One of my middle school coaches way back in the day was named Travis Harkness. Because the distance between the bottom of his nose and the top of his upper lip was unusually large, we called him Chongo, always behind his back, of course. Turns out that little groove between your nose and upper lip has a name; it’s called the philtrum, and Chongo’s philtrum was of simian length. If you stick your tongue in front of your upper teeth but inside your mouth, push your tongue up until it won’t go any higher and look in the mirror, you’ll get the general idea.
Chongo was a one of our favorites. His ape-like physical features gave way to a Homer Simpson-type classroom presence. He wasn’t the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree, but he was good to his students and cool in a dorky sort of way. In addition to his football coaching duties, he also taught science and coached the 7th grade boys’ basketball team.
Growing up in Andrews, Texas, our nearest rival geographically was the Seminole Indians. 30 minutes straight south was a nearly identical oil patch town that also had the colors black and gold. There were several incidents over the years of burning gigantic capital letters into each other’s fields or spray paint vandalism of the football stadium the week before the game. It wasn’t a rivalry with the same intensity as Red Sox-Yankees, Bush-Trump or Clinton-e-mails, but we were none too fond of each other.
My 7th grade year, we found ourselves in an old, dilapidated basketball gym, playing our hated rival. The painfully obvious, ticky-tack officiating started early and kept going through the bulk of the game. Andrews was being whistled for foul after foul, while Seminole would only be called for the normal, it’s-so-obvious-I-have-no-choice-type of 7th grade basketball fouls.
My teammates started fouling out – in the third quarter. I was close to fouling out, and I remember wondering if my dad would be mad at me if I was forced out of the game. Harkness kept yelling at the refs to call it fairly on both sides. The madder Chongo got, the worse the officiating became. Time has blurred some of the exact details, but, the way I remember it, at the end of the game Andrews had racked up 23 team fouls; Seminole had five.
As we boarded the bus to head home, Chongo did something I’ve never had a coach do before or since: he closed the bus door with a slam, turned from the driver’s seat, looked us in the eye over his right shoulder and said, “Men, this game was stolen from you by cheating refs. I’ve never seen anything so lopsided in my life. When we count up the wins and losses at the end of the year, we’re not even going to count this game because you were cheated out of a chance to win.”
Wow. I’d never felt like such a victim before. It was kind of empowering. At breakfast the next morning, I tried to describe the experience to my stoic father, who listened patiently until I repeated what Coach Harkness had said. My old school father blew up at me: “There are bad foul calls in every basketball game: high school, college, pro. If you play well enough, the bad calls don’t make a difference. Never, ever use officiating as an excuse for losing. Never.”
“But … but … but …” My recitation of the facts had absolutely no effect on Dad. I was sad and a little angry that my own father wouldn’t take my side. My short but curiously satisfying time as a victim was jerked short like a dog on a choke leash. Never cry about the officiating; play well enough, and it takes them out of the picture.
My beloved, mighty, fighting Texas Longhorns had a problem or two with the officiating last Saturday in their conference opener against Oklahoma State. Time after time after time, we experienced what Southwest Conference radio icon Kern Tips referred to as “laundry on the carpet.” A plethora of yellow birds. A bad case of the zebras. A screwjob, Bob.
Look, I was at the game. I watched and re-watched the game on the DVR. I carefully observed the YouTube compilations of the fouls called. I have no doubt the Horns were on the receiving end of multiple wrong calls and one or two no-way-in-College-Station calls.
Let’s get a couple of thing out of the way first: this particular officiating crew may have a bias against UT, but every person who has ever donned the stripes has biases. You learn the truth early on while picking juries – there is no such thing as an impartial human. Ever. Under any circumstances. We are all prejudiced in one way or another, every last one of us. The best we can hope for is to admit our prejudices, work hard to overcome them, and take people individually and not assume things about them because they are a part of a class or group.
Second, if you look at the big picture, the University of Texas football program has little room to complain. All those years we were the big, swinging Trump of the Southwest Conference, how many close calls did we have go our way? Hundreds? Thousands? Every person reading this rant can immediately think of half a dozen such calls over the years, including our last game against Aggie. If you pile all the close calls that went our way over the years against the terrible calls last Saturday, the Horn Nation still comes out miles ahead.
Third, and I can’t emphasize this strongly enough, I refuse to be a petulant, crying, victimized bitch. I refuse to be a goddamn Texas Aggie. Nobody has whined and pouted about officiating over the years more than the Gomers. It’s the only drum their brown shirt, goose-stepping band can beat in rhythm: “The refs screwed us! The refs screwed us!” I’d rather have this nauseating feeling in my gut after a close, heartbreaking UT loss 12 weeks a year than find any degree of comfort in being a cuckolded victim.
So screw the officials. Screw the Aggies. Screw Okie State. Screw being snake-bit. Screw being “unlucky.” Screw “we’re too young.” Screw it all.
One big win makes it all go away. You can do this, Charlie. TCU is ripe for the taking. We have all the pieces in place. We have a winner at quarterback and a defense with a chip on it’s shoulder. Find a way to win this weekend, Coach, and all this bad mojo vanishes like a fart in the wind.
It all starts with deciding we’re not going to be a victim of anyone or anything any more.
A 1986 graduate of the University of Texas, Jeff Conner has held many jobs in his life: husband, brother, uncle, son, oil field roustabout, short-order cook, sandblaster, irrigation pipe mover, musician, retail assistant manager, attorney-at-law, public school teacher, preacher, cartoonist and writer. While he does have a hot, young wife, Conner is neither as clever nor as good-looking as he believes himself to be. Jeff currently warps fragile and vulnerable young minds while teaching 8th grade math and Pre-AP algebra in Taylor, Texas, home of the Fighting Ducks. Conner’s regularly submitted commentary appears in InsideTexas.com and Inside Texas Magazine. The opinions presented do not necessarily reflect the views of the Inside Texas editorial staff.