It was the morning of a critical Big 12 opener against TCU, and Texas officials had a problem.
“Aloe Blacc’s flight has been canceled,” senior associate athletic director Drew Martin remembers a colleague frantically saying. The artist you probably remember as the one doing all the vocal work on Avicii’s “Wake Me Up” was due in Austin early Saturday afternoon to play Longhorn City Limits, one of a series of gameday initiatives Martin and first-year athletic director Chris Del Conte cooked up to help make Texas fans actually excited to attend Texas games. Martin, who arrived only two months ago from TCU—where he worked alongside Del Conte for five years—didn’t panic. Instead, he remembered he works at Texas now.
“We have three police escorts,” Martin remembers saying. “One for Bevo. One for the team. One for the opponent. So let’s get a fourth. Get Aloe Blacc at the airport and blaze him to campus.”
He made it.
Aloe Blacc’s presence on what Texas officials call Bevo Blvd. didn’t help the Longhorns score a single point in their 31–16 win against the Horned Frogs on Saturday, but, along with several other changes Del Conte and Martin have made for this season, it did help create an atmosphere that has given Texas something it hasn’t had in years—an honest-to-goodness home field advantage.
Del Conte and Martin have reconfigured the seating to give Texas students a contiguous bloc of seats with the Texas band blasting from the middle. They have made that student seating first-come, first-serve to get those students in the stadium and yelling. They have cut down on ads on the video boards and forbidden on-field, thanks-for-writing-that-big-check presentations if those presentations bring down the energy level in the stadium. The newcomers are trying to remind Texas fans that football games are supposed to be fun. And it just so happens that for the past two Saturdays, the team has given fans a reason to keep partying in the stands.
I used to call the Darrel K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium crowd the quietest 100,000 people in America. Texas games in recent years felt more like golf tournaments—and not the U.S. Open or the one in Phoenix that’s sponsored by the garbage company. The gameday atmosphere was stuck in the 1980s, and the fans seemed as bored by the presentation as they did by the lackluster play on the field. Plus, Longhorns fans seemed to have a stuffiness about them that rivals often mocked. They acted as if all the yelling those Aggies did in College Station was terribly gauche. “I think they held themselves to a different standard, which is not necessarily bad,” says former Texas A&M employee Martin of Texas fans. “But they never really embraced the fact that your home field advantage is your weapon. Use it.”
People who have attended the Longhorns’ 37–14 win against USC on Sept. 15 and Saturday’s win against TCU have said the difference in the vibe is shocking. The energy feels more like a game at LSU or at Penn State. Here’s one attendee’s take. “Wow, was that really cool to see our students and our fans?” Texas coach Tom Herman said. “That was for two straight weeks and hats off to Chris Del Conte and Drew Martin for this new and improved gameday atmosphere. Our players really, really feed off that. And I can tell you this, when you go sing ‘The Eyes of Texas’ after a win against a Top 25 opponent in front of a student section that’s as packed and as loud as that, that’s special. That is a special, special feeling.”
So what did Texas do differently? Just about everything.
The Bevo Blvd. project on San Jacinto Boulevard was designed to get fans out to campus earlier. Auburn fans don’t need to be trained to show up early and party. They’ve done it for generations. Texas fans needed a push, and Martin figured the best way to attract Austinites was with two things Austinites have proven their love for time and again: food trucks and live music. Vendors charge happy hour prices for craft beer. Advertisers are allowed to set up in the area, but their engagements must add value. “When we activate, the onus falls on them to create an experience for the fan,” Martin says. “It can’t just be where you walk up and grab a coupon.” Texas officials also got permission from the company that stages Austin City Limits to call their concert series Longhorn City Limits. Texas-based Reckless Kelly headlined the show before the USC game. Aloe Blacc was there Saturday. Texas hasn’t announced who will play the remaining three home games, but Pat Green had better play one of them.
Inside the stadium, the change in vibe begins in the student section. Texas controversially displaced some season-ticket holders to create a contiguous student section, but officials considered this a critical element. (Texas sought the advice of consultant Guido D’Elia, the man responsible for creating the gameday atmosphere at Penn State, which is home to one of the nation’s great student sections.
