Alma Mater Issues
Updated: Jan 19
The University of Texas has an alma mater problem, and the timing couldn’t be worse.
Control is an illusion
Next season – for the first time since the dawn of the BCS era in 1998 – no team in the Big 12 controls its own destiny. An undefeated Big 12 champion will need help to qualify for the national championship playoff. It has been an article of faith for at least the last seven decades that if the Horns run the table, the Horns get a shot at the national title. It’s a tenet of football theology shared by all so-called blue blood programs as they look forward to the after-season.
With the way this season is playing out, it’s undeniably plausible that an undefeated Big 12 champ next season would get snubbed in favor of:
1-loss Big 10 champ
1-loss ACC champ
2-loss SEC champ
1-loss SEC runner-up
1-loss Notre Dame
For an undefeated Big 12 champ to make the College Football Playoff next season, at least three of these options would have to disappear. For instance, there’s a good chance that an undefeated Big 12 champ would get the nod over a 2-loss Notre Dame. Unless the Irish win it all this year, in which case a 2-loss Notre Dame could find its way to the playoff ahead of an undefeated Big 12 champ next season. I think a Pac-12 champ with the same record as a Big 12 champ also wins the toss-up next year.
However you weigh the probabilities, next season the Vanderbilt Commodores will control their own destiny to a degree that the Horns and Sooners will not.
Since its founding in 1996, the Big 12 Conference has produced just five undefeated champions. Texas (2005, 2009) & OU (2000, 2004) have each done it twice, and Nebraska did it once back in ’97. No team has claimed an undefeated Big 12 title since the conference realignment set in motion before the 2011 season. That’s when Nebraska’s exit from the Big 12 precipitated the exits of Colorado & Missouri. (TCU was still part of the Mountain West Conference when the Horned Frogs notched their undefeated season in 2010.)
The College Football Playoff (CFP) replaced the BCS in 2014. Since the inception of the CFP, only UCF has been undefeatedly snubbed by the selection committee. That was in 2017, and maybe the Knights got screwed. But no high school recruit ever signed a letter of intent to play for UCF based on the likelihood of playing for a national championship. In the summer of ’17, when UCF head coach Scott Frost looked forward to the season, he knew his team could be special. If they fell short of winning the American Athletic Conference, he would be personally disappointed. But Frost also knew before the season started that it would take more than beating every opponent on the field for a Group of 5 school to make the four-team playoff for the national championship.
A Husker Comes Home
Back in his playing days as a college QB, Frost weighed similar considerations after his second year at Stanford. Frost grew up in Lincoln, NE, and he opted to leave the Cardinal to transfer back home. As the Huskers’ QB, it was Frost who led an undefeated Nebraska team to the Big 12 title game in ’97, where they blew up the Aggies 54 – 15.
In ’97, the undefeated Big 12 champ got a shot at the national title and won it all. Frost had improved his chances to claim a national title by transferring to Nebraska from Stanford as a player. He made a similar move 20 years later as a coach. After his undefeated season at UCF, Frost accepted an offer to return to Nebraska, this time as the head football coach of his alma mater.
Almae Matres (Live in Texas)
The true Latin plural of alma mater is almae matres. It’s not intuitive; it doesn’t look right; and my dictionary does not list it. It’s not common for Merriam-Webster to skip out on listing proper plurals, but it’s rarely necessary to talk about two almae matres in the same breath.
In Latin it means fostering mother. When we say alma mater out loud, it’s not really two words. Mindless of the gap, we gallop across the four syllables without pause. We run the words together with iambic grace, and in the process, we embed a quick ma-ma in the timeless void between a & m.
When we talk about mother, we put mama in the middle.
The phonics and inflection shift a little with the plural almae matres, but there’s still music to enjoy in the unfamiliar Latin. Give or take a dipthong, almae matres sounds like all-my mah-trace. If you care to experiment with dead language twang, try swapping “almae matres” into the “all my ex’s” part of “All My Ex’s Live in Texas.”
In English, an alma mater is either a student’s school or a school’s song.
Beyond simple attendance, alma mater connotes devotion and possession. The dictionary definition does not set degree requirements or a credit-hour threshold. The concept is more flexible. It's a measure of warm spirits rather than cold accreditation. Whether listed on the honor roll or facing academic probation, it’s up to individual students if they wish to refer to their school as my alma mater. In this sense, alma matrical designations are optational for students.
When Scott Frost started his college career, he could refer to Stanford as his alma mater. When Frost transferred to Nebraska, no one expected that Frost would ever refer to Stanford and Nebraska collectively as his almae matres.
Perhaps by omitting the plural, Merriam-Webster meant to place almae matres in the category of Valentines, Highlanders, and quarterbacks, where there can be only one. Merriam-Webster suggests that the old truism about quarterbacks can be applied to almae matres: If you have two, you have none.
Retention & Recruiting
On the first week of the 2017 season, UCF put up 61 in a rout of Florida International, and Texas lost to Maryland. It was Tom Herman’s first game as head coach at Texas. The Horns had not won a conference championship since 2009. The Longhorns (0 – 1) had a clearer path to a national title than the Knights (1 – 0) after Week 1 in 2017.
Next year, the Big 12 will face a season in exile. Unlike UCF, the rosters of Oklahoma and Texas are filled with former blue chip recruits who made their college choices based on College Football Playoff probabilities. Selling a shot at playing for a national title is central to the recruiting pitches of the Sooners and the Horns. With the remote likelihood of any national championship contender emerging from the Big 12 next season, Texas and OU will face retention issues. Both schools have benefitted from the NCAA’s loosening of transfer requirements over the last few years. Now those same rules threaten to hollow out the rosters of the Big 12’s two blue blood programs.
