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The Red River Showdown reminds us that Oklahoma and Texas are inseparable

Despite their heated rivalry, Oklahoma and Texas need each other.

Football fans try to make their way inside the gates of the Cotton Bowl at the State Fair of Texas, home to the Red River Showdown football game between Texas and Oklahoma on Oct. 6 2018 in Dallas. (Ron Jenkins for The Washington Post)

On Saturday, Oklahoma and Texas meet in Dallas for the annual Red River Showdown rivalry game. It is the first meeting between the schools since they announced their plans to leave the Big 12 for the SEC. While there is little love lost between the two schools, the game — and their joint decision to leave the Big 12 — illustrates just how inseparable the bitter rivals have become. But, this isn’t just about football. Rather, it is the culmination of a century-long effort by both teams to use one another to make money and build prestige.

Oklahoma and Texas began playing each other in 1900. During those years the University of Oklahoma struggled with negative depictions of it as backward and undeveloped; just a territorial college in a sparsely populated frontier state. The decade-old university had enrolled just over 350 students. The university’s leaders, including English professor and coach Vernon Parrington hoped football might provide some prestige.

The Longhorn game, in particular, offered an opportunity for the university to raise its profile because it was the sole collegiate team on Oklahoma’s schedule that year. The University of Texas was a more established school with more than 1,600 students in 1900. Some sources suggest that Texas viewed their first meeting with Oklahoma as a practice rather than a game, though both schools count it as an official contest. It provided them with much needed competition as they sought to develop their teams and emulate football powers on the east coast.

And so, with Oklahoma in only its fifth season of football and Texas in its seventh, the two youthful universities banded together to construct a southwestern sports culture.

The losses mounted for the Sooners during those early years, but the rivalry paid off by boosting the school’s image. By the start of World War I, Oklahoma’s enrollment rivaled that of Texas and gate receipts from their annual game soared. For example, Oklahoma received roughly $5,000 as its share of the profits from the 1916 game (this would be roughly $125,000 in 2021).

The rivalry also provided the university entree into broader athletic circles, and perhaps more importantly, access to fertile recruiting territory in Texas. As Oklahoma’s reputation increased, more universities added the Sooners to their schedule, allowing them to drop the small colleges and club teams who made up their early schedules.

By 1915, Texas and Oklahoma solidified their ties becoming charter members of the Southwest Conference. This formalized their athletic relationship, protecting their rivalry and extending it to other sports. They agreed to meet each year in Dallas, the midpoint between the two campuses, continuing a tradition that had started three years earlier.

More than an equidistant location, Dallas provided an urban setting to facilitate large crowds. In the early years of organized college sport, such an arrangement benefited budget-conscious athletic programs, particularly those looking to build a reputation. An estimated 10,000 fans witnessed the 1916 contest at Fair Park, which featured facilities far superior to those on either the Norman or Austin campuses. Likewise, Dallas’s population exceeded both college towns, providing a chance for the schools to showcase their talent in front of alumni and future students.

Oklahoma left the Southwest Conference for the Missouri Valley five years later. The conference enticed the Sooners with its more formalized structure for year-round minor sports. The fact that the Missouri Valley members then ranked higher in football prestige and attendance than those in the Southwest Conference further lured the Sooners.

This move necessitated a brief hiatus in the Texas-Oklahoma rivalry. Conference rules prohibited neutral site games, and so the Longhorns and Sooners met only twice between 1920 and 1929 in on-campus games. The games in Norman and Austin during the 1922 and 1923 seasons, reflected the determination of the two universities to maintain athletic relations.

When the Missouri Valley split between large and small schools in 1928, Oklahoma affiliated with Kansas, Kansas State, Missouri, Iowa State and Nebraska in the Big 6 Conference and demanded permission to resume its annual game against Texas. The two schools signed a 10-year contract to play at Fair Park in Dallas. Since 1929, Oklahoma and Texas have met every year.

Although the rivalry has gone on uninterrupted, it has faced challenges. In 1936, the Big 6 once again tried to ban off-campus games. The rule compelled the Kansas and the Missouri to give up their financially lucrative game in Kansas City. The Oklahoma and Texas game survived, however, largely because of their long-term contract.

Trouble arose again in 1947. This time Oklahoma threatened to cancel the schools’ contract and insisted on playing only on-campus. The bold action came in response to an incident where Oklahoma fans became unruly. They threw bottles on to the field and fights broke out after the referee made two calls that went in Texas’s favor. As a result, the Oklahoma alumni association asked the university to cease playing in Dallas.

Cooler heads prevailed in large part because Oklahoma made $41,406 (just over $508,000 in 2021 dollars) from the game that year. Oklahoma president George Cross estimated that canceling the rivalry would cost the university $21,000 ($257,670 in 2021 money) a year on top of fees for not fulfilling the remaining three years on their contract.

While money kept the rivalry going, prestige remained a key factor. During the 1950s, when Oklahoma became a national power, the annual game with Texas proved important. Due to the Sooners’ dominance, fans and sports journalists derisively labeled the Big 8 Conference “Oklahoma and the Seven Dwarves,” suggesting that it consisted of Oklahoma and a bunch of nobodies. Playing Texas showed that Oklahoma could also defeat a respectable program outside their conference — which they did nine out of 10 times between 1948 and 1957.

Oklahoma’s athletic ascendancy has followed a consistent approach. The university sought to align itself with peer institutions that bring it money, increase its reputation and allow it to showcase the state as an attractive and modern place. Texas has served as an important foe, helping to legitimize Oklahoma as it moved from territory to state, providing consistent quality competition and connecting it to the cosmopolitan culture of Dallas. Furthermore, Oklahoma’s success against Texas helped it illustrate the state’s human capital and rehabilitate its pejorative “Okie” image.

While the University of Texas started off as an older, more established institution, the two programs now stand on equal footing, and even became part of the same conference again when the Big 8 grew to the Big 12 in the 1990s.

As conference realignment continues today, the emphasis on associating with peer institutions remains. The SEC connects Oklahoma and Texas with schools that have similar football traditions and status. Considered college football’s premier conference with perennial powers like Alabama and LSU, the SEC further validates Oklahoma’s place and promotes its image. It also allows them to resume long-standing rivalries, reuniting the schools with two other original Southwest Conference members as well as Missouri, a former Big 8 and Big 12 member. More than that, the move to the SEC reflects the schools’ joint history and future.

Although destabilizing to the Big 12, Oklahoma and Texas’s move to the SEC provides stability to one of college football’s best rivalries and actually helps restore historical matchups. When the Sooners and Longhorns meet on Saturday, the game should serve not as an indicator of the greed and chaos in college sport but as reminder of the traditions that make college football great. And, that Texas needs Oklahoma just as much as Oklahoma needs Texas.