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Letters from University of Texas donors reveal drastic measures some willing to go to preserve 'Eyes of Texas'

Texas football players sing “The Eyes of Texas” after beating Baylor 26-16 on Oct. 24 at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium in Austin. [Ricardo B. Brazziell/USA TODAY NETWORK]
Texas football players sing “The Eyes of Texas” after beating Baylor 26-16 on Oct. 24 at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium in Austin. [Ricardo B. Brazziell/USA TODAY NETWORK]

The controversy surrounding the Texas Longhorns football program and the school song, “The Eyes of Texas,” has provided a glimpse of just how far some of the school’s wealthiest boosters say they’re willing to go to keep the song as part of the game-day experience.

“My wife and I have given an endowment in excess of $1 million to athletics. This could very easily be rescinded if things don’t drastically change around here,” one donor wrote in an email to UT-Austin President Jay Hartzell in October. “Has everyone become oblivious of who supports athletics??”

The note was one of nearly 300 that reached Hartzell’s office from June until October, with nearly 70% in favor of keeping “The Eyes,” according to a report Monday by the Texas Tribune.

Of those 300, the Tribune reports, around of 75 of them threatened to withdraw their financial support.

“UT needs rich donors who love The Eyes of Texas more than they need one crop of irresponsible and uninformed students or faculty who won’t do what they are paid to do,” wrote a retired judge who graduated from the university’s law school.

Hartzell declared in July the song would remain a staple at the school, but the entire community should try to remember its origins.

He released a statement Tuesday.

“People who target our students with hateful views do not represent the values of the Longhorn community,” Hartzell said. “A few extremist views in the sample of emails the Texas Tribune reported on do not speak for the 540,000 proud Longhorn alumni who actively support our students and university. Out of the many emails I received this fall, a very small number included comments that were truly abhorrent and hateful. I categorically reject them, and they bear no influence on any aspect of our decision-making.

“The fact that we don’t all agree on our school song doesn’t mean that we don’t all belong. Next week, the Eyes of Texas History Committee will release its report. Equipped with a common set of facts, we will then continue the conversation about our song. Having spoken to students and faculty on the committee, I truly believe we can be a model for how communities address complex problems and move forward together.”

It’s been a postgame tradition in Austin for the football team to remain on the field at the end of each game for the playing of the school song. However, this season several members of the football team and the Longhorn Band said the song’s racist overtones made them feel uncomfortable.

“It’s time for you to put the foot down and make it perfectly clear that the heritage of Texas will not be lost,” wrote another donor who graduated in 1986. “It is sad that it is offending the blacks. As I said before the blacks are free and it’s time for them to move on to another state where everything is in their favor.”

Sung to the tune of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” the song’s title is linked to a quote from Confederate General Robert E. Lee — and has historically been performed at campus minstrel shows.

Former football coach Tom Herman said he would respect the wishes of players who didn’t wish to stay on the field to sing the school song. In the first home games of the season, many players headed to the locker room as the song began to play. Later in the season, the Longhorn Band stopped playing “The Eyes,” and a university committee was formed to study the song’s history.

However, new coach Steve Sarkisian took a decidedly different approach when he was hired in January.

“‘The Eyes of Texas’ is our school song,” Sarkisian said. “We’re going to sing that song. We’re going to sing that proudly.”