Football

Man behind ‘Hook ’em, Horns’ laughs off Horns Down controversy

Posted October 9th, 2019

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Two outstretched fingers, the index and the pinky, have created a Red River splash that crosses the borders of ridiculousness.

The Hook ‘em Horns hand sign was born 64 years ago, but the Horns Down controversy has only recently reached its boiling point.

Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley has been asked about it. So has Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby. Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger and fellow Longhorns have been offended by it. Penalty flags have been thrown for it.

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At 11 a.m. Saturday, half the patrons in the Cotton Bowl will flick their wrists downward and flaunt it.

But no one asked H.K. Pitts what he thought. After all, it’s his symbol that OU fans and players have turned upside down.

“I’m a libertarian,” Pitts told The Oklahoman. “Doesn’t bother me.”

The 88-year-old is even amused by it. He now lives in College Station but Pitts will forever be Longhorn legend.

Even if people regularly get his story wrong.

“That’s probably the most irritating part of the whole thing,” Pitts said. “It’s not rocket science to look up somebody nowadays with all the information we have.”

It’s just that most people can’t believe the man behind the Hook ‘em Horns sign is still alive. So sometimes he’ll remind them by wearing a white polo shirt with easy-to-read burnt orange letters on the back.

“H.K. Pitts,” the shirt says, “I originated Hook ‘em Horns sign.”

Pitts is almost embarrassed to tell the story.

He and his friend from college, James Norton, were driving home for the weekend during his junior year at UT. Pitts grew up in southeast Texas near Beaumont, and they stopped at a drive-in restaurant in Silsbee.

Former UT head cheerleader Harley Clark introduced the “hook ’em horns” hand sign to longhorn fans half a century ago. (Amber Novak FOR AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

The Corral, Pitts said, remembering almost every detail from that 1955 day.

“We were sitting in this car at the drive-in and we were fooling around,” Pitts said. “He did something or said something and I just reached my right hand and made the Hook ‘em Horns sign, which I didn’t call it at that time. I started poking him in his eyes. Then when I brought my hand back, I looked and said, ‘Boy, that would be a great sign for the university.’”

It hadn’t clicked with Pitts before, but the image reminded him of the steer symbol he used to form when making shadow puppets as a kid.

Norton was friends with Texas head cheerleader Harley Clark. Norton convinced Pitts to show Clark his creation when they returned to Austin.

Clark introduced it to Texas students at a pep rally before the TCU game on Nov. 12, 1955.

The Longhorns lost 47-20, but Hook ‘em Horns stuck.

Clark, who was a longtime district judge in Austin, died in 2014. While Clark publicly credited Pitts for bringing the idea to him, many thought Clark was responsible for the sign.

“He got a lot of publicity and stuff,” Pitts said. “He was BMOC. I was just OC.”

Pitts left UT two months after the TCU game to begin his teaching career in Corpus Christi. He didn’t know how popular the hand sign had become.

PHOTOS: From coaches to band members: ‘horns down’ through the years

Now he doesn’t know why the inverse of his idea is so controversial.

Former West Virginia quarterback Will Grier and wide receiver David Sills were flagged last season for unsportsmanlike conduct penalties against Texas. Their violation? Flashing the Horns Down, an act dozens of Sooners had done before them.

“I remember every single team/player that disrespects the rich tradition of the University of Texas by putting the Horns down,” Ehlinger tweeted after the West Virginia game. “Do not think it will be forgotten in the future.”

Whether Horns Down is a penalty or not is still ambiguous. Big 12 coordinator of officials Greg Burks said in July that “it depends,” and that Horns Down will be treated like any other taunting penalty.

Former OU coach Barry Switzer, who wore a “Beat Texas” hat in the 1984 Red River Rivalry game, bristles at the idea.

“If someone gives you the finger, you give them the finger back,” Switzer said. “If you go Horns Up, I’m gonna go Horns Down. It’s ridiculous. It’s that political correctness, I guess.”

Oklahoma wide receiver Marquise Brown (5) flashes the Horns down as he takes the field before the Big 12 Conference championship NCAA college football game against Texas in Arlington, Texas, on Saturday, Dec. 1, 2018. [NICK WAGNER/AMERICAN-STATESMAN]
Riley was blunt when asked Monday how he’ll address Horns Down in his locker room ahead of OU-Texas.

“Our players won’t do it,” Riley said.

Pitts laughs at the silliness of it all.

He was a child of the Great Depression. His dad was laid off from his railroad job, and his family moved across the state to wherever there was work. Pitts joined the Air Force when he was 16 to work in flight operations. He first attended Lamar before transferring to Texas. He was 24 by the time he came up with the Hook ‘em Horns hand sign.

Pitts focuses on his background to explain why the thing people know him for is so trivial.

He was an educator for 30 years. He’s been married to his wife, Roberta, for 55 years. He likes to talk about the year they lived in Japan where Roberta was a library director. Pitts, even at his age, is an avid cross-country bike rider with more races coming up this winter.

“I’m glad I did the Hook ‘em Horns sign,” Pitts said. “I’m very proud of that fact. But it could’ve been anyone else very easily.”

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