At the geographic center of the Greatest College Football Rivalry that isn’t, as the natural laws of Texas likely demand, stands a barbecue pitmaster.
Gerald Birkelbach, the smoke-infused owner of City Meat Market in downtown Giddings, Texas, is hunkered over charred pits in the back room of a brick building at the corner of Texas Highways 77 and 290 — precisely 54.6 miles southwest of Kyle Field, home of the Texas A&M Aggies, and 54.4 miles east of Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium, home of the Texas Longhorns.
This weekend, those two teams will participate in the single largest shared evening of football in recent memory for the Lone Star State’s most hallowed college teams. The 12th-ranked Aggies will travel east to face top-ranked Clemson (3:30 p.m. ET on ABC, ESPN App). Meanwhile, No. 9 Texas will host sixth-ranked LSU (7:30 p.m. ET on ABC, ESPN App).
The walls of Birkelbach’s place aren’t painted in the colors of either team. They’ve been cooked into a crispy black hue since the 1960s. He inspects four metal poles draped in homemade sausage — 80% beef, 20% pork — and he eyeballs their color. Nope, not brown enough yet. He slams down the metal lid of the smoker and peeks out the door into the dining room, where the line is getting long. A family of four is dressed in their Longhorn burnt orange. They are lined up just ahead of another family of four, adorned in block maroon A-T-M’s.
“By the time y’all get to the front of the line, those will be ready,” he promises. He points to their wardrobes and winks. “Try to not kill each other before you get up there.”
It is the Saturday afternoon of Labor Day weekend, T-minus one week away from the big Week 2 matchups. The Texas A&M fans — the Wallaces — are on their way home to San Antonio after watching the Aggies truck their way through Texas State 41-7. The Texas family — the Stuarts — are on their way to Austin from Houston to watch the Horns dispose of Louisiana Tech 45-14.
Seven days from this moment, both families plan to be right back in this line. The Wallaces will then return to College Station to watch their team play No. 1 Clemson on TV with extended family. The Stuarts will head back to Austin for what will easily be the Longhorns’ biggest home game in a decade.
“Maybe we will cross paths again and talk trash about whatever happens in our big games,” says Hank Wallace, patriarch of the A&M crew, as he gnaws on a rib, pointing toward the Stuarts and pushing words past the charred meat stuffed in his cheek. “Hell, I guess that that’s all we can do, right?”
It is. It’s all anyone can do.
Texas-Texas A&M is a rivalry that started in 1894 and instantly became, well, Texas-sized. They played 118 times, taking a place alongside Army-Navy, Ohio State-Michigan, the Iron Bowl and the like. A Thanksgiving weekend staple as permanent as the firmament of the Lone Star earth and the flow of the oil below it. But then, in 2011, it stopped. A relentless train of college football that had managed to keep churning even through World War II and the assassination of a president in its backyard, stopped in its tracks by the gray-haired power brokers of conference realignment. In 2011, Texas started its own cable channel (operated by ESPN). That same fall, Texas A&M announced it was leaving the Big 12 for the green pastures and bank accounts of the SEC. Aggie administrators slammed the door as they stormed out and their Longhorn counterparts nailed that door shut.
Now, nearly a decade later, it is still kept off of those tracks by gray-haired power brokers, some who were there for the divorce and others who are new to the effort. They have built an ever-shifting, increasingly complicated labyrinth from which this forced-upon-us separation might not ever find its way back.
It’s been eight years now. And with their nonconference schedules both booked for the foreseeable future, it’s guaranteed to be much longer than that. When the end came in 2011, Texas-Texas A&M was the third-oldest FBS game rivalry. Since then, it has been passed on that list by seven other series, from Cal-Stanford and Army-Navy to Auburn-Georgia and even Cincinnati-Miami (Ohio).
A century-plus of delicious slow-cooked football hatred, reduced all at once to a freefall down all-time greatest lists and glares across a barbecue joint.
In February, on the floor of the Texas State Capitol, just a few blocks from the home of the Horns, Governor Greg Abbott spoke on the issue during his annual State of the State address, voicing support for House Bill 412, proposed by Rep. Kyle Larson, a political rival of Abbott’s. The bill proposed a state law that would require the series to be reinstated, citing polls of both schools’ student bodies that overwhelmingly asked for the game to return. Larson also included the lyrics of each school’s fight song, both of which include references to a rival they no longer play (“Goodbye to Texas University, so long to the orange and white”; “Texas fight, and it’s goodbye to A&M”). But in May, that bill died in committee, suffering the same fate as a previous House effort in 2013.
But that doesn’t mean the topic is going away. Just ask the still-new coaches at the helms of both teams and their bosses, the still-new athletic directors at both schools. In June, when Texas A&M introduced Ross Bjork as its new AD, a Texas-series-renewal question was the first topic thrown at him when he faced reporters. He said it was among his first topics to address with his coach and his bosses, but has since been quick to point to nonconference schedules locked up through 2030, filled with immovable games for both schools (Texas vs. LSU, Alabama and Ohio State; A&M vs. Miami and Notre Dame).
