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Longhorn Death Sentence

Updated: Nov 27, 2020

"Texas opened the season with a 19 – 0 win over TCU, but then the university shut down for a month because of the Spanish flu, which killed more than 20 million people worldwide, far more than the war, even more than the Black Death of 1347 – 1351.”

That’s how Bobby Hawthorne introduces the 1918 season in his 2007 coffee table book Longhorn Football. Texas wins then the world slows down, and the flu gets worse than the worst war and the worst sick. A victory at home, followed by a war away, sandwiched between two plagues. It could pass for a yearbook caption if one of the verbs were changed to present tense. Like a yearbook caption, Hawthorne’s astounding sentence has gone unread more often than not. Coffee table copy gets read once, if at all.

It is a great sentence, if not a good one. Six centuries of Death and horrific appositives contextualize a home opener. Ricardo Montalban’s leather seats were Corinthian in the same way that the 1918 flu was Spanish, but if you insist on nationalizing a virus, you should at least capitalize the F in flu, right?

The Effin’ Flu of 2020

The Effin’ Flu of 2020 is why ACL Fest will not take place in Zilker Park this weekend, October 2 -- 4. The fest agreed with the city that gathering 75,000+ in the same 350-acre park, spread out over eight stages, would be too risky with a pandemic in the air.

Truth hurts.

Six months ago, AISD superintendent Paul Cruz shut down all 129 campus buildings “for an indefinite period of time” to slow the spread of COVID-19. As Cruz explained in a letter addressed to the “Austin ISD Family” on April 3, “Campus closures are never ideal, but there is nothing more important than the safety and health of our students, staff and families.”

This indefinite period of campus closure, which began before spring break, is scheduled to end this coming Monday, October 5. According to the most recent update of AISD’s Open for Learning Plan, pre-K and early elementary students will be among the first ones back in Austin’s classrooms. The first phase of the plan calls for 25% classroom capacity over the first two weeks.

Stephanie Elizalde succeeded Cruz as AISD superintendent shortly after schools closed in April. New cases and hospital admissions in Travis County peaked in July, but since late August those numbers have been trending downward.

If Travis County sees another spike in numbers before the end of October, expect Elizalde & the AISD writers’ room to hammer out another draft of the Open for Learning Plan.

Austin schools could remain at 25% capacity or shutdown again indefinitely. If everything goes just right, and Version 4 holds, the Plan outlines a ramp-up to 50% capacity by Halloween.

This Saturday, on what would have been Weekend 1 of ACL in Zilker, just two days before the tentative first phase of re-opening Austin schools, UT athletic director Chris Del Conte is ready to risk seating 25,000+ screaming fans in DKR for the TCU game.

Let’s take another look at that Hawthorne sentence.

Attendance at Clark Field?

One hundred years after the TCU game in 1918, Texas set an all-time attendance record when a reported 103,507 filled Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium to cheer the Longhorns past the USC Trojans, on September 15, 2018.

Built in 1924, Memorial Stadium was originally dedicated to Texans who served during WWI. The stadium was re-dedicated in 1996 to honor former Oklahoma QB Darrell K Royal, who led the Sooners past the Longhorns in 1949.

Before the completion of Memorial in the fall of '24, Texas played its home games at Clark Field. According to Wikipedia, Clark Field stood at the southeast corner of 24th Street & Speedway. I think that would put it across the intersection from these canoes.

I have not uncovered a reliable attendance estimate for the first game of the 1918 campaign at Clark. A couple years later, an estimated 20,000 packed the stands for the final game of the season against A&M. Some attendance reports for the 1920 A&M game run closer to 18,000, but that was for A&M in November. TCU in September wouldn’t draw that kind of crowd.

The over-matched TCU squad that made the trip down from Ft. Worth had not yet joined the Southwest Conference. The Longhorn-Aggie rivalry, on the other hand, had already gotten over-heated; shutdown for safety; and restarted by 1920.

In 1919, A&M claimed its first “contested” national championship. Fresh off the first organized Aggie Bonfire in College Station, the Aggies brought a 25-game unbeaten streak into Austin on November 25, 1920. The Austin American hyped the Thanksgiving showdown as “the greatest athletic contest ever played in Texas.” While specific attendance estimates vary, Texas’ upset of the undefeated Aggies to conclude the 1920 season is considered to be Clark Field’s all-time peak attendance.

Back in 1918, TCU was a non-conference, non-rival coming to town to play on a muggy September afternoon. University enrollment was under 4,000, and Austin’s population was somewhere south of 35,000. I want to lend a little benefit of the doubt to the students, football fans, and Austinites of 1918.

With a deadly, untreatable contagion in the air, surely they wouldn’t fill a stadium with 20,000 potential hosts, right?

Love? Mine is Zero.

