Tramel: OU-Texas during the pandemic figures to make for a weird day at Fair Park
The grounds empty. The Midway rides barren. The breeze void of the aromas that define this certain Saturday every October.
We’ve seen this before.
The deserted Sea Point Park in “Big,” when Tom Hanks is looking for the Zoltar machine.
The closed Walley World in “Vacation,” enough to drive Chevy Chase mad.
Oklahoma City’s own Springlake Amusement Park, sitting shuttered in the early ‘80s.
Fair Park is going to have that feel Saturday. A place of merriment and adventure, excitement and frenzy, giving way to desolation.
It’s a tree-falls-in-the-woods riddle. If the Sooners and Longhorns play football at the Cotton Bowl, and there’s no State Fair and only 12,000 fans per side, does it make a noise?
“Probably the thing I will miss the most, the drive,” said Texas coach Tom Herman. “The busride through the crowd, through the State Fair, into the stadium. That is again what makes this rivalry so special.
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“It’s not just two interstate rivals. It’s two interstate rivals that happen to play every year at one of the most historic venues in our nation, during the Texas State Fair.”
Herman calls OU-Texas the nation’s best rivalry. Warms Oklahoma hearts to hear a Texan talk like that.
OU-Texas is a tradition built around an atmosphere like no other. And now that atmosphere is gone, at least for this year.
Now, OU-Texas will be like the OU-Arkansas Cotton Bowl Classic of 19 years ago, or the Texas-LSU Cotton Bowl Classic of 18 years ago, everyone congregating in an empty Fair Park, only with the stadium just a quarter full, because COVID-19 restrictions.
“It will be interesting,” said Lincoln Riley, a relative newcomer to the game but now a keen caretaker to its history and charms. “To pull into the fairgrounds without anybody there will be a little eerie.”
Eerie is the word for this pandemic version of OU-Texas, a spectacle which always has defined revelry but this season reminds us only that which has been taken by the coronavirus. Reunions. Traditions. Annual rites. Joyous times.
Both universities use this week for grand alumni gatherings and fundraising events and recruiting efforts not just of tailbacks but of engineers. But Greater Dallas is silent. Back to whatever color it is for 51 weeks, when more than 100,000 loyalists from each school aren’t painting the town crimson or burning it orange.
And maybe not even the football can save us. Neither team is ranked in the top 20; the 1-2 Sooners and 2-1 Longhorns collectively have played four Big 12 games, all down to the wire, and won just one.
Heck, the teams don’t even run down the solitary ramp at the same time anymore, which thickened the drama like a Hitchcock twist.
The 90-year-old Cotton Bowl is a relic, a way-past-its-prime venue that lives on only because it springs to life once a year, usually the second Saturday in October, when the already-bustling fair is invaded by hordes from north and south.
The stadium remains acceptable because it magically expands to 96,000 for OU-Texas and because fans accept its ancient shortcomings in the name of legend and lore. This is the 92nd straight year for these schools to meet at Fair Park, the 90th straight year in this stadium.
But maybe the 2020 OU-Texas game still can be salvaged. Not by the Fletcher’s corny dogs on sale outside the stadium, a Hail Mary to keep custom alive. But maybe by the passion that fills the combatants.
“I grew up in this rivalry,” said OU center Creed Humphrey, a Shawnee High School graduate. “I’ve been an OU fan my whole life. I’ve been to plenty of these games. The atmosphere is obviously something that’s going to be different this year.
“That’s something I’ve enjoyed the most, just how intense the atmosphere is. But as being a player in these games, you start to not really worry about the atmosphere too much. You start enjoying just how physical this game is, how intense this game is, how intense this rivalry is on the field.”
That’s the thing. For all this talk of the State Fair and the bus ride and the rampart and the corn dogs and the crowds, OU-Texas fundamentally is a football game played for pride.
It was that way when OU-Texas was staged 20 miles west in a Big 12 Championship Game 22 months ago, and it was that way in the ‘90s when both teams often were mediocre, and it was that way in the ‘30s when nobody knew college football would become the identity of so many people.
“Coming from Florida, I didn’t really know much about the Texas-OU rivalry and how much it was important to both fan bases, both schools and both programs,” said Sooner linebacker Nik Bonitto. “Not until I actually experienced it myself. It actually fueled a lot of hatred from me for the other team and burnt orange. It means a lot around this place.
“I definitely want to get this game. As far as the pandemic goes, the world could be falling down and both teams, they’re still gonna want to beat each other.”
Now that’s the OU-Texas we know well. The pandemic’s powers have limits as this glorious rivalry renews with an inglorious setting.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at email@example.com. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at oklahoman.com/berrytramel.