Martin and Del Conte eliminated a lottery-based student ticketing system that gave students assigned seats in favor of a first-come, best-served approach. “It’s like the difference between having a flight on Southwest Airlines versus a flight on United,” Martin says, referencing the Lone Star State-based airline that famously does not assign seats. “If you’re flying Southwest, you’re going to get your butt to the airport early.”
Texas has also tried to change the experience once the game begins. No longer will the Longhorns score a touchdown, fire their cannon and then pause to honor a big donor on the field. “The place wants to go nuts. But we say, ‘Hang on. Be quiet for a second while we present a game ball to the president of a company.’ It just sucks the air out of the stadium,” Martin says. “We need to keep the hype going.” Martin also has asked PA announcer Bob Cole to change his approach as well. “Talk like a fan would talk,” Martin says. “We need less news anchor and more buddy sitting in the seat next to you.”
Soundtrack matters, too. Martin wants something he compares to “the best wedding reception you’ve ever been to.” “The DJ is playing the current music that the young couple and the bridesmaids and groomsmen know,” Martin says, “but he also plays ‘Twist and Shout’.” Martin says the best gameday environments strike a balance between the current hip-hop hits the students and players want and the power ballads the donors want. He made sure the person who controls the music during the game sits outside. That way, it’s easier to discern when to play a singalong like Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ On A Prayer” or something new by Kendrick Lamar. Or, when it’s the start of the fourth quarter and your team is up eight but needs a stop, perhaps it’s time to play something by DMX from the Golden Age of Bangers that is guaranteed to get every booty shaking.
“Let them keep partying all the way until the next snap,” Martin says.
If Texas fans and players can recreate their performances from the past two weekends, they’ll be partying up all the way through “The Eyes of Texas”.
A Random Ranking
I spent a few minutes on my radio show (Playbook, 1-4 p.m. ET Monday-Friday on SiriusXM Channel 84) last week explaining to co-host Jason Horowitz why he’s a sucker for ordering iceberg wedge salads. Think about it this way. It’s half a head of lettuce with so little nutritional value that your veterinarian would tell you it’s unfit to feed to a turtle. Then that lettuce is then drenched with roughly one bottle of bleu cheese dressing. For this, people pay $12. Those people are suckers.
These are the top 10 salads. (Generally speaking, of course. None of these is unique to a specific restaurant. The best of those is the Fuji Apple Chicken Salad from Panera Bread.) Obviously, feel free to add bacon to any of these if the recipe doesn’t already call for it.
1. The grilled Caesar*
2. The Italian chopped salad
3. The Greek salad
4. The Cobb salad
5. The regular Caesar salad
6. The spinach and strawberry salad
7. The chef salad
8. The classic garden side salad
9. The taco salad
10. The broccoli salad
*I’m not referring to a grilled chicken Caesar, though you certainly could add grilled chicken to this one. I’m talking about when a steakhouse takes half a head of Romaine and kisses it to the grill before coating it—but not drowning it—in Caesar dressing.
1. Alabama (4–0)
Last week: 1
Last game: Beat Texas A&M, 45–23
Next game: vs. Louisiana
Those seeking a weakness in the Crimson Tide can take (very little) solace in the fact that Alabama didn’t cover this week’s insane 26-point spread against a ranked opponent. But yes, the Tide did win by 22, and Tua Tagovailoa completed 22 of 30 passes for 387 yards and four touchdowns.
2. Ohio State (4–0)
Last week: 2
Last game: Beat Tulane, 49–6
Next game: at Penn State
The biggest drama on the day Urban Meyer returned to the sideline for the Buckeyes was a (quickly denied by the athletic director) story that Ohio State was contemplating designating Ryan Day as Meyer’s successor with a coach-in-waiting agreement. Most of the interesting stuff should happen on the field this week, though. Ohio State’s defense has proven vulnerable to big plays, and Penn State has a big-play offense. Can the Buckeyes defend their spot here, or will we see the Nittany Lions in this section next week?
