The Cowboys in white hats defended their merciless turf against the men from Waco, just as they've done since 1939, and the Big 12's food chain remains intact.
1. On the way into Stillwater, Oklahoma along I-35 North, I saw four accidents in an hour, cars discarded by indifferent roads into guardrails and each other. Oklahoma State Troopers attended services for the cars, gingerly motioning for flatbed tow trucks and shaking their heads at the wreckage, the panhandle-shaped state outlined in white on the black doors of their Magnums.
Signs for Continental Resources drilling line the road, reminding Oklahoma that without horizontal drilling, life would be nearly impossible here.
That all may be partially true. This is the part of America where ease runs out, where the weather turns mean. Look down from the airplane on the way in, and you will see the giant, skidding path of tornadoes carved into the fields around Moore, Oklahoma, where an EF5 tornado blew up a good chunk of a town in minutes. You can't see the swath the El Reno tornado cut from the plane. That one, also an EF5, from this past June was 2.6 miles wide and had other smaller tornadoes spitting out of it like bubbling lottery balls.
2. It is a beautiful place, even with the sky coughing sleet. Pass the giant arrows stuck in the ground at Will Rogers World Airport, then run north though the city and out into the country that hits shockingly fast for anyone accustomed to living in sprawling web-cities like Atlanta or Los Angeles or Dallas. It is rolling, tawny farmsides, the occasional headbanging motion of an oil pump, billboards saying YES! WE HAVE THE COLDEST BEER, and a giant crucifix somewhere between Edmond and Guthrie. Look to the roadside long enough, and in the distance you will see a natural gas vent, an orange flame on the horizon like a stuttering sun.
I followed the sand truck into Stillwater, which was like steering into a soft rain of buckshot for 10 miles.
3. The cowboys huddled in tents pregame, some with tree-like gas warmers posted just outside the tent, one hand reaching up for warmth, the other holding a beer away from the heat. Others put blazing fire pits under the canopies, safety be damned. It was cold.
If the fire pit sparked an ember into the canopy, and the whole damn thing caught fire, the cowboys could pull the flatscreens and beer away from the blaze before it got too far out of hand, then warm their hands by the now-larger and more impressive fire.
The wind blew in the sides of the cloaked tents, turning them into warped cubes humming with footbally TV noises and the murmuring sounds of drinking. Students and alumni walked around with open beers in gloved hands. Some dealt with the warmth by donning full worksuits -- some in Realtree camo, some taken straight off the rack at Walmart -- after putting no fewer than three layers of clothing on first. Others stretched the limits of their goin'-out jeans by putting on long underwear tucked into their boots, but skipping the cowboy hat completely. The wind would have taken them straight off and parked them somewhere in a field just west of Tulsa.
4. On the Strip, just by the corrugated metal sides of the brew-through called The Barn, a dude walked by me with a tall boy in hand. The other three were hanging out off a plastic four-ring he'd tied into his pockets. He looked cold and drunk. The sign on The Barn announced that they had the season's Beaujolais nouveau, and that they also had Lime-A-Ritas waiting and ready.
5. Below a certain temperature, everyone outside the city of Philadelphia makes the conscious choice to be nice to each other. Baylor fans hurried from point to point in the cold unharassed, for the most part. Oklahoma State fans are not there to break either rank or rules. A mob of jaywalkers after the game crossed against the signal when traffic cleared, and an older fan plaintively complained, "NOOOO DON'T CROSS AGAINST THE SIGNAL." A fan next to me said that Boone Pickens Stadium was the only place he had ever been told to cheer less loudly.
Maybe that's a byproduct of the setting, which can be foreboding enough to allow for some free courtesy. The campus of Oklahoma State is the usual mishmash of new and old -- some utilitarian shed-buildings from the '60s, a glass-and-metal research center straight from the Logan's Run school of architecture, the old engineering building topped by two old oil derricks, and an old campus with broad lawns and turn-of-the-century campus buildings topped with dark cupolas. In sunshine it probably looks like any other pleasant college campus; in foreboding, overcast bluster, it has a prairie Something Wicked this Way Comes vibe.
6. The trees opposite the Atherton Hotel are swept back, blown to a perma-lean by the unceasing wind. Someone has filled out the panes of the windows of one old building with messages. The most visible one, spelled out one letter per pane, reads: "ESPN > SI."
7. Boone Pickens Stadium has T. Boone Pickens' name on it no fewer than four times in 10-foot high lettering, lit from behind with a soft orange glow. It is the biggest and most visible building in Stillwater, a blocked-in horseshoe with jack-o-lantern lighting topped with a ring of luxury suites that hum with warmth and probably expensive brown liquor. It's being poured to people not sitting on cold, aluminum bleachers.
T. Boone could be somewhere up there, watching the beast he's fed from a wee pup into its burgeoning, snarling maturity. Pickens is largely responsible for taking the erector set of Lewis Field and morphing it into this, the place that will get so loud No. 4 Baylor can't make simple line calls on the field. He's also responsible for the JumboTron that plays Kurt Russell's snarling "Hell's comin' with me!" speech from Tombstone. He played a large part in making Mike Gundy the head coach. Oklahoma State stayed in the Big 12 when the conference was at risk of imploding and scattering to the winds. Assuming Pickens had nothing to do with that would be ignoring the basic realities of the program and the four huge, identical names ringing the stadium.
