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The state of play at Texas

The defining image of Texas's 53-45 quadruple overtime loss to Oklahoma on Saturday was not the Tre Brown's interception that sealed it for the Sooners, it wasn't Sam Ehlinger's game-tying touchdown toss to Keaontay Ingram, and it wasn't the insta-viral clip of that Texas fan giving Fox's camera the finger.

It was

Longhorns QB Sam Ehlinger remained on the field for "The Eyes of Texas" school song after the four overtime loss to Oklahoma.

— KXAN News (@KXAN_News) October 10, 2020

" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">this: Ehlinger, head down, helmet in hand, standing alone, singing "The Eyes of Texas" while the rest of his teammates were in the locker room. That image brought to boil an issue that has been simmering for months in Austin, ever since Longhorn athletes announced their list of demands this summer. Once UT athletes published that list in June -- ironically, four months ago today -- the general feeling within the Texas community was something along the lines of, "Taking long-dead racists names off buildings, honoring UT's first Black player, investing in recruitment of inner-city students is admirable, and probably should have been done long ago. Good on you for bringing it to light. But don't mess with the song." For those unaware, "The Eyes of Texas" was originally performed at a minstrel show around the turn of the 20th century. Its lyrics were, in a twisted way that is explained in depth here, inspired by Robert E. Lee. The song has a racist past in a way that many cultural artifacts from this country's history do. But, to many Longhorns, that misses the point. No one sings that song in the year 2020 to preserve some memory of the Old South. People sing that song because they love the University of Texas. "The Eyes of Texas" is played at births, weddings and funerals. (As a UT graduate, the song was played at my wedding.) The Longhorn faithful commemorated around that song after dethroning USC in the 2006 Rose Bowl, just as they did after losing to Kansas in 2016. Rain or shine, that song and Texas football -- ergo, that song and the University of Texas -- are inseparable in the minds of just about every stakeholder the university has. So combustible is this situation that Jay Hartzell, in one of his first moves as UT's new president, reiterated that "The Eyes" will remain the school song. Now, that's a long detour from what is ostensibly a football story, but really it's not. Watching Longhorn players retreat to the locker room before "The Eyes" would've been a tough pill for many to swallow even after a 63-0 win over Oklahoma. But after a 10th loss to OU in 13 tries, one that dropped the team to 1-2 in Big 12 play? Now you understand the state of play in Austin. In some ways, this is unfair to Tom Herman. The "Eyes" controversy long predates his tenure, and he had no hand in the program's slide from 2010 through 2016.


Yet Herman, a former Mack Brown GA, was hired to "put the BBs back in the box," to borrow a Mack phrase.

Three and a half seasons in, it's fair to say the BBs are as scattered as they've ever been.

A veteran team, led by a fourth-year starter at quarterback with more than two dozen players with starting experience surrounding him, stands in eighth place in the Big 12. Sure, Texas is a play here and there from being 3-0, but this team -- in Year 4 under Herman, with 50-plus 4- and 5-star recruits -- is even closer to being alone in last place in the conference.

And then there's the "Eyes," which many view as a failure of leadership on Herman's part.

Moving on from Tom Herman would not be easy and yet, according to industry sources as well as a report from Inside Texasindicate it is not off the table. The Austin American-Statesman listed Herman's buyout in the $20 million range last November (he's under contract through 2023) and that doesn't include a well-compensated staff, many of whom are under multi-year contracts. Seven of Herman's 10 assistants just got to Austin, a course correction for a disappointing 2019 season.

And that's before you account for the costs of the pandemic. Like many other athletics departments, Texas instituted layoffs, furloughs and pay cuts. (The football coaches will get their pay cuts back.)

At the same time, the Texas athletics department is in a highly leveraged position right now. Just last year the department broke ground on a $175 million renovation to Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium's south end zone.

"It's exciting for our football program, for our coaches and really for The University of Texas for us to begin construction on a $175 million project. It's an awesome day," AD Chris Del Conte said at the time. "It speaks volumes to Longhorn Nation. They said yes, we support you, not only philanthropically, but with their attendance in the stands."

Needless to say, it's going to require continued support to pay down the note on that expansion. And that's going to be difficult with an underachieving team that the fan base is lukewarm about.

Heading into a well-timed off week, Herman stands alone in the history of Texas football. Charlie Strong, late stage Mack Brown, John Mackovic, Fred Akers... all of their teams underachieved. But only Herman's teams underachieved while not acknowledging the school song.