Permian Court Reporters
The radio broadcast was continuing like any other during the 1990 season for Mike Patton.
Except, the figure that walked behind him in the broadcast booth and peered out into the crowd of 20, 000 at the Odessa Permian vs. Odessa High game wasn’t a regular.
It was Mike Wallace — on hand with a crew from CBS’ 60 Minutes.
Visits from national news correspondents to high school football games don’t happen — unless it’s a program the stature of Permian’s, especially after it catapulted onto the national consciousness following the release of Buzz Bissinger’s “Friday Night Lights” that year.
Bissinger detailed the 1988 season, accurately or inaccurately depending on who you ask, in print.
This year marks the book’s 25th anniversary.
The film and television series that followed furthered the narrative of one of the most popular national sports stories.
It’s a narrative so popular that it’s arguably unfair for those playing in the Panthers’ white and black since and for those living in this region.
“What has brought the program back to where it is right now — and it is on its way back — is the legacy that these kids are trying to live up to, ” Patton, who has broadcast high school athletics in Odessa for 42 years, said. “They’ve watched the movie. They’ve heard the stories.”
Permian was, at the time the book was written, playing in a district known as ‘The Little Southwest Conference, ’ with the likes of San Angelo Central, Midland High, Midland Lee, and others.
It’s a group that dominated: from 1920 to 2000, its teams combined to win at least 18 state titles, including seven from Abilene High, six from Permian, three from Midland Lee and two from San Angelo Central.
“I’m not a Mojo guy, ” local television announcer and radio host David Thetford said. “But, I’m proud of what they did as a Texas high school. What they accomplished.”
Those were serious teams with serious players.
Division I signees were more common: in 1984, Midland Lee had six Division I players sign scholarships, including five to Texas Tech.
Last year’s Permian season, which went three rounds deep in the playoffs, was a successful campaign after several middling ones.
But to put it into perspective, the Panthers were still two games from getting to a state final and three from winning one.
“It’s difficult in many ways and it’s a real advantage in many ways, ” Thetford said. “To have played in a program that has great tradition and has won a lot. You get the benefits of that. The pressure of that is everyone expects it to continue.”
In a Wednesday interview, former Permian coach Gary Gaines said that teams in this region can be competitive in the large classes on a state level.
Much of it, he said, hinges on having a favorable alignment with the number of students.
From my observations, though, there’s no going back to the dynasties of large schools here in the past.
“I think right now, kids are getting a little of that pressure, ” longtime Estacado coach Louis Kelley said about players following a legacy. “The quality of your players is not what it used to be in this area and I think it creates a little problems for kids. In terms of fans, they think it should be the same deal every year and it’s not.”
Disputing the content of Friday Night Lights is to dispute the book of a journalist that won a Pulitzer Prize for reporting on the court system in Philadelphia.
Disputing the film and TV series is different: those are compelling, albeit dramatized, versions of the story that make Texans seem like caricatures of themselves.
Like the impact ‘The Sopranos’ had on Italian-Americans or ‘Sex and the City’ had on single women, Friday Night Lights’ lore puts people in Texas in a box.
To people moving forward, it becomes a question of what you want to be known for.
“That reign of Odessa Permian and that little Southwest Conference, ” Thetford said. “It was a great story and people all across the state knew about it. And Permian had a big part of sending out that message.”