A few weeks later, Tom Herman and Jimbo Fisher were both hit with “When are y’all gonna play again?” throughout their preseason media appearances, especially during their midsummer conference media day gauntlets. Herman said “I’d love to see the rivalry renewed. I think it’s great for college football.” Fisher, just this week, said “I am focused on the team I am coaching against this weekend. But this is my second year here now. I know these people in this state live this rivalry every day, whether we’re on the schedule or we aren’t.”
In January, when the governor brought reinstatement back to the front burner, Texas AD Chris Del Conte said he’d like to see the game come back. At the same time, his boss (Texas president Greg Fenves) and A&M president Michael Young both told the Austin American-Statesman that they supported a rivalry renewal. But one month later, the Dallas Morning News published emails Young sent to those who reached out to him following those comments. His CTRL+C response to each was “The topic is of interest to many for or against and we’re open to the discussion in line with what is best for the schools … There are a variety of reasons that this will be unlikely to happen, including separate conference schedules and scheduling many years out.”
And therein lies the twist in our tangled Texas tale. The majority of those emails Young received were not from Aggies supporting his suggestion of reestablishing the Texas game. It was the total opposite. They wanted nothing to do with it. Much of the animosity was fed in the early days of the split, when Texas A&M hoped to keep the game, but then-Texas AD DeLoss Dodds said, “They left. They’re the ones that decided not to play us. We get to decide when we play again.”
As one Aggie wrote to the president, they preferred to see Texas “die in their pathetic conference and irrelevant schedule.”
“There is actually much more of that around here than anyone outside of Texas would ever expect,” explained Douglas Thompson, a maroon-covered patron of Good Bull Barbecue, a joint located across the street from Kyle Field. Sitting in his truck and throwing down on a Yell Boy Taco (brisket, pulled pork, sausage, white queso, mac & cheese and Mama May’s Sauce), Thompson spoke as his brother Tim tried to clean a spot of sauce off of his work shirt. “Why in the hell would we go back to playing them? Just so that we can get screwed by Big 12 referees again? Or so we can play on their TV channel? Give me Alabama and LSU and Clemson. We don’t need Texas. We never needed Texas.”
In Austin, there are those who agree with Thompson and the like, with whom they’d typically never agree on anything. They view A&M as traitors to their southwestern roots. Why in the world would they reward such turncoats with the honor of ever playing in Austin again?
In February, the University of Texas and the Texas Tribune conducted an exhaustive two-week poll among 1,200 Texans that covered topics ranging from border security to property taxes to the performance of the Trump administration. It was deep, divisive, thought-provoking stuff. So, of course, it included questions about the Texas-Texas A&M game.
Of those polled, 40% supported reestablishment of the rivalry and 4% said they opposed it. But 46% said they didn’t care.
For now, the youngsters caught in the middle of it all still do. In February, a Texas A&M student group “Reinstate the Rivalry” put a referendum in front of the student body to ask that the series be resurrected. It passed with 89% of the vote. In 2017, a similar effort at Texas passed at 97%.
The concern among those who love the game they participated in is: How long will those percentages will remain in their favor, and how long might it take for it all to wither on the vine while everyone waits for game No. 119?
“The danger zone you start stepping into is indifference,” says Jackie Sherrill, head coach at A&M from 1982 to ’88 and the man who reignited the Aggie side of the rivalry that had laid dormant for years prior to his arrival. He won three Southwest Conference titles and posted a 5-2 record against Texas. “People think that it’s always been here so people will always care, but if you let anything wander off for too long you end up raising a generation of kids who never saw these teams play. One day they are adults who are like, ‘So, what’s the big deal about this game, Grandpa? I don’t care about this.’ That’s sad.”
For now, the heat between College Station and Austin remains at a City Meat Market-ish temperature. In a souvenir store in College Station, there is still a giant longhorn head on the wall amid racks of A&M hats, its horns broken and pointed toward the floor. There are still multiple options if one is looking for anti-Horns apparel, like the sweatshirt that reads: “‘I will cut off the horns of all the wicked …’ Psalms 75:10.” An hour and a half away, a Longhorns fan roaming the streets of Austin prior to the Louisiana Tech game wore a T-shirt that read: “My wife’s name was M-aggie. So I made her change it.”
That’s the current state of Texas-Texas A&M. The game that brought us Ricky Williams rushing records, Jackie Sherrill’s turnaround, the gut-wrenching emotions of a post-JFK assassination matchup with a Texas national title on the line, and that lasting image of Justin Tucker being dogpiled after his 40-yard game-winning field goal, Texas 27, Texas A&M 25 … all of that, reduced to vicious T-shirt rhetoric.
“If you really make it a priority, then you can make it work,” Longhorns fan Tommy Stuart says, his fist clenched on the plastic red checkerboard tablecloth at the City Meat Market. “South Carolina and Clemson make it work. Georgia and Georgia Tech make it work. Florida and Florida State make it work. And we’re better than all of ’em.”
One table over, A&M loyalist Hank Wallace eavesdrops and nods. Stuart sees it and points.
“I do hope we play again. But in the meantime, I’ll just hope that Clemson whips y’all’s ass.”