3. Georgia (4–0)
Last week: 3
Last game: Beat Missouri, 43–29
Next game: vs. Tennessee
The Bulldogs played sloppily at Missouri and still won by two touchdowns. They could play even more sloppily and still beat Tennessee. And that might give us more of this…
4. Clemson (4–0)
Last week: 4
Last game: Beat Georgia Tech, 49–21
Next game: vs. Syracuse
This could be an interesting week for the Tigers. Dabo Swinney said he didn’t want to set the depth chart during his postgame press conference at Georgia Tech, but coaches do typically set the depth chart during the week. And given the way freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence played in relief of senior Kelly Bryant on Saturday, it seems the Tigers’ coaches might have a dilemma as they head into a game against the team that shocked them last season.
Big Ugly of the Week
This week’s honoree is Wisconsin nose tackle Olive Sagapolu. Sagapolu became an Internet sensation this summer when this video of the 350-pound former high school cheerleader appeared on Wisconsin football’s Instagram feed:
Saturday, Sagapolu was instrumental in the Badgers’ 28–17 win at Iowa. Sagapolu had four tackles—which is quite a few for a guy who plays his position against an offense like Iowa’s—but was just as important on plays when he didn’t make the tackle. On this play, Sagapolu (lined up over the center) blows up a fourth-down quarterback sneak by re-establishing the line of scrimmage and creating a pile behind it.
Three And Out
1. If you like option football, the box score from Army’s 28–21 overtime loss at Oklahoma is a thing of beauty.
Even more beautiful is this quote from Black Knights coach Todd Monken.
2. As bad as Tennessee looked on the field in its 47–21 loss to Florida, things were apparently even worse on the sideline. Volunteers coach Jeremy Pruitt and linebacker Quart’e Sapp told two different versions of why Sapp wasn’t with the Vols after halftime.
Here’s Pruitt’s version.
And here is Sapp’s version.
3. A day after a shocking loss at Old Dominion, Virginia Tech coach Justin Fuente announced the dismissal of top pass rusher Trevon Hill. Hill had 3.5 sacks this season. He was one of only four returning starters on the Hokies’ defense.
What’s Eating Andy?
Have you ever regretted not having the perfect response chambered for a particular situation? Washington center Nick Harris never experiences that kind of regret.
What’s Andy Eating?
While I love sampling great local restaurants, I also love the idea that some place I tried halfway across the country might soon come to my town. So every few months, I write about a new version of Chains That Should Go National.
This one begins with a beer-centric restaurant that started in one of the most beer-centric towns in America. HopCat opened in Grand Rapids, Mich., in 2008 and has since spread throughout the Midwest and down into Kentucky (with one random location in Port St. Lucie, Fla.) It features dozens of craft beers on tap on a rotating basis and excellent food that only makes diners want to drink more beer.
The concept is similar to the much larger World of Beer chain—and the beer selection at the HopCat I visited in Lincoln, Neb., seemed comparable (if not slightly larger) to the one at the World of Beer location I can walk to from my house—but the food at HopCat puts it far over the top. The Vladimir Poutine (black-pepper fries topped with spicy sausage gravy, potato and cheese pierogi, cheddar curds, stout caramelized onions and bacon) is the best thing on the menu, and it just begs to be paired with a stout or a brown ale. Meanwhile, the MadTown Grilled Cheese (Havarti, Gouda and Muenster with bacon on sourdough) comes with a cup of apple-tomato soup that might be the finest grilled cheese dipping liquid ever concocted.
HopCat has 17 locations, but it needs to keep growing. Beer nerds throughout the country need the opportunity to get fatter.
The next chain just began branching out from its original home in Portland. Salt & Straw makes that city’s best ice cream (get the Stumptown Coffee and Bourbon if they have it), and it has begun to share that bounty with other parts of the country. Locations have now opened in Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco and Seattle. That’s excellent, but now it’s time to bring all that glorious ice cream east. Some of the flavors currently being served at the original: Peach and Vanilla Bean Crumble, Schilling Cider Caramel Apples and Hey Boo Coconut Jam and Rice Crispy Treats.