They call it the Red River Rivalry, a knock down collegiate grudge match between football teams from Oklahoma University and the University of Texas that has been played each year since McKinley was President and the yet-to-be State of Oklahoma was still known as Indian Territory. On June 4-5 the winner of the Red River Rugby Rivalry will be decided on the grassy turf of a sparkling new soccer stadium on the banks of the Delaware River outside Philadelphia, where Texas and Oklahoma will play for more than interstate bragging rights. This time the stakes are a national collegiate championship in a spartan contact sport that more closely resembles the armor-free clash of brawn on cleats played between the two universities that first time 111 years ago.
That first football game between Texas and Oklahoma in 1900 was more rugby than gridiron and the eleven-decade-old rivalry born that day will take a back-to-the-future leap into the 21st Century when the two clubs meet in a 16 team tournament played over two days to determine the USA Sevens Collegiate Rugby Champions at PPL Park in Chester, Pa., home of Philadelphia's major league soccer franchise, The Union. Sevens rugby, played with teams of seven rather than 15 players, is a faster, harder, higher scoring version of the game and is played worldwide in elimination tournaments consisting of 14 minute matches with seven-minute halves. This sleek sudden sprint style of rugby has become so popular internationally that it will be featured as an exhibition sport in the next Summer Olympics in London and be awarded full medal status in the 2016 Olympics in Brazil.
But the only Big O rugby competition Texas will be focusing on in coming weeks is that Big O team from the north bank of the Red River, the river that runs through two states of mind. Sooner or later, Longhorn or bust. Ask University of Texas rugby coach Butch Neuenschwander about the rivalry and his last words during an interview were, "My Okie relatives are gonna kill me when they read this." That's because Coach Neuenschwander was born and raised about 30 miles north of Norman, home of the OU campus, near Oklahoma City. In other words, the University of Texas rugby coach is as Okie as Muskogee.
"I was so honored when I was made head coach," said Neuenschwander, 43, who took over a losing University of Texas rugby club last year and turned it into a winner. "But all my friends and family, people at home, said, 'What were you thinking?' They called me traitor." And the coach knows something about bitter athletic rivalries. He graduated from the United States Naval Academy and it was his career as a naval officer that brought him to Texas after a two year assignment in Japan. When he first took over as coach of UT rugby, Neuenschwander was forced to buy golf shirts with the Texas colors, burnt orange, rather than Oklahoma's crimson and cream. As he stood at the cashier's counter with a stack of shirts bearing the rival colors, he paused. "Ma'am, you don't know how much it pains me to buy these burnt orange shirts," he said with his broad Oklahoma accent. "Why's that," asked the cashier. "I'm from north of the border," he replied. And not missing a beat, in true Texas fashion, she asked sweetly, "Oh, you're from Canada?"
Oklahoma University rugby coach Ken Forehand, who played for OU in the 90's and took over the the rugby program in 2001, said the Red River Rugby Rivalry unfolds on the same weekend each autumn as the spectacle that is the Texas-Oklahoma football game. The game is played each year in Dallas, which is equidistant from UT campus in Austin and the OU campus in Norman, and it is always the centerpeice of the annual Texas State Fair. The rugby match is played in true Texas high school football style -- under the lights on Friday night -- before the Saturday afternoon showdown in the Cotton Bowl. "It's amazing really," Forehand said of the Cotton Bowl frenzy. "The stadium is split right down the middle, north and south at the 50-yard line, with Texas fans on one side and Oklahoma fans on the other. Half the stadium wears burnt orange, half the stadium wears crimson and cream." (Or as trash talking Longhorn supporters like to describe it, "Half the crowd is burnt orange and the other half is ugly.")
"The rugby match can get a little chippy," Forehand said of the Texas-Oklahoma game. "But the next day players from both teams get together someplace to watch the football game --if they don't have tickets." The winner of the Texas-Oklahoma football game is awarded The Golden Hat, a gold-plated ten gallon cowboy hat mounted on a block of wood, that is kept by the winning team's athletic department until the following year.