By Erin Mulvaney
COLLEGE STATION, Texas (Reuters) - In the middle of a plot of sparse land near the Texas A&M University campus, a 45-foot-tall tiered pile of timber represents the Aggies' "burning desire" to beat arch-rival the University of Texas in the teams' annual Thanksgiving Day football matchup.
This year's game marks the end of a rivalry that dates back to 1894 between the two biggest universities in the Lone Star State, as A&M is preparing to leave the Big 12 for the Southeastern Conference next summer. So the bonfire and other traditions at both universities hold special significance.
The game, which is in College Station this year, is the end of not only a sports rivalry but also a tradition deeply embedded in both the state and universities' identities. Earlier this year, Texas Governor Rick Perry, a onetime A&M yell leader who is now a Republican presidential candidate, joked that he had promised his wife, Texas First Lady Anita Perry, that he would avoid controversial topics such as A&M's decision to leave the Big 12.
"It's really about more than just football," said Travis Springer, a senior at A&M who helped organize the bonfire, which is made from wood collected and chopped by students over several months and is topped with an outhouse decorated in UT burnt orange. Because of a widespread burn ban in Texas, the structure will not be set ablaze for this year's ceremony, but students and fans are visiting the site before the game.
In Austin on Monday night, about 2,000 students decked out in burnt orange crowded in the center of the University of Texas campus holding candles for their own tradition called the Hex Rally. Student groups, cheerleaders, dancers and a school choir led the rally for the football team as the marching band played school songs. Parents put orange-clad children on their shoulders for a better view of the band and dancers.
Former UT football player Ahmad Brooks pointed out that Texas has won 75 of the 118 matchups between the two teams.
"This is one team we have beat more than any other team in America," Brooks said to the roaring crowd of students and alumni, many of whom had their faces painted orange and white. "So, anyway, we're good."
Texas Coach Mack Brown called the night "historic."
"This will be a night you remember for your kids and your grandkids," Brown said. "It will be something that will go down in history."
The Hex Rally dates back to 1941, when a group of students from Texas sought the advice of a fortune teller before facing A&M, which was undefeated that year leading up to the game. Madame Augusta Hipple told the students to burn red candles before the game to send a curse to their opponents. Following her advice, the Longhorns cruised to victory. The tradition continued and eventually became an official university event in the 1980s.
The A&M bonfire dates back to 1909, but became disassociated with the university after the then-55-foot-high bonfire collapsed in 1999, killing 12. That year, Texas A&M won the Thanksgiving game against Texas, playing with determination. The bonfire is now run and organized independently from the university with a smaller structure than the one that toppled 11 years ago.
Both universities and student groups have said they would like to continue their respective traditions. A&M student bonfire organizers have said that next year's event will center around whichever team they play during the week of Thanksgiving. The outhouse that tops the structure will simply be painted a different color. The future of the Hex Rally is uncertain.
Darrell Royal, who coached the Longhorns from 1957 to 1976, told Reuters that the game was always important to him because winning meant an edge for enticing the best recruits in the state. As the coach with the most wins in the team's history, he is the namesake of the Darrell K Royal - Texas Memorial Stadium, the Longhorn's home turf.
"They were a great rival and we were too; it was just a question of who was going to eke out that victory," Royal said.
Fans from both schools said that growing up in Texas, it is hard to escape the teams' rivalry, with families and friends pitted against one another in friendly sparring over the maroon and burnt orange teams. When families gather on Thanksgiving Day, it is likely loyalties may be divided even within a family as they watch the matchup on television.
Many families, however, learn early on where their loyalties should lie. Springer joked that his mother probably removed all the orange crayons from his box when he was a child.
The two universities are similar in size, but a key distinction between UT and A&M lies with their urban versus agricultural roots, respectively.
While many Aggie traditions center around jeers and taunts aimed at their rival, the Longhorn attitude is generally one of a perceived hubris over their maroon counterpart as a lesser competitor.
Those who followed Texas A&M's exodus from the Big 12 point to the creation of Texas' Longhorn Network, which features Texas' sporting events, as the tipping point for the university's decision. Fans of both teams and sports analysts expressed disappointment that the teams would no longer face each other, but recognized that the SEC may mean greater visibility and recruiting leverage for A&M.
Students from A&M and UT said they are disappointed at the end of the era but that the move will be an opportunity to hash out new rivalries.
Jonathan Woo, a senior at the University of Texas, said the rivalry between the two had begun to dissolve into little more than a habit, as Texas focused on other rivalries, such as one with the University of Oklahoma.
"The A&M rivalry is about verbal sparring back and forth," Woo said. "It's a traditional thing."
Springer, a third-generation Aggie, said students on campus are generally disappointed but believe that the move to the Southeastern conference is the right choice in the long run.
"We see it as A&M getting out on top and getting out of Texas' shadow," Springer said. "It will definitely be different though. I mean, hating a team in Gainesville, Florida is different from hating one in Austin, Texas."
When the Aggies sing their fight song at the game, these words may seem more significant: "Goodbye to Texas University." The Longhorns also devote part of their fight song to their rival: "And it's goodbye to A&M."
Royal, 87, said he will attend the game in College Station on Thursday, but offered no prediction for the outcome.
"I wouldn't miss it," he said. "It was a great contest between the two schools and it won't be the same without Texas A&M being in the position they are in now."
(Editing by Corrie MacLaggan and Greg McCune)