DALLAS — Spencer Tillman remembers it vividly. Even though it was 19 years ago, the former Oklahoma tailback can, to this day, feel and taste the pain of the outcome of the Red River Rivalry with Texas.
In the 107 meetings between Oklahoma and Texas, the 1984 encounter was only the fourth time the two teams left the field without a winner, as the top-ranked Longhorns tied the No. 2 Sooners 15-15.
“It’s really odd,” Tillman said. “I never remember moments from the wins. I remember the sting of the tie in this case. It wasn’t a loss, but it felt like one. We were robbed with Keith Stanberry’s interception that was clear he had both feet inbounds. In the rain in the Cotton Bowl. That’s one that jumps out in my memory and the nasty taste of that 15-15 tie as we left the Cotton Bowl.”
Tillman is one of the few Sooners who can lay claim to never losing to the Longhorns. But that one tie is something that almost overshadows the wins.
That is how much beating Texas has meant to the Oklahoma program. While rivalries with Nebraska were more business, the OU-Texas games were personal.
“We were in separate conferences back then, so the game was primarily about bragging rights,” said former OU quarterback Charles Thompson. “We knew each year there were a lot of guys in the locker room with me who were from Texas. (Barry) Switzer always stressed the importance of being able to go down to Texas and win the recruiting battles. It was always for bragging rights. Had nothing to do with conference titles. Had nothing to do with really nothing else than who is the big dog down in Texas. Oklahoma, we kind of felt like Dallas was our home. It was just about establishing dominance in the state.”
However, in recent years the national appeal of the Red River Rivalry has fallen off. What used to be the marquee game across the country has become more regional. Tillman believes that has everything to do with the success of the teams.
“Because both teams aren’t as competitive as they once have been, and these games are not for national championships or jockeying for national championships, I think it matters less,” Tillman said. “It can be marketed as it matters more. But the truth of the matter is unless it’s determining national championships, it doesn’t matter as much.
“In terms of national scale and scope, the games don’t matter to the entire country.”
Five times since 2000, the winner of the Red River Rivalry advanced to the BCS Championship Game. The last time was 2009, when the Longhorns beat OU 16-13 but went on to lose to Alabama in the title game.
Since then, UT has lost the last three contests to Oklahoma and been outscored 146 to 58. And neither has played for a national championship in that span.
“Obviously, statewide, it will always be important to both teams and programs,” said Tillman, who is a college football analyst with CBS. “ But I would argue that may be waning a little bit. I think in order for this to be relevant nationally, both teams have to be good nationally and matter, and impact the national race. Unless that’s the case, it’s going to be tough.”
Yet, many fans of the programs don’t see it the same way. The Cotton Bowl Stadium is expected to sell out all 90,000 seats again today while the television broadcast should have solid ratings.
“It is still being treated as a big game nationally just not as a big game with big implications,” said OU fan Jack Shaffer. “The schools both mean so much to college footbal,l and there is a lot of Texas players who look at this game as a chance to show out in their home state against the biggest school in the state.”
Thompson also doesn’t believe the rivalry has lost any of its luster. It’s just changed.
In the past, the Sooners used to raid the state of Texas for a large majority of its players such as Brian Bosworth, Billy Simms, Kenny King and Andrian Peterson to name a few. While Oklahoma still gets its fair share from the Lone Star state, more and more are coming from other parts of the country as well.
The new crop of players say the game is important. Both Trey Millard and Gabe Ikard talked about how great it would be to go undefeated against the Longhorns in their careers.
But the overall hatred that used to simmer between the teams has seemingly cooled.
“It was about being able to go home to Waco, go home to Dallas, go home to Houston and say, as you’re wearing your Crimson and Cream, OU is boss,” Thompson said. “To say, that’s why I chose Oklahoma. It was always a big deal. We had guys who came into the program and understood that. Wore that chip on their shoulder thinking about the game. It was a big deal. Walk around with your head high and say no matter what, the other side of the Red River is better than the south side.”
Regardless of what’s at stake, it’s really the Sooners’ last true rivalry. After the Cornhuskers left the Big 12 to go to the Big 10, Switzer was sorry to see it go. But he knew the Sooners and Longhorns would still be around.
“We’ll always have Texas,” Switzer said in 2010. “Texas is part of our fabric. That’s part of our tradition, and it’ll always be.”