As part of a book I am writing on the culture of Texas football, I will be returning to Odessa on Friday night to attend the Odessa Permian versus Midland Lee game at Ratliff Stadium. This year is the 25-year anniversary of the book that changed the Mojo, “Friday Night Lights.”
In 2000, I traveled to Odessa for the first time to do a story on Permian, and specifically how the book changed the team, the town and the high school. I have not been back to Odessa since 2000, and I am fascinated to see how the place has changed, if at all.
The following is the story I wrote that appeared in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram on Sept. 15, 2000.
ODESSA - Ginny Graham lives in Odessa. Has for all of her 16 years. This is where she attends Permian High School.
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This is home. A home that a book - The Book - beloved by so many, hated by a few hundred thousand, changed. Forever.
“I think The Book changed the school,” she said with a shrug. “I was oblivious to Permian before The Book came out. Mrs. Hargis [her history teacher] says there are two schools - Permian BB and Permian AB (Before Book and After Book). She told me of a Mojo when you could do anything. Now, we kind of doubt ourselves. It’s like we were brought down by The Book. It’s just not there anymore ... The Book stole our Mojo.”
In Odessa, reciting the title of The Book is unnecessary. The best-selling Friday Night Lights chronicled one year of their town, their lives and their football team.
Since The Book was published in 1990, the Permian Panthers, perhaps the nation’s most recognized high school football team, have become human. Today, Mojo is just a chant, not the brashness that its inhabiters once lived and breathed and opponents feared and envied.
Be it University Interscholastic League infractions, demographics, The Book, better competition or a shallow talent pool, the Panthers - with all their mystique and following - are just another Texas high school program.
“Yeah, the team’s changed,” said Permian teacher Angela Love, who was Miss PHS in 1990. “They lose now.”
Brownwood is hoping to continue that new tradition when it plays Permian at 5 p.m. Saturday in Odessa.
WHERE THE PROGRAM IS
In places such as South Bend, Ind., losing is a relative term. A “losing season” there is two losses in 11 games.
Same thing in Odessa. From the time PHS opened in 1959, the Panthers were Notre Dame, maybe better.
There were six state titles, a national championship in 1989 by USA Today, five state finals, 21 district championships, 23 playoff appearances and 22 seasons of 10 or more victories.
Since 1996, however, Permian is a mortal 23-19. Only four times have the Panthers finished with a losing record, and two of those have come the past three seasons. The ’97 team snapped a streak of 32 consecutive winning seasons with a 3-6 record.
In the past four seasons, the Panthers have seen their 33-year winning streak against Abilene, their 17-year winning streak against Abilene Cooper, and their 26-year winning streak against Midland High all snapped. But, the real killer was losing to cross-town rival Odessa High in 1997. That was the Panthers’ first loss to the Bronchos since 1964.
“What’s the best thing about coaching here?” asked former head coach Randy Mayes, now the director of social studies curriculum for the Ector County Independent School District. “The same thing that’s the worst thing: the obsession.”
Despite being well-liked and respected, Mayes’ regime never worked. He was reassigned this past off-season despite a 45-25-1 record in six seasons.
“There was so much community outcry because two times in the last three seasons we didn’t make the playoffs, which means that in a six-team district we finished no better than fourth,” said ECISD athletic director Don Ford, who oversees the district’s girls sports. “Randy Mayes said it in his press conference. It’s an outstanding record, but here it’s not good enough ... Sure, it [the expectations] angers me frequently.”
A BOOK OF REASONS
What was the impetus for Permian’s apparent demise?
The obvious culprit is The Book. Friday Night Lights is a scathing portrayal of a town seemingly warped by an insatiable lust for high school football. A town run amok with vice, bigots, boosters and coaches who exploit teen-agers.
“It probably portrayed us as a more backward set of people than we are,” said Russell Wheatley, who kicked a 62-yard field goal for the Panthers in a playoff game in 1975 against Longview. He now has a daughter who attends Permian.
“It’s not necessarily a flattering or untrue book, but it’s all negative. ... It’s probably close to the way things were if you took an objective view from the outside.”
Not to justify any wrong the book may have detailed, but most Odessans figure author H.G. Bissinger could have picked any successful high school team and found what he found. What angered them is that, away from their endless hospitable nature, their home is portrayed as having few redeeming qualities.
Nevertheless, since The Book’s publication, life at Permian is different.
“I think the book made people realize there was too much interest [in football] in our town. For a while, it was almost taboo to be a Mojo fan,” said Brian Chavez, one of the main players in the book. He graduated from Harvard and is now an attorney in Odessa. “I think actually the school overreacted and tried to de-emphasize football maybe more than they should have.”
Not everyone subscribes to that premise, a theory that Bissinger himself echoed in the afterword for Friday Night Lights re-release in 1998. Others, however, suggest different reasons why Permian is no longer king.
