Cedric Golden

American-Statesman Staff

Column

Golden: New ‘Eyes of Texas’ committee is entering a firestorm of fans, students, alumni

Posted November 7th, 2020

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Story highlights
  • Texas President Jay Hartzell has put together a 24-person committee to address issues surrounding "The Eyes of Texas"school song.
  • The committee will also chronicle its history.
  • Professor Richard Reddick is the committee chair.

The committee that has been appointed to document the most polarizing school song in college sports history has a real chore on its hands.

“The Eyes of Texas” in an institution upon itself on the Forty Acres, and whether you like it or not, it’s almost as big as the school it represents.

UT President Jay Hartzell said the group was formed to gather historical facts about the song and examine its use while engaging in conversations on campus with students, staff, faculty and alumni. Its goal is to by the end of January provide an honest, accurate chronicling of the song that has been around for more than 120 years and figures to be around for many more after that.

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Good luck with that one.

 

Memo to the 24-person committee: Prepare for the firestorm.

Texas President Jay Hartzell has established a 24-person committee which will chronicle the history of “The Eyes of Texas” school song and also examine its impact on the campus and abroad. (Lola Gomez/American-Statesman)

The group has met, but there had better be an understanding of transparency, a thick skin while answering tough questions from all directions and, most important, avoiding the abyss that is revisionist history. There is no coming back from that one. Add to it the varying passionate opinions that will be flying in from all directions.

History is a fine teacher, but one that can never involve moving pieces. It should remain forever unchanged and open to interpretation. On the other hand, the future can evolve, and those in the present can change it for the better if they can find common ground on important issues.

The committee’s mission seems fine on its base, but Hartzell and committee chair Richard Reddink, a UT professor, are climbing a steep hill.  The committee has a diverse makeup and houses people connected to the university from athletics, school spirit, education, fundraising and outreach.That’s the right mix considering the events that have taken place in our communities during one of the toughest years in our country’s modern history.

Here’s what we do know. Despite its ties to on-campus black-faced minstrel shows in the early 1900s, the song isn’t going anywhere and it isn’t changing. A Friday morning conversation with Hartzell, Reddink and UT beat writer Brian Davis served as confirmation on both points.

When the football team and coach Tom Herman took part in protest marches this summer and came to the university with a list of grievances and requests — including getting rid of “The Eyes” — my thought was sure, some names were going to be coming off buildings and an effort would be made to be more proactive on campus initiatives that involved the Black community, but that song? It was staying no matter what.

Longhorns fans join in singing “The Eyes of Texas” after UT’s 59-3 season-opening win on Sept. 12. The song has become a polarizing issue among UT athletes, fans and alumni. (Chuck Burton/The Associated Press)

So what’s the end game with this committee? I asked Hartzell.

“I remain optimistic that the song can once again be something that unifies us and brings us together,” Hartzell said. “I think it was for many, many years and part — though, because people didn’t know some facts and didn’t know some, some difficult facts. And so I think part one is to get those facts out in the open and also understand things that are thorny, or when people might disagree and have those conversations.”

It won’t be a tough sell with some on-campus athletes and even some Black alumni like former linebacker Brian Jones and the legendary Earl Campbell — the greatest Black player to ever don the burnt orange — who have expressed  support for the song others will have differing opinions.

Texas fans stand for “The Eyes of Texas” before the Oct. 1 volleyball match against Kansas at the Erwin Center. (Stephen Spillman/For Statesman)

Eric Jeffries was a defensive back on the 1983 team that went 11-1 and nearly won a national title under Fred Akers. He stood for “The Eyes” but didn’t find out until many years later about its history. Those revelations changed his opinion of the song, he said.

“We do a lot of things in our youth out of ignorance,” Jeffries said. “Now would I do the same thing now knowing what I know now about the song? No, I wouldn’t. But do I stand with the guy who plays now and stands for the song? Yes, I would because I can’t fault that guy or hold it against him.”

That is a lesson in transparency, honesty, tolerance and understanding, all traits this committee must adapt if the desired goal is to be reached.

To their credit, Hartzell and Reddink have taken an aggressive approach and decided against just letting things cool a bit between the campus and alumni and fans that are split on this issue. They’re taking on the matter head-on and there is something to be said for their passion in regards to the feelings of all involved.

The committee’s ability to provide the perfect balance of context and tolerance while understanding that the interpretation of the song will still be largely left up to the person listening will determine if this venture will experience long-term success. Whether you agree with the song or not, it will be interesting to see how they handle this.

Reddink, a Texas ex and Harvard grad, told us he is familiar with committees that have been lambasted in the past, so he gets that it won’t always be a smooth ride, especially with passionate people with strong opinions.

“I think most people are reassured to know that several people are around the table, discussing it, many of whom are experts, some of whom have very personal connections to ‘The Eyes of Texas,’ and its performance, and so on and so forth,” he said. “Those conversations are going to really help us to model how this conversation will go.”

I was glad to hear Hartzell mention the words inscribed on the iconic campus Tower: “You shall know the truth and the truth will set you free,” a biblical verse taken from John 8:32. Freedom  often comes at a price, and in this case it’s possibly the ire of some students and alumni when the real conversations start.

Of note, some members of the  Longhorn Band are refusing to play the song, but the football players have assembled on the field in unison for the last three home games since the loss to Oklahoma in Dallas. Not all players have held up their Horns. The nation’s  top-ranked volleyball team did not acknowledge the song after its first four matches but remained on the court. But upon meeting with athletic director Chris Del Conte in early October, players have stood together, Horns up, for the past nine matches. Not all players are singing the song.

Personally, I was never a fan of the song, but I also did not attended the University of Texas in Austin, so it doesn’t resonate with me. For those who have sung it after games or graduations or even birthday parties and weddings, I get the feeling of belonging that it engenders and the need to keep it around. I also understand how other fans would just as soon find another song or tweak the current one. Kirk Bohls and I have received enough lyric suggestions this summer to last us a lifetime. Of that you can be certain.

I suspect the aim of this committee, which includes T-Association director and former football player Ricky Brown, former football player Quan Cosby, current and former band members, and volleyball player Logan Eggleston, is to encourage communication and accept honest criticisms, a novel concept in the current political climate.

The eyes of Texas and the eyes of Longhorn Nation will be turned toward Hartzell and his committee over the next few months as the committee tries to bring the Longhorn family together on an issue that has been the source of consternation for quite some time.

They cannot miss on this one.

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