Before it was glorified (and scandalized) in literature and cinema, football’s beginning in Texas was far more modest, though once the match was lit, the game’s popularity took off like a wildfire on the state’s blackland prairies.
It wasn’t exactly happenstance that football became the state game of Texas.
Good organization was certainly a driving force.
The UIL, formed in 1913, gave the game a code of universal rules — on the field and mandating regulations for high schools off the field — that afforded an even playing field, for the most part. Though imperfect, of course, the infrastructure in place would police the game for the next 100 years.
But one need look no further than the state’s history and culture to put a finger on why football became the king of Texas’ sports culture.
Football exemplifies Texas.
In a football player is the bold and valiant warrior of Texas’ great military tradition; the rugged individualism, work ethic and cocksure confidence of an oil wildcatter or farmer confident this will be his year, and the spiritual strength emboldened by the state’s faith traditions.
Football is Texas, a culture grounded and affirmed in all the necessary ingredients of rules, traditions, folklore and legend (and, yes, legendary pranks and stunts), all of it passed down from a fraternity of coaches and players and towns whose people have basked in the prestige from the game.
Even through the social changes and progress of the 20th century, the value system of a football player has stayed relatively consistent, derived from the state’s first professional coaches. (In the beginning, there was no professional class because almost every school had a coach who had never played. To illustrate the newness of football, for many, the first game they saw was the one they played in.)
For those first coaches, who grew up in depression and war, football was a tool to impart a value system revolving around self-reliance, sacrifice, discipline, accountability and survival, according to Ty Cashion, a professor of history at Sam Houston State and author of Pigskin Pulpit, a social history of Texas high school coaches.
These were all the obstacles they would face in life after football, the “life skills” today’s coaches preach.
The first seeds for cultivating this culture were planted with the formation of the Texas High School Coaches Association in the 1930s. Coaching school gave coaches a forum to trade ideas and exposure to each other and to the best minds in their craft.
A regular guest was TCU’s Dutch Meyer, who was as likely to talk football as the art of throwing dice into the early morning hours, as Pulpit pointed out.
Other events made significant contributions to the growth of the game’s popularity in the 1930s.
Pigskin Pulpit refers to a defining day in October 1934 when two Texas teams turned the head of a nation with Rice’s upset of highly favored Purdue in Indiana, and in the same state, Texas shocked Notre Dame, considered unbeatable, in South Bend.
In this era, heroes were born with Slingin’ Sammy Baugh and Heisman Trophy winner Davey O’Brien of TCU. National championships at SMU in 1935, TCU in 1938 and Texas A&M in 1939 gave Texans a base for fanaticism and intensified rivalries.
It was also about this time that football’s opportunities spread. Those who didn’t play, formed bands, drill teams and cheerleading squads. Game times were changed from Friday afternoon, which limited spectators, to Friday night.
New stadiums, such as Fort Worth’s Farrington Field, provided venues for the growing crowds, particularly after the concerns of war had passed. Untethered from the obligations of country and a new-found prosperity that allowed almost every boy to attend school, football cemented its footing in Texas, building on the traditions already established and creating new ones.
Many were appalled by the events and fanaticism described by Buzz Bissinger in his bestseller Friday Night Lights, though none of it was exactly news to ground zero of Texas football. In fact, tactics such as offering good jobs to fathers of good football players were as old as the oil-boom towns of the teens and 1920s.
Cleburne, in fact, was already caught up in the moment of the Yellow Jackets’ participation in the first UIL state championship game in 1920.
A game with Houston Heights was set. If only the UIL could find consensus where to play the game. The teams spent weeks sniping over the site before finally settling on Austin.
“A movement has started here this morning to engage several extra Pullmans to carry the large delegation of Cleburne backers who are expected to accompany the team to South Texas,” the Star-Telegram reported.
About 3,000 spectators — though only about 650 from the schools represented, according to Pulpit — attended the first UIL state title game. By contrast, more than 52,000 were in attendance in December to watch the Class 6A Division I championship at AT&T Stadium in Arlington.
The first state championship game ended in a 0-0 tie.
Repulsed by such an ending, Cleburne players and coaches wanted to settle the game once and for all, fair and square. The Yellow Jackets offered the Houston team a guarantee of $2,500 for a playoff in Fort Worth, Austin or Waco.
Cleburne followed with another offer to give Heights the net receipts of the game.
Both overtures were declined.
Cleburne left it at that, presumably content that it had acted as any good Texan would have.
Next season was waiting.