The district instituted an Advanced Placement program at nearby Odessa High permitting students that would normally be enrolled at Permian to transfer to OHS for courses not available at Permian, further decreasing the Panthers’ talent pool.
In 1990, the UIL penalized Permian for its illegal practices and disqualified the Panthers from the playoffs. And in 1993, the UIL forced the Panthers to forfeit every district game (six) for playing an ineligible player, ending their playoffs after they won their first-round game.
“That [the first infraction in 1990] seemed like it was the beginning of the down slide,” Ford said. “It seemed to cast a clear pall over the whole team.”
In addition, modernity and other teams have caught up to Permian.
Former Panther cupcake opponents, such as Abilene High or Abilene Cooper, have evolved into dominant teams. Rarely is the Mojo mystique and outworking-the-opponent philosophy good enough. Opponents work as hard, and some, notably archrival Midland Lee, have more talent.
“It used to be we’d walk on the field and we were up 7 to 14 points before the game started,” said Kyle Donaldson (Permian Class of ’74), whose son, Justin, is a senior running back. “We’ve lost some of that respect.”
And now every team employs the famed year-round, off-season programs that Permian seemingly invented and perfected.
“I think people are finally beginning to realize there are other great programs in the state,” Permian principal Brian Rosson said. “I think it’s pretty unrealistic for people to expect we’re on the road to a state title every year.”
The Panthers last reached the state title game in 1995.
As in other towns, there are a multitude of activities for students to participate in. Soccer and other sports take away potential football players, cheerleaders, Peppettes and Majorettes.
“A lot of the students don’t want to be around [school] all the time,” senior Blake Brazelton, a member of the flag team, said. “There are so many rules at school, and a lot of the students want as much freedom as they can get on the weekends.”
The result is declining attendance and a somewhat ambivalent attitude from the majority of the students toward the team. Granted, 14,200 showed up last Friday night for the home-opening victory against Carrollton R.L. Turner, but fans leave early now. Save for the rivalry games against Midland Lee or Odessa High, the student sections are sparsely filled.
“We’ve had season tickets since 1967, and we didn’t come to a game last year,” said 64-year-old Ken Spadley, who attends games with his wife, Margaret. “The interest isn’t as rabid. For the first 20 years we would be yelling from start to finish. Everybody stood the whole game. I really think we won a lot of games because the fans were just so loud.”
Permian still attracts 8,000-10,000 fans a game - a following small colleges covet - but the figures are down from 15,000-17,000 in years past. Season tickets, however, remain unavailable unless a fan is willing to pay sometimes as much as $1,500 through the want ads.
For a high school anyplace else in America, this is football heaven. At Permian, it’s just not the same.
When Mayes was reassigned, how many coaches do you think applied for one of the state’s most revered jobs? Three hundred, a thousand maybe?
“I’d say we got maybe 15 applicants,” Ford said. “Too much pressure.”
Not too much for T.J. Mills. After four state titles at Class 3A Sealy, Mills had been vocal in his desire for a raise. When Permian offered an annual salary of $78,000, he ran.
With the job comes the burden of restoring Permian to its previous glory.
“I’ve always had Permian on a pedestal,” Mills said. “I’ve always been in awe at what they’ve been able to accomplish year in and year out. We don’t have everything carte blanche, though.”
Until he arrived, Mills didn’t know that Permian’s sophomore team and junior varsity teams didn’t win a game last season. He didn’t know that one of its junior high teams hasn’t won a game in two years and that another won two games last year, including one victory against the other feeder school.
He didn’t know that player participation was down by nearly 60 students.
“The hardest thing is getting the kids to believe Permian is a special place and they can be winners again,” Mills said. “Isn’t that hard to believe that at Permian you would have to sell that?”
Mills brought in an entirely new staff. He changed the uniforms. He recruited kids out of the hallways. He told those who were kicked off or quit to come on back. Clean slate.
The kids, and the town, have responded. Player participation is up, enthusiasm is high, and there is a surging confidence behind a 2-0 record.
“This is great ... awesome,” said senior offensive lineman Blake Absher, who returned to the team after sitting out much of last season. “I missed coming out here on Friday nights. I think we’re back.”
But can it ever match its legend again?
“I don’t know if you can say it will ever be that dominant again, but the expectations are still very high,” Ford said. “To some degree Permian has become normal and, yes, that’s good. We have often said, and so have some of the coaches, ‘Let’s get to some degree of normalcy without all this drive, push and pressure.’ “
To opponents, there still is nothing normal about Permian. Beating the Panthers now is as rewarding as beating the Panthers 10 years ago.
“I don’t think it makes any difference,” Brownwood coach Steve Freeman said. “It’s not the same, but there is a mentality that continues to exist there. I think there are parallels between Brownwood and Permian. A tradition-rich school in a lot of ways has to be real cautious. Tradition can work in your favor, but in the end you have to be careful not to ride that tradition into the future.”
Permian doesn’t have to worry about that anymore. Time, the UIL and The Book - for better or worse - took care of that.