The whole Big 12 Conference is down with less than two weeks left before the best high school football players in America will start signing letters of intent and choosing their future almae matres.
Unlike Oklahoma, and perhaps unique to Division I college football, the University of Texas also has an alma mater problem.
Between Now & Bama
Every head coach who competes against Texas, would love to see “The Eyes of Texas” postgame ritual remain unchanged. It is the unanimous opinion of these men, their coordinators, and position coaches that “The Eyes of Texas” has become a recruiting and retention liability for the Longhorns. When Texas gets serious about finding its next head football coach, some of the big fish candidates will insist that Texas must get out of its own way and move on from the fraught song. The university will be forced to decide if it wants to have the best football coach or the oldest song.
Irrespective of who the coach is, Texas will face-off against the Alabama Crimson Tide on September 10, 2022, right here in Austin. It would be a good Saturday for Texas to have its shit together. If Texas is determined to keep its expectations for the postgame ritual unchanged between now and Bama, the Tide will roll and splash unchecked across Campbell-Williams Field.
The south end zone renovations will be completed just in time to serve as backdrop for a bloodbath, like those elevator doors in The Shining.
The nightmare’s final frame will find the ragged, DKR remainder singing “The Eyes of Texas,” in mournful certainty that they will remember this game forever, with the sting of ten thousand Marylands.
In the coming weeks Austin Aloha wonders:
Is "The Eyes of Texas" the least sentimental school song in the NCAA?
Eyes of TX Pre-Test – Answer Key
Today's reflection provides answers for Questions 2 & 3.
Correct answers are bold & in unburnt orange.
For Question 2, almae matres is the correct Latin plural for alma mater. Mater is an irregular third declension noun which takes the feminine.
For Question 3, the only incorrect choice is: A. Undefeated Big 12 champ
1. The regular season match-up between Texas and OU at the Cotton Bowl is officially known as the Red River __________.
2. What is the plural of alma mater?
A. alma maters
B. mama triad
C. oedipus duplex
D. almae matres
3. Choose four of the following to construct the strongest line-up for the next season's College Football Playoff:
A. Undefeated Big 12 champ
B. 1-loss Big 10 champ
C. 1-loss ACC champ
D. 2-loss SEC champ
E. 1-loss SEC runner-up
F. 1-loss Notre Dame
4. Which fictional character is most compatible with Robert E. Lee?
A. Keyzer Söze
B. Hank Williams Jr.
C. Atticus Finch
D. Colonel Sanders
5. Who escaped the 19th Century?
A. Robert E. Lee
C. Harriet Tubman
D. Emma Lazarus
6. From 1905 to 1915, sportswriters used a variety of descriptors to profile boxer Jack Johnson, the first Texan to claim the world heavyweight title. Which of the following descriptions of Johnson was the most problematic? (Reminder: Johnson was born in Galveston, TX.)
D. “I don’t see color”
7. John Lang Sinclair wrote his first draft of “The Eyes of Texas” on _________.
A. the back of an envelope
B. scrap paper from the laundry
C. a roll of Japanese tracing paper
D. an airsick bag
8. What was a touchdown worth in 1903?
A. 4 points
B. 5 points
C. I don’t believe in TDs
D. 6 points
9. In the final line of “The Eyes,” Gabriel’s horn refers to:
A. beginning of Civil War
B. the Rapture
C. archangelic Ob/Gyn house call
D. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto #2 (first demo 1718)
10. What venue hosted the first public performance of “The Eyes of Texas?”
A. Gregory Gymnasium
B. Hancock Opera House
C. Scholz Garten
D. Armadillo World Headquarters
E. Driskill Hotel
11. In the spring of 1912, could all of the Klansmen in Austin have fit on the Titanic?
B. Not all Klansmen
12. Who had a better year in 1963?
13. As if in fulfillment of prophecy, this golden boy of honeyed nativity heralded the second coming of a national title for Daddy D & the Horns. Born in Uvalde, TX in the middle of a 30-game gridiron winning streak, his Texas ministry consistently rates higher than Double-Alright.
A. Denton Van Zan
B. Rust Cohle
C. Buster Moon
D. Buddy Deeds
14. When did the Texas Longhorns football team integrate?
A. the 1520s
B. the 1790s
C. the 1870s
D. the 1970s
15. Who didn’t win the 2005 Heisman Trophy?
A. Matt Leinart
B. Reggie Bush
C. Vince Young
D. All of the above
16. After the Horns’ loss to the Sooners in this year’s Red River [Game] athletic director Chris Del Conte made a play to defend the postgame ritual of “The Eyes of Texas.” In terms of defensive technique and execution, Del Conte’s mid-October email to alumni & boosters most closely resembled which game-changing Longhorn defensive play?
A. Blake Gideon’s pass deflection against Tech (11/1/08)
B. Todd Orlando sends the house on 3rd & 17 against LSU (9/7/19)
C. Keondre Coburn loses his helmet & keeps going against Utah (12/31/19)
D. Malcolm Roach gets early pressure on Iowa State missed FG (11/16/19)
17. In terms of ritual, which of these best characterizes player presence and presentation during the postgame singing of “The Eyes of Texas?”
A. anergic-ludic liminoid
B. ergic-ludic liminal
18. This heat-activated device is literally a figurative representation of the University of Texas tagline, “what starts here changes the world.”