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Bohls: Two former Longhorns look at controversial 'Eyes' with their perspective

  • Vance Bedford and Ronnie Robinson remain proud of their school but have concerns over alma mater.
  • Bedford said he's gotten over the use of blackface and gotten past it.
  • Robinson doesn't understand why Blacks have to sing the song they find offensive.

They came from different decades, different parental circumstances and different parts of the state, played on different sides of the ball and took different journeys to get where they are.

But they share a common bond.

Vance Bedford and Ronnie Robinson both have a passionate and abiding love for the University of Texas.

Former Texas defensive coordinator Vance Bedford, who was part of Charlie Strong's barrier-breaking staff at Texas, has some issues with "The Eyes of Texas" as the school song, but wants to see progress for Black people in enrollment and faculty changes.

But they also both were deeply troubled by "The Eyes of Texas," the school's polarizing alma mater that sparked an outcry among Texas athletes, especially Black ones, over the song's racist underpinnings. The push is for a more inclusive, respectful environment on campus.

More:‘Eyes of Texas’ report details song’s complicated history but determines ‘no racist intent’

Bedford and Robinson are lifelong Longhorns who have anything but detached from their college, but they have concerns about “The Eyes of Texas.”

The song sprung out of what were mainstream-acceptable minstrel shows in the early 1900s where white actors wore the disgusting “blackface” in the twisted name of comedy. So ingrained were minstrel shows in American life that U.S. presidents from Woodrow Wilson to Ronald Reagan reportedly were entertained by them. But that doesn’t make it right.

“The Eyes,” which was written and first performed in 1903, has captivated and bonded generations of Texas students and fans but became deeply divisive last summer during the social awareness movement that swept this country. 

Many Longhorns athletes defiantly opposed standing for its playing and refused to sing its lyrics, which they felt were cloaked in racism, at least in its shadowy origins. That, in turn, led to the creation of a 24-person committee on campus to study song's history and report its findings, which will be revealed Tuesday.

The “Eyes” were symptomatic of the angry times that split a nation, still does in many respects, and victimized and cruelly stereotyped people of color. I favor retaining it, but differing viewpoints are more essential now than ever, as is total respect for opposing sides and the right to disagree. 

“I just always go back to the national anthem, which didn’t include us but does now,” Bedford, 62, said from his home in Colorado. “I stayed at the University of Texas for five years because I tore up my knee my fourth year there. Everybody gets hung up on blackface, but you got to go back to the 1900s and what was OK then. But this is 2021. Personally, I’m past that. If I still complain about blackface, something is wrong with me.

“As for 'The Eyes,' I made that my song. You have a right to sing that song. Each individual has in 2021. Whether it’s the 1900s or 1850, slavery was around. I’m trying to move forward and make things better for people, but I think the song has some major issues.”

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Former Texas fullback Ronnie Robinson dives for a short gain as he's dragged down by Georgia defender Terry Hoage during the 1984 Cotton Bowl.

Robinson, 57, concurs but doesn’t oppose retaining the alma mater.

“I feel strongly, boldly, unapologetically that if UT wants to play the song and sing the song, I love that,” said Robinson, who noted that he once marched in support of a UT student beaten by Klansmen and got in trouble for it.

“I love my fellow Longhorns. They should have the right to do that," he said. "On the other hand, the song itself is offensive to me, my ancestors, my family, my mother who is the oldest of 13. I just ask my fellow Longhorns to give me the same respect I give them, and I shouldn’t have to stand out there while you sing it and play it.”

The thorough introspection and the unbiased vetting of the song was important, but who knows if any minds will change. The song should remain, but it wrongly has become a litmus test for whether someone is a true Longhorn.

Both Bedford and Robinson chose to come here. And are glad they did.

Bedford, a product of Beaumont Hebert where he played for his father at the first all-Black high school to win a state football championship, played cornerback at Texas in the late 1970s for some of the best defenses in school history. He came when Black people numbered just 1% of the student body.

Robinson was an accomplished running back from Dallas and then for the Longhorns in the 1980s until a devastating knee injury in spring drills crushed his NFL dreams.

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Vance Bedford enjoyed two different tours as a Longhorn: first as a standout defensive back in the 1970s, then as a member of Charlie Strong's color barrier-breaking coaching staff.

Bedford went on to have a distinguished coaching career as a defensive backs coach with Florida, Michigan and the Chicago Bears and was part of Charlie Strong’s staff that ultimately failed but will forever be known for crossing the color barrier at a school not historically known for great racial relations.

Robinson was raised as one of five children by a single mom who worked as a maid and school bus driver to provide for and keep her kids safe in the “worst housing project known to mankind” in the dangerous Bonton projects.

“Ronnie has stayed connected with the Longhorn Foundation and the Moody College of Communications advisory board,” said Chris Plonsky, Texas’ executive senior associate AD. “He and guys like Johnnie Johnson really wanted to connect with current student-athletes and want to tell their stories. Those two gentlemen are paying it forward.”

After graduation, he quickly put his degree in organizational communications to work. He grew a hugely successful consulting business he sold to the late H. Ross Perot and has traveled the world. He has since given back tenfold by trying to mentor and help current students through a non-profit organization he founded in Carrollton five years ago called Sports Academic Center that partners athletics and academics through mentoring and tutoring and requires athletes to earn privileges with their grades.

“Here’s my two cents,” Robinson said. “I love the University of Texas. I think it is absolutely the one university in the whole wide world. All the rest are simple colleges.”

Neither Bedford nor Robinson came to Austin expecting easy paths.

Bedford was part of a recruiting class of 30 that included only him and four other Black players. The following year came other prominent Black players like quarterback Donnie Little, tight end Lawrence Sampleton and defensive lineman Kenneth Sims.

“But at the time, we were not welcomed by certain professors,” said Bedford, who relied heavily on the counsel of Black professors like John Butler and the late John Warfield. “Dr. Butler and Dr. Warfield helped us get through it. There were a couple of incidents where I could have run and hidden, but I wanted to prove them wrong. We were just trying to survive.”

Minority outreach programs have increased the number of Black students among UT’s general enrollment to a still modest 5.5%, and 114 of those are among the 535 scholarship athletes. Bedford said he’d like to see Texas recruit more Black people to the student body — the incoming freshman class was 6.1% Black — and hire more Black professors because “they can go out and out-pay anybody.”

“There’s no excuse for that (low percentage),” he said. “If you want to increase Black enrollment, increase the people in leadership. It was like that when I was in school, and nothing has changed.”

Robinson feels just as strong about reaching out to the Black community. And giving back as well. And infighting over the song doesn’t help matters.

“I wasn’t as conscious of the song in my day as they are now,” Robinson said. “Now I’m more aware of how some use it to hold over people’s heads so they’re keeping you in place. What I’m getting from the players is they didn’t wish to stand out there.

“I just believe there’s a middle ground. There has to be a middle ground. If you love singing the song at the end of the game, I say do that. But why do you have to have Blacks stand and do it? Justice and respect go both ways.”