I ditched the car in the parking lot of the Masonic Temple1 and walked the rest of the way to campus. I can’t say I feel entirely sure about this. I’m not Mason-authorized,2 and for all I know the Temple spirits away the Chryslers of unenlightened lot-interlopers. But the spot I took was in a gravel patch that didn’t look especially dangerous. And more important, I’m here to battle a demon. I figure I need all the occult help I can get.
To get to Boone Pickens Stadium in Stillwater, Okla. — where tomorrow night once-beaten Oklahoma State will host twice-beaten Oklahoma in the 106th iteration of the Bedlam football rivalry — you take Highway 51 past Barry Sanders Honda3 and the Barry Sanders Supercenter4 to Hall of Fame Drive, where the arena looms up over a bleak patch of bulldozed earth that was meant to be, and may still be, but is not yet, the $300 million OSU Athletic Village. The story of the village is indicative of the story of Oklahoma State athletics as a whole. In the mid-2000s, the university, backed by billionaire donor T. Boone Pickens, controversially used eminent domain to evict a group of homeowners on a wide stretch of real estate adjacent to the stadium, with the intention of building a state-of-the-art sports complex on the confiscated land. Then the financial crisis happened, Pickens’ net worth did one of those oh-shit ski-slope dips on the graph, and the scheme ground to a halt right after all the houses were knocked down. The whole project could almost have been managed by Squinky himself.
Squinky, if you don’t know, is the malevolent power that I’ve come to Stillwater to face. It’s Squinky who has me coveting the residual magic of the Masonic parking lot. A few months ago, before the start of the Big 12 season, I explained to the world what my fellow Oklahoma State fans all already know: Far beneath the plains, in some hellish secret lair, there lurks a creature of pure evil, a vast demonic octopus whose sole purpose is to screw with Oklahoma State. On the whole — meaning when you throw in wrestling and baseball and cross-country and everything else — OSU sports have been really successful.5 But in Oklahoma, college sports means football and occasionally basketball, and in football-and-occasionally-basketball the Cowboys have been prone to such inexplicable and spectacular collapses over the years that black magic is the only explanation. Consider, as one example among many, the 1983 Bedlam game. After improbably building a 20-3 fourth-quarter lead over its historically dominant rival, OSU managed to lose 21-20 after OU recovered a bizarre onside kick. So, yeah. Meet Squinky.6
Today, the stadium was almost as empty as the athletic village, so I circled back to the Edmon Low Library, where I was hoping the demonology section could help me figure out what to expect from Saturday’s game. From the Squinky-watching perspective, this has been easily the most intriguing football season in memory, one that has practically dared OSU fans to hope that the curse is about to be broken. The Cowboys rode their obscenely high-powered offense7 to a 10-0 start and a no. 2 ranking with two games left to play. Just as a spot in the national championship game started to shimmer into view, OSU contrived to lose in overtime against Iowa State — basically your classic Squinky moment. But then Oregon lost … Arkansas lost … math started shifting around … and somehow the Cowboys find themselves within yelling distance of no. 2 Alabama heading into Bedlam. BCS controversialists speculate that a convincing win over Oklahoma might — might — vault OSU back into national championship contention.
This, obviously, is terrifying. The sudden resurgence could indicate a weakening of Squinky’s powers.8 But the problem with knowing that your team is a plaything of dark forces is that you start seeing dark forces everywhere. If you were Squinky, how would you play this? Down in hell’s sub-basement, the only thing more appealing than crushing OSU fans’ hopes once would be crushing them twice. So let them choke against Iowa State. Then let the BCS math give them a flicker of new life. Then let them lose tragically, heart-explodingly, at the last second to Oklahoma. Or better yet, let them win the game and then be overlooked by the BCS voters. Diabolical mission accomplished.
I couldn’t figure out what to make of any of this, much less pick a winner for Saturday, without peering into some seriously dusty old tomes. But the library didn’t have a demonology section, at least none that anyone could point me toward. Literally every single one of the cheerful-looking undergraduates strewn about the place seemed to be checking Facebook. Hardly anyone was deciphering glyphs. Bafflingly, unaccountably, the university seemed to be going about its business almost as though Squinky didn’t exist.
The first Bedlam football game was played in 1904. Oklahoma won 75-0. It would take seven more games before OSU — known as Oklahoma A&M until the 1950s — notched its first points, an eight-game span with a cumulative score of 240-0.9 For three years after that, OSU scored points — hooray! — but still got blown out. In 1917, miraculously, OSU won 9-0 … then promptly launched a fresh winless streak that lasted until the mid-1920s. And that’s the way it’s gone ever since. The overall record in the rivalry currently stands at 82 wins for Oklahoma, 16 wins for Oklahoma State, and seven ties — including, in 1992, an OU field goal as time expired to prevent an OSU win.
It’s impossible to overstate the extent to which the one-sidedness of the rivalry has shaped the culture of Oklahoma sports.10 OU fans think the state belongs to them. OSU fans who like sports other than football are a little defensive about it, owing to the widespread perception that the only reason to care about a game other than football is the terribleness of your favorite football team. I grew up here, in a small town full of mostly OU fans, and I could describe grade-school recess dynamics that would chill you to the bone.
