If you’ve ever been to downtown Denver, Colorado, you’ve undoubtedly seen the majesty of the Rocky Mountains eclipsed by towering skyscrapers of a bustling city.
To the untraveled eye, the mountains look much closer than they really are. I learned this firsthand last year when I was in the city for a job interview. I troubled my Uber driver, who was content to sit in silence listening to NPR through the dilapidated speakers of an old Honda Accord, for an estimate on how long it would take to travel to the foot of the closest mountain.
“Ehh...,” he muttered, blindly digging through the center console for what turned out to be a damaged piece of Orbit chewing gum, “probably around an hour and a half. Why,” he continued, with his vocal tone approaching friendly (either from the refreshing feeling of ice cold mint in his mouth or the opportunity to clean out my wallet) for the first time of the trip, “do you want me to take you there?”
Without shutting him down too harshly, I politely declined the opportunity to pay him three figures to drive me 90 miles, regardless of the visual reward that would’ve resulted in the investment. I was there for a job interview. I was looking to make money, not spend it.
In any case, I continued to annoy him with touristy questions despite his clear desire to tune me out and go back to listening to the prosaic drudgery pouring out of the speakers. Typically, I don’t bother drivers and I’m actually conversation-averse in most uncomfortable situations, but I was in a new town, and I had questions only locals (or a few cursory Google searches, as it turns out) could answer.
“What do people do around here for fun, other than go skiing?”
“They go snowboarding,” he said.
I wasn’t sure if he was joking or not - on paper, that was definitely a joke - but his delivery was worse than pre-Prime Amazon, so I wasn’t sure what to believe. I determined it was best to just leave it alone and surrender in my endeavor to learn about the city from that particular source. I’d find my answers elsewhere in the remaining duration of my trip.
A few days of interrogating more affable locals passed, and I got my answer. As it turns out, I don’t think he was joking at all. Every person I asked said the same four or five things: skiing, snowboarding, hiking, and then your basic events you can do anywhere in the country - concerts, museums, zoos, all that stuff.
It seems obvious there’s nowhere in this vast country that outperforms Denver and the nearby Rocky Mountains at what they do best. Mountains. Skiing. Hiking.
But you know what you’ll never, ever be able to do in that spectacular region of the country? You can’t go surfing. Sure, they can build one of those indoor surfing venues like they did in Austin, but it’ll never replicate the feeling of being out on the Pacific Ocean surrounded by dolphins, seals and sunshine.
Finding an identity
Texas is a football state. Texas Tech is a football school. Saturday’s 55-16 loss at Oklahoma may make it look like every player on the team has actually never even seen a football, but Tech is a football school nonetheless.
The thing is, what makes a school a football school or a basketball school is not actually up to the program itself. It’s up to the fans. The fans control the narrative. If the people of Lubbock wanted Texas Tech to become a volleyball school, they could do it in six months’ time. They could show up to United Supermarkets Arena 15,000 strong (an easy task in a city with more than a quarter of a million residents) and cheer like hell. They could flood Kirby Hocutt’s social media accounts with requests for more volleyball funding, attention, better coaches and better facilities.
If volleyball became the No. 1 ticket in town, and the fans, alumni and donors expressed a total disinterest in the other sports, Hocutt would have no choice but to capitulate to all of those demands, consequently converting Texas Tech into a volleyball school.
So believe me when I say, the question I pose in the headline of this story is a real one, and a question to which you control the answer.
Do people in Denver care that they can’t go surfing on the open ocean? It’s a good question. As previously noted, the Rocky Mountains have some of the best skiing and snowboarding in the country. The hiking trails up there are unbelievable. I imagine there are a fair number of locals who wish they could step out into the warm sand with cool, rushing saltwater beneath their feet as they walk along the sunlit coastline.
Perhaps, on the other hand, they’re content with being the best at what they do, and they’re satisfied with going on vacation to California every once in a while to effectively scratch that itch.
What matters most
So my question to the Red Raider faithful is, are you OK with being the Denver of college sports? Are you OK with dominating basketball, baseball, track, soccer, everything else?
I still don’t think the Tech fan base has fully appreciated the gravity of what its basketball program accomplished last season. I mean, you were this close to winning a NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP. And I feel like I haven’t really seen the enthusiasm around the program I originally anticipated after such a tremendous accomplishment.