19 -- 0 is a delightfully old-timey score. Shutouts ran rampant in football’s early years. Back when the forward pass was still considered a trick play, field position was everything, and zero was the magic number. Before Texas’ go-ahead touchdown in the 4th quarter of that A&M game in ‘20, the Aggies had held opponents scoreless for an incredible 25 consecutive games, spanning three seasons. If you were to describe this run of gridiron dominance as a winning streak, no Aggie would correct you. But you would be wrong. While unbeaten in 25 games, the win streak stood at four. LSU had battled the Aggies to a 0 – 0 tie in College Station a month earlier.

And the game before A&M’s 25-game shutout streak started? The Aggies were shutout by Texas, 7 – 0.

Adjusted for inflation, a 1918 shutout is roughly equivalent to holding an opponent under 30 points in today’s Big 12. The Texas defense has not recorded a legit shutout in conference since the arrival of head coach Tom Herman in ‘17, and only once since TCU joined the Big 12 in 2012. The Longhorns have held a conference opponent scoreless just twice since 2011, and both times it was the Kansas Jayhawks who laid the goose egg.

If you were to interpret these data points to mean that Texas has not played in a Big 12 shutout since 2011, I would not correct you.

Prediction: “Big 12 Shutout”

As the broadcast of the Texas Tech game got underway last Saturday, Spencer Tillman and Tim Brando agreed that Texas’ best move of the offseason was hiring Chris Ash to be the new defensive coordinator. Four hours and 56 points later, Ash’s defense is undefeated in the Big 12. (Call it 49. You can’t pin a special teams score on the DC.)

Early returns suggest that the new defensive coordinator is a good fit for this conference. Can Ash’s defense rebound to score a “Big 12 Shutout” on Saturday by keeping the Horned Frogs under 30?

I think apart from BJ Foster’s probable ejection for targeting, the Horns will avoid costly penalties, force two turnovers, and hold TCU under 30. I think Texas’ chances of scoring a “Big 12 Shutout” are as good as the likelihood of a contagious COVID-19 carrier remaining asymptomatic: At least 60%

Catching Plague at Armistice Parades

On the Friday before the TCU game, a new outbreak erupted across Minnesota. Within days the hospitals of Minneapolis and St. Paul were overwhelmed. The first wave of the 1918 pandemic had hit in the spring. It was swift and devastating. The summer heat seemed to slow the spread of the virus, but it never went away.

The second wave hit in the fall. It was far worse. Schools, prisons, post offices, churches, and convents nationwide converted to temporary medical facilities. In Boston overcrowded hospitals housed 20 patients to a room.

On Saturday, September 28, 1918, could Austin’s civic and medical leaders have been so foolish as to risk a new outbreak for the sake of a crowded football game?

A third wave spread during winter and stretched into the following spring. Theaters in Chicago refused to admit any coughing movie-goers. San Francisco mandated surgical masks. Texas postponed a few a games, but the team continued to practice together in maskless leather helmets.

Americans subjected themselves to ineffective vaccinations and tried one home remedy after another. Wear this small bag of camphor around your neck. Inhale this eucalyptus oil and chase it with a red pepper sandwich. If they drank bleach, I haven’t read about it, but they did sip strychnine. They kept praying, but they stopped going to church. Surgeon General Rupert Blue recommended avoiding large gatherings, including victory parades after the Armistice was announced.

So the war-to-end-all-wars comes to an end after four brutal years, and the surgeon general cautions everyone that now is not the time to let your guard down. No virus cares if your nation or team wins or loses or gets shutout. Viruses don’t even care if it’s a conference game.

The Flu Followed the Fighting

Without a consistent national strategy, the virus kept exploding in outbreak after outbreak, ravaging the United States, North America, and the world. Hawthorne is not wrong when he says that the flu pandemic killed more than the once-deadliest war in human history, but the relative lethalities of the war and the disease were twisted together too tight to ever pull apart. The virus could not have spread so rapidly across six continents without military transport. It leapt from host to host in basic training, on boats crossing oceans, in trenches, in prisoner-of-war camps, and in convalescent homes. The flu followed the fighting through fields, across deserts, up mountains, above the clouds, and below the waves. And then it followed the fighters home. More US soldiers died of influenza in 1918 than were killed in action during the whole war.

War diction in football goes back long before Deacon Jones coined the term sack. War words and comparisons have dominated football discourse from the very beginning. 1918 was too early for a blitz, but the linemen still battled in the trenches at the line of scrimmage. It doesn’t matter if the Horned Frogs retreated in disarray or not; this was an old-fashioned rout.

Hawthorne's distillation of the 1918 season speaks of war without abstraction or metaphor. War is not a lens to highlight heroism. It is one cause of death among others.

In 1918, war and pestilence galloped in tandem. Textbooks memorialize their terrible progress with the grimmest of all graph axis labels:

Deaths (in Millions)

After the TCU game in 1918, the Texas Longhorns found a way to win out. They were crowned champions of the Southwest Conference.

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