Basketball

Burn the Boats: The Story of Texas Tech Basketball and my Great Grandfather

“Burn the boats” was a motto introduced by Texas Tech Basketball during the 2017-2018 season during the team’s effort to overthrow the Big 12 dynasty of the Kansas Jayhawks. It’s a reference to a Spanish conquistador named Hernan Cortes and his journey from Spain to the Aztec empire in modern day Mexico.

According to legend, Cortes sailed to Cuba for additional sailors and supplies. His new and improved fleet then sailed to Mexico to overthrow the Aztec empire. Between Cuba and Mexico, Cortes sensed nervousness among his soldiers about the conquest. So when they arrived on the shores of Mexico, Cortes delivered the now historic order…

Burn the boats.

Eliminate the possibility of retreat. He and his army were there to conquer or die trying. If they were to sail back to Cuba or Spain, it was going to be in the Aztecs’ ships.

That is of course the glorified version of events that is almost surely somewhat detached from reality. But the story’s lesson is not lost on anybody.

I took three days off work to attend the Final Four in Minneapolis last weekend. My friends and I drove 17 hours there and 17 hours back to Lubbock before returning to our routine lives on Wednesday morning. In between my departure from Lubbock and my arrival back home, the mantra of “burn the boats” latched onto my mind and I couldn’t let it go.

Saturday, I witnessed history as Texas Tech defeated Michigan State and advanced to the first national championship appearance in school history. My voice was gone from yelling and the feeling among all Red Raider fans in downtown Minneapolis was pure euphoria. The journey from Lubbock to Minnesota had proven worthwhile.

Before Monday’s big game could arrive, there was another journey on my personal horizon. Two hours west of Minneapolis is a town called Granite Falls. It is a picturesque and prototypical small town American city; an oasis in the middle of rural Minnesota.

More than 110 years ago, my great grandfather – whose name is Hans Andreas Benjamin Jergensen Jacobsen – sailed from Norway to Granite Falls with other poor Norwegian immigrants looking for nothing more than an opportunity in a new world. As the story goes, my great grandfather made a deal with a local farmer who helped arrange for my ancestors to make the voyage from Norway to the United States. In exchange for immigration assistance, my great grandfather worked on the man’s farm for seven years.

Hans was about the age of the young men on Texas Tech’s basketball team when he made the sacrifice to leave Norway. He died at the age of 75 after spending more than half a century in a brand new world. It took me 26 years into this life to get to the state of Minnesota where my family first settled.

Walking around an isolated countryside cemetery surrounded by fog in Granite Falls felt like I had stepped into heaven itself, if only for a few minutes, as I paid my respects to the man who refused to retreat and conquered a new life.

“Go from your country, your people, and your father’s household to the land I will show you.”

After walking around downtown Granite Falls and marveling at the simple elegance of small town diners, churches, and the post office, it was back to Minneapolis. There were tons of Red Raider fans throughout the Twin Cities partying before Monday night’s game.

Nobody was nervous. It was all pure excitement. I had doubts about Texas Tech’s ability to beat Michigan, Gonzaga, and Michigan State. But by this point, I knew that Chris Beard was untouchable. Texas Tech was going to win the national championship for the first time in any major men’s sport in about 24 hours.

Texas Tech had sailed so far. Nobody gave the rebuilding team that lost nearly all of its production from the year prior any chance this season. We know the story by now; picked 7th in the Big 12 only to respond with a Big 12 championship, the Big 12 player of the year, Big 12 and AP national coach of the year, and the university’s first Final Four appearance.

Texas Tech had finally reached the shores Monday night, and the boats had already been burned, Retreat was never an option for Tariq Owens, who did his best to overcome a high ankle sprain that Chris Beard said keeps most players out for one month. There was no surrender when Texas Tech found itself down by 10 points in the second half against a stifling defense.

Of course, the perseverance ultimately wasn’t enough. Texas Tech lost this battle, just not for any lack of commitment to the cause. Saturday night’s euphoria wore off in an instant, and all that was left was devastation and numbness.

I had a 17-hour drive back to Lubbock to try and process everything on Tuesday. I already knew the old adage that “time heals all wounds” doesn’t fully apply here. If Texas Tech were to rattle off three national championships in a row starting next season, fans would still wonder “what if?” from that Monday night in 2019. Fifty years from now people will still talk about Monday night.

But during all the reflection from the weekend, I did have one optimistic takeaway that has helped ease the pain and allowed me to look forward.

Granite Falls, Minnesota isn’t just where some of my family are buried in the ground. It’s not simply a place that symbolizes the death of my ancestors. It’s the place where my grandfather and my family’s version of the American dream were born. It’s not where my great grandfather’s journey ended – it’s where it began.

And so my thinking has shifted about that Final Four court at US Bank Stadium too. The careers of many Red Raider seniors – Norense Odiase, Brandone Francis, Matt Mooney, Tariq Owens – and likely Jarrett Culver did indeed come to an end when the clock hit all zeros in overtime. In the moment, every player and fan thought it was the most devastating loss imaginable. I don’t blame them and many may still feel that way. Would Texas Tech ever get another opportunity on such a stage?

The heart displayed by those seniors all season, even though it culminated in a national championship game loss, are not the end for the Texas Tech basketball program. Roots were planted in Minnesota (and all season in Lubbock prior to last weekend) that will serve as the cultural foundation of every Chris Beard team to follow.

The boats are ashes somewhere lost at sea. Chris Beard is not sailing to a new destination. Texas Tech has come too far to retreat now. Reinforcements will arrive next season and each season after that, like the offspring of future generations, all chasing the same dream.

One day we will look back at guys like Norense, Tariq, Mooney, Francis, and Culver, and mourn the fact that their careers at Texas Tech ended without a national championship. But even more, we will celebrate them for ushering in a new era of Texas Tech basketball that wasn’t buried in Minnesota but is alive and well because of their willingness to burn the boats and never look back.

On Sunday in Granite Falls, I realized Minnesota isn’t the place where my great grandfather’s dream died. And sometime this week after processing everything, I realized Minnesota isn’t the place where Chris Beard and Texas Tech’s dreams died, either.

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