Pickens is also not sitting in the stands on this Saturday night, losing all feeling in his lower body and regretting, every time the wind picks up a gear or two, the choice to not wear a second pair of long underwear. Pickens might be a lot of things, but he is definitely a.) the most influential and visible donor to any major program in college football outside of Phil Knight at Oregon, and b.) smarter than you, since he built a stadium and can sit where he pleases, such as inside where it's warm and they have booze.
8. Baylor will not win this football game with No. 10 Oklahoma State. Baylor has not won a football game in Stillwater since 1939. They will walk off the field at Boone Pickens Stadium a numb, bedraggled mess standing behind a 49-17 margin. They will be savaged by 370 yards passing from the suddenly brilliant Clint Chelf and the mean work of a defense all too happy to let Baylor hand the ball over and to stand in the middle of Baylor's perpetually open passing lanes.
And let's talk about how a team comes completely off the rails somewhere between Oklahoma City and Tulsa. You do it one stuttering wheel at a time until the entire train flips over and catches fire. You do it when Bryce Petty, with zero tacklers in the vicinity, trips over an invisible marmot on the one-yard line.
You do it when, on the next play, Shock Linwood, Baylor's third-string running back playing due to injuries, reaches toward the goal line and hands the ball to the flummoxed-but-pleased Cowboys defense.
You pull another wheel off the rails when a rattled Petty, pressured by three- and four-man fronts all night, can't hit on simple passes he has completed with ease all year. You continue the derailment when your defense can't stop Oklahoma State's receivers in double coverage, much less single coverage, and when the last real hiccup of a comeback attempt dies on a horrendous shotgun snap that soars over Petty's head like a wounded grouse.
That's how it happens, one wheel at a time.
9. That's too passive, though. You can't really imply that something just happened to Baylor. It was done, committed, ripped out of their hands and literally taken at every turn by Oklahoma State.
The Cowboys were playing with naked aggression in freezing temperatures and doing everything Baylor was supposed to have been able to do. They were the ones baffling defenders with play-fakes out of a glorified wishbone and heaving throw-backs to the quarterback. They were the ones who spread the field. They then countered heavy up the middle with Kye Staley, 236 pounds of glorious, ripped rumble-up-the-middle who scored on the most important sequence of the game: the turnaround 99-yard trample by the Oklahoma State offense.
There was nothing passive about this. Oklahoma State took this game, and then beat Baylor about the head and shoulders with it.
10. It is a joy forever watching a bowling ball like Staley scatter pins and scare the hides off tacklers on the way into the end zone. That is all.
11. "It's not Ames," he said. They said this more than once, especially in the dying minutes of the fourth quarter when, after a late cannibal's special of a passing touchdown, Oklahoma State began to run the clock out. (If you're wondering when that is in the Big 12, it's when you're up by 30 or so with five minutes left.) Up in Ames it was nine degrees, and someone was watching a bitter, meaningless contest between Kansas and Iowa State somewhere in the dark of superflyover country, someone with less reason to watch than anyone staying or leaving the Strip in Stillwater, someone wondering why they were watching at all out in the darker dark of an Iowa winter.
Stillwater is not Ames in at least one sense: the Cowboys ruin dreams as a habit, not as accident. That the dark days of Squinky are dead, and that losing to a team like West Virginia can be regarded as a genuine accident that just happens to even the best of football teams. That Sports Illustrated's worst attempts at detailing the extraordinary benefits of being an athlete at Oklahoma State -- They have sex! And the mari-huana! Unlike any other student! -- slide off their truck hoods like so much goose shit in a gale. That they can now complain as a luxury, as fans did in the fourth quarter, that Gundy was letting Baylor back into the game when they knew Oklahoma State could score again if they wanted to really put some stank on what was already a lopsided beatdown.
(For the record: shortly after this complaint, Oklahoma State passed for the final touchdown. Gundy also danced in the locker room, because he is a showman who gives the people what they want: destruction and light twerking.)
Standing against titans like Texas and the historical bully to the south in Norman, Oklahoma State does more than survive. That they were the ones to kick Baylor back down the ladder is appropriate. They're ahead of them on the upstart trail and will brook no passing on the left or right.
12. But Oklahoma State thriving is all the more astronomically unlikely and remarkable because of where it is and what it is. It is not a simple place to survive, a place of intense extremes and Biblical weather, of a sky so freaking huge it threatens to swallow the eyeballs if you look at it long enough. The economy rides the whims of geology and the market and the endless need to not freeze in your own house somewhere a thousand miles away.
The bumps are real, substantial, and come without warning, just like the 3.9 earthquake that shook Stillwater on the morning of the Baylor game. Forget that for too long, and the land itself may remind you of just how tenuous and hard-fought the smallest of successes can be, much less the moment when your football team -- the most frivolous of things --pummels the speed freaks from Baylor on national television in the dark of a freezing Oklahoma night.
13. TL; DR: Standard western plot. It got cold, and everybody but the cowboys died.
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