I wonder if the shadow of the football program’s failure has drowned out the amazing successes of the other sports. Tech’s baseball team has made it to the College World Series FOUR TIMES in the last six years. That’s unheard of! The men’s track team actually WON A NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP last year. Other than a few Facebook shares and retweets on Twitter, what have we seen from the Tech fan base?
I can already tell you the comments this story will get, pretty much word-for word: “Why can’t we have it all?” or “Why can’t we be a football school, too?” and the answer is...that’s not how college sports work. Guess how many schools have made it to the Final Four in basketball, the College World Series in baseball, and the College Football Playoff at any point in the last five years? Zero. And unless Michigan State, Oregon or Wisconsin get good at baseball anytime soon (unlikely, as the former two have combined for four consecutive losing seasons and Wisconsin literally doesn’t have a baseball team), or unless schools like North Carolina, Vanderbilt and Louisville become elite football programs, we’re not going to see any school accomplish this feat. Somehow, some way, a school ends up having to sacrifice one major program to be truly exceptional in another. That’s just the way it works.
But it IS in the realm of possibility for the Red Raiders to become a national power in the other major sports outside of football because, well, they kind of already are. Chris Beard is ushering in a new era of Texas Tech basketball, an era that’s already produced an Elite Eight appearance and a National Championship appearance in back-to-back years. He’s found diamonds in the rough like Zhaire Smith and Jarrett Culver and turned them into first round draft picks. And he’s recruiting on another level, too. The incoming class is ranked second in the Big 12, trailing only Kansas, and No. 16 nationally. Beard was winning 30 games with three-star talent. Now the four stars are rolling in. This program is well on its way to winning a title.
And speaking of terrific coaches, how about Tim Tadlock? He’s led the Red Raider baseball team to three Big 12 championships in the last four years, and after taking the program to its first ever College World Series appearance in 2014, he’s brought them back three more times and won four games in those appearances. This program is so close.
And men’s track and field is already there, or at least it has a great start. The team brought home the first men’s championship in school history, which means its on the path to joining the likes of Florida and Arkansas among the elite programs in the country. Hocutt extended coach Wes Kittley’s contract into the 2024 season this year, so the dynasty is officially under way.
A football state (of mind)
Texas always has and always will be a football state. There’s not a single native Texan who’s OK with their team being a doormat for the rest of the district in high school, conference in college, or division in the NFL. It’s been called a religion and I don’t think that’s the worst comparison in the world.
But behind the scenes, Texas has started putting out a huge number of first-round NBA draft picks over the last decade or so. In fact, from 2007-2016, only California has produced more first rounders than Texas. And Texas is only producing better quality players each year. De’Aaron Fox, Myles Turner, Jimmy Butler, Julius Randle, Jarrett Culver and Carsen Edwards are just a few names taking over the league right now from Texas, and the 2019 high school class is perhaps the strongest in the state’s history with Tyrese Maxey (Kentucky), RJ Hampton (Australia), Samuell Williamson (Louisville), Jahmius Ramsey (Texas Tech), Will Baker (Texas), Drew Timme (Gonzaga), De’Vion Harmon (Oklahoma) and Jalen Wilson (Kansas) topping the list of the state’s prospects.
So maybe Texas is a football state, but maybe basketball is doing its best to muscle its way to the top. The players our great state is producing are turning out to be some of the nation’s best, and if Tech is the first Power-5 program in the state to embrace that trend, perhaps it will stand alone as the Kentucky of basketball schools in Texas, meaning five-star guys like Tyrese Maxey and Samuell Williamson aren’t going out of state to play their college ball, they’re going to Lubbock. Just a thought.
I am truly curious, as the site manager for Viva the Matadors who helps determine the content we put out there, but also as a fan and alumnus of this great school, what do YOU value? Are you OK with becoming the next Kansas basketball (without the scandals and cheating), winning the conference by a wide margin for decades at a time? Are you content to becoming Vanderbilt baseball, winning national championships once every three years but getting thrashed by your conference in football?
We’ll end this with a poll so you can provide your input. I hope you’ll add context to your answer in the comment section below.
Should Texas Tech embrace becoming the "everything-but-football" school?
This poll is closed
Yes, I’m OK with it as long as we’re winning national championships
No, football will always matter most