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January 5, 2009

Yeager: Time will heal the wounds

The citizens of Raiderland are in a world of hurt right now. On the very brink of a 12-win season and possible top-five finish, the Red Raiders were upset by unheralded Mississippi and now will finish well out of the top 10.

And that may not be the worst of it. Tech fans everywhere are hearing the catcalls and the derision. They spent the better part of a month arguing that the Red Raiders would be participating in a truly just BCS system. That Tech really was a top-10 team, and that the likes of Virginia Tech and Cincinnati were usurping the Red Raiders' rightful claim.

Then Tech goes out and wets its jockstrap against an 8-4 team in front of the entire football-viewing nation, making partisan claims to BCS legitimacy look idiotic.

My how Ole Miss' chants of "Overrated!" stung! How hard it is to stomach the mockery emanating from rival loci such as Austin and College stomach! The Red Raiders made a season-long bid to join college football's elite and would have done so with a victory in the Cotton Bowl. Now those very Red Raiders look like frauds, pretenders and tin men who just aren't ready for prime time.

This perception is unbearably excruciating for a fan-base that has always felt a bit like the red-headed stepson of college football in the Lone Star State.

So the vitriol and the vituperation flow and some fans think they'll never be able to forgive Mike Leach for the gratification that was so cruelly snatched away in the season's final hour.

But the Collapse in the Cotton Bowl is only a few days old. As the weeks, months and years elapse, the tang will come off the anger. The anguish will mellow and be largely forgotten. And replacing these emotions will be myriad marvelous memories of a fantastic 2008 season.

There is a proximate historical precedent for this very phenomenon. Thirty-two years ago Texas Tech fielded a football team that very much resembles this one. That team, the 1976 Red Raiders, had a season that mirrored the 2008 season, and those who recall that earlier ball-club recall it with practically unanimous fondness.

By way of comparison, the 1976 Red Raiders, just like the 2008 Red Raiders, won double-digit games. Both teams had signature wins over Texas in Lubbock on national television. Both teams lost a conference game late in the season that largely destroyed championship hopes. And both teams lost a bowl game that they were expected to win.

Just like the most recent Tech team, the 1976 group was in the thick of the national championship race late in the season only to wind up as an also-ran and an afterthought.

Both teams won primarily with offense, and both teams were directed by a quarterback who was a Heisman Trophy candidate and one of the nation's very best. Both teams were led be an intriguing young coach, and both seasons culminated what had been a long streak of good football played by Texas Tech.

Those are some of the more obvious and striking parallels between the 2008 Red Raiders and the 1976 Tech team.

Now I had yet to become a hard-shell Tech fan in 1976, and, of course, there was no Internet in those days so it's impossible for me to know the mood of Red Raider fans following Tech's loss to Nebraska in the Bluebonnet Bowl that year. I would guess, however, that it was much like it is today.

There was probably a sense of supreme disappointment that such a promising and memorable season had suddenly gone south. And although Steve Sloan was only in his second season in Lubbock, compared with Mike Leach who just completed his ninth, there was doubtless some second guessing and hostility directed Sloan's way.

But time works wonders. Thirty-two years hence, veteran Tech fans speak glowingly of the 1976 Red Raiders. They extol the virtues of Rodney Allison and Billy Taylor, Thomas Howard and Larry Isaac. And they recount the victory over Texas as one of their greatest sports memories. Sure, they still agonize over the loss to Houston that prevented a Cotton Bowl berth, but little is said of the Bluebonnet Bowl loss, and never is anything harsh said about the team in general.

I predict the same destiny for the 2008 Red Raiders. The losses to Oklahoma and Mississippi will not, of course, be forgotten. But they will not be what define the 2008 campaign. Instead, we will all recall Tech's Long March through Kansas, Texas and Oklahoma State. We will forever remember Graham Harrell-to-Michael Crabtree in the final seconds to beat #1 Texas. We will remember ESPN's College GameDay in Lubbock, the exploits of Harrell, Crabtree, Brandon Williams, Eric Morris and Darcel McBath.

We will nod our heads fondly, and perhaps for the sentimental, a tear will well up. And then we will smile.


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