This year, the withering of Squinky (or, depending on your outlook, the gradual unfolding of his cruel master plan) has turned the state upside down. The Sooners were the preseason no. 1 and early national championship favorites, and it’s the Cowboys with BCS Championship Game aspirations? No one knows how to act. There are multiple “you know hell’s frozen over …” jokes circulating. Hard-core OU fans are either swaggering twice as much as usual or walking around with chalky, constipated anguish on their faces. OSU fans like my dad, who’ve had their hearts broken repeatedly,11 are saying stuff like “well … on paper we’ve got a chance,” despite the fact that (1) OSU has home-field advantage, (2) OSU is the higher-ranked team, (3) OU has suffered multiple injuries that have pared its offense down to a level almost manageable by Oklahoma State’s mediocre defense.
I’m generally a pretty determined rationalist as a sports fan,12 but when a reporter asked me to pick a winner yesterday, I just muttered something about hoping I survived the game. I couldn’t risk jinxing the Cowboys. Just couldn’t bring myself to say it.
The upshot of all this, obviously, is that this game doesn’t need a national-championship angle to feel god-awful gigantic. Oklahoma is playing to get the state back. Forget bowl games and everything else. Those are the stakes. Oklahoma State is playing against that 240-0, against 82-16-7, against every recruit that left them in the lurch to sign with their rivals, against the Bud Wilkinson Era and the Barry Switzer Era and every other era when they were totally overshadowed. That sounds grandiose, but this stuff matters here. They’re playing to de-tentacle Squinky.
I was late to the bonfire because I chickened out and moved the car out of the Freemasons’ lot. Something about the prospect of getting towed by a secret society was a little too Adjustment Bureau for tonight. Anyway, the bonfire was itself in a parking lot13 just across the street from the stadium, so I figured I could stow the vehicle somewhere upwind from the flames.
I had high hopes for this event. The library might not have had a grimoire section, but a bonfire — what better place could there possibly be to expiate an ancient curse? Think about the kind of stuff that happens at bonfires: Celtic sex, the burning of witches, saturnalian rites, free tacos with 50-cent Coronas, Nicolas Cage walking away in slow motion, etc. If we were going to strike a blow against Squinky before the game, the bonfire was the most likely place.
I want to put this as mildly as possible, but it has to be said that at first the Oklahoma State bonfire was a disappointment. At first — and again, I’m trying to hold back here — the Oklahoma State bonfire was without question the single lamest experience in all of human history from ancient Egypt to the present, including the Star Wars prequels and the time Jimmy Carter had “bathrobe day” at Camp David. Oklahoma State! You need to sort out your early-stage bonfire game plan! There were about 30 freezing kids in the parking lot, mostly milling around a taco truck. The president of the OSU Advertising Club gave a speech soliciting donations for their upcoming trip to nationals. There was a trivia game.14 For a long, long time, there was no actual bonfire.
In this sense, the Oklahoma State bonfire was wildly unlike the Oklahoma State football team, which is giddily entertaining, in the classic style of teams with glitter-bomb offenses and defenses made up of characters from Casper the Friendly Ghost. Arguing late-season BCS math is maybe the most pointless college-sports-related endeavor that doesn’t actually require you to work for the NCAA, but the bottom line is that, should OSU win on Saturday, both the Cowboys and Alabama have good cases to play LSU for the championship. Oklahoma State’s case rests on having put up better numbers15 against a tougher slate of teams. Bama’s case rests on the fact that the only team to beat it is so much better than everybody else that it kind of doesn’t count.
The BCS has made college football so much about impartially evaluating abstract merit that the whole question of “entertainment” seems a little dirty, like the sports equivalent of porn. (It’s fun to watch, but what can it tell us about rushing defense?) That said, if I could enter a plea on OSU’s behalf to the BCS’ well-oiled corps of robot voters, it would be something like: For God’s sake, let us watch a game that might be fun. LSU’s defense vs. Oklahoma State’s offense would actually be a crazy-interesting and unpredictable matchup, whereas LSU’s defense vs. Alabama’s also-defense is going to lead to the same gears-grinding, black-smoke-belching-from-the-machine warfare as the first LSU-Alabama game. Someone is going to lose a hand, and we might see Nick Saban finally yield to his desire to punt on first down. Yes, it will be a fascinating and subtle tactical battle. I hope I won’t sound like a total philistine if I say, THROW A 10-YARD PASS, GARRY KASPAROV.
Anyway. More kids kept showing up in the parking lot, in twos and threes, and huddling around the taco truck. They lit a bonfire, eventually, out of a big pile of wooden forklift pallets. Some baton-twirlers came out of the crowd and started twirling flaming batons. After a while the fire got big. The stadium was lit up across the street, behind the flames, and the kids started chanting, “Orange Power!” like they could almost imagine what it meant. I’m not sure it struck a blow against demonkind, but it was finally something to see. A group of beribboned and be-tracksuited girls called the OSU Spirit Squad arrived, all at once, in about 10 cars, and assembled themselves into a pyramid. The fire was now taller than the nearest traffic light and sending out fantastic whirls of sparks. The crowd, probably a couple hundred kids now, started chanting “OSU! OSU!,” and the taco truck started charging $3 for a taco, and the fire raged like something that didn’t mean anything but almost made you feel like it did.
Brian Phillips is a staff writer for Grantland. You can find him on Twitter at @runofplay.
Previously from Brian Phillips:
The Commissioner After the Lockout
Justin Blackmon: An Anti-Profile
How Mario Balotelli Became MARIO BALOTELLI!!!
Tim Tebow, Converter of the Passes
Patti Smith, the Curator of Rock ‘N’ Roll
Ronaldo vs. Messi
Noooo-klahoma!: The misery of rooting for the Oklahoma State Cowboys
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