walk or bike ride along the paths of Town Lake south of downtown, passing "bat bridge" (where more than a million bats take flight at dusk from March through November).

Norman's Lake Thunderbird -- aka "Lake Dirtybird" -- is a muddy reservoir that flooded out two towns when it was filled in the 1960s. Recently an unclaimed foot was found here, and those who swim (usually drunk and way after dark) come up stained red from the iron-rich clay bottom. At least it's not orange. Austin 8, Norman 1

Game-day drinking scenes

Comparing these two towns for their overall nightlife options is a David and Goliath story, in which Austin Goliath pounds Norman David into little Norman David bits. But the scene around the stadium is far more level than one would expect.

Just north of campus in Norman, Boyd Street and Asp Avenue are the heart of Campus Corner, with a few bars and eateries and plenty of beer sold from buckets on game days. The Irish bar O'Connell's has long been a game-day staple. (Former Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer frequents old-school Othello's for Italian meals.) A few quick blocks west, the Library is probably Norman's best all-around bar, with local brews (such as Boyd Street Wheat) and pickled okra to snack on.

Austin's great drinking and eating districts -- like downtown's East Sixth Street or less-touristy East Second Street and the Warehouse District -- are far removed from the stadium. The best nearby pregame activities loom several blocks south. Scholz Garten is supposedly Texas' oldest bar (1866), with outdoor tables, beer, food, big screens and the local ESPN radio broadcast. Nearby on 18th Street is so-called "Bevo Boulevard," replete with eat-and-drink options. Norman 4, Austin 4

Cheese shops

Marc Hoenig of Austin's ESPN 1530 AM says that as far as tailgating is concerned, Austin is more of a "wine-and-cheese crowd." So let's look at the cheese.

Austin's Grape Vine Market is chiefly a wine outlet, but it has one of Austin's best cheese selections, often paired with wine in tastings. Jeff Somers, an SMU grad who sells the 60-some cheeses, admits some are wrapped in Sooner-red casing, but not burnt orange. "Cheese shouldn't be orange," he said. "If it's orange, it's dyed."

On Norman's Main Street, Forward Foods is a real-deal gourmet cheese shop with more than 200 cheeses, some served on tasty sandwiches and quiche in their cafe. It's the real thing. Co-owner Steve Reynolds, an OU alum, agrees with Somers on cheese coloring, "Fortunately no cheese comes out in that god-awful, headache-inducing burnt orange. If it did, it'd surely be life-threateningly poisonous." Norman 7, Austin 4

Nearby attractions

The best adventures outside Austin are chasing wildflowers in the Hill Country, particularly around historic German towns like Fredericksburg, 80 miles west of town, and stopping in authentic honky-tonks in the hills, like Gruene Hall, 45 miles south. (Click here for more honky-tonk options.)

Norman is 20 miles south of Oklahoma City via I-35. It's home to fun stockyards (where one can browse cattle, sometimes longhorns, on Monday and Tuesday mornings); authentic Vietnamese pho noodle soups along 23rd Street and Classen Avenue; and a cowboy culture brought to life at the excellent National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. Austin 4, Norman 4

Sideline antics

Few games in America have more spectacle than the Oklahoma-Texas rivalry. On the orange side, just down from big Texas fan Matthew McConaughey, Bevo (and his iconic horns) is the rare representative of a mascot that many, many people eat. The longhorn is watched over by members of the Silver Spurs spirit squad, who sing along when the marching band, in cowboy hats, performs "The Eyes of Texas" and "Texas Fight." Many fans of opposing teams make fun of the band's outfits. Jeremy Gue, a former UT flag bearer, told me, "The problem is the tassels. People say it's very girly and frilly. When you move, they move with you."

On the Sooners' side, there's bearded country singer Toby Keith and a pony-led "Sooner Schooner" that charges the field after scores. Running alongside are the RUF/NEKS, the nation's oldest spirit squad, an all-male troupe with "shotguns," swinging paddles and red-and-white uniforms that's been around since 1915.

Former RUF/NEK Clarke Stroud (now OU vice president for Student Affairs) tells of one 1987 spirit-squad standoff in Dallas.

"OU thrashed them that year, and afterwards a bit of a conflict ensued at the goal line between the Spurs and RUF/NEKS," he explained. "Then a RUF/NEK shot his shotgun and Bevo flipped his handlers on the ground.

"There's nothing better than walking out of that stadium when you win. And nothing worse than when you lose." Norman 7, Austin 5

Final score: In a close one in this series, Austin wins 3-2-2.