Photo credit: John Minchillo/AP

A spat broke out recently between a middling former Texas Tech football coach and a celebrated ex-Red Raiders quarterback over whether Lubbock, Tex., is a hellhole.

The brouhaha got started when Tommy Tuberville, who got fired from Auburn before having a middling run as Tech’s head coach (20-17 overall record) for three seasons before bolting for Cincinnati in 2010, went on a sports radio show in Birmingham, Ala., and wanted folks to know Lubbock is among the worst spots on the planet.

“Somebody asked me, ‘What’s Lubbock look like?’” Tuberville said, according to a transcript of his radio appearance from an Auburn fan site. “It looked like Iraq.”

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The Iraq slam got the ire of B.J. Symons, who broke the all-time NCAA record for passing yards in a season (5,833) in 2003, his only year as a starter for the Red Raiders. Symons played under Mike Leach, who, along with being one of the great football minds of his generation and the winningest coach in the school’s history, was a celebrated weirdo. Tech and Lubbock don’t cotton to weirdos. So the dumbasses who ran the school ran Leach out of town in 2009 using his alleged mistreatment Craig James’ boy as an excuse, thereby ending what will always be remembered by Techies as the golden age of Red Raider football. Neither the football program nor Leach nor James ever recovered from that firing debacle.

Symons, who went on to a brief and unspectacular NFL career post-Tech, let Tuberville know he didn’t like hearing the place where he achieved his greatest glories slandered: “Hey Tommy,” Symons raged. “If Lubbock was Iraq then you were Saddam Hussein and one evil shitty ass coach.”

I have no opinion on Symons’s Tuberville-as-Saddam, though as leaders neither one of them ever did anything to make me forget about Mike Leach. But I have some thoughts on Symons’s quibbling with Tuberville’s A/B’ing Lubbock and Iraq.

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I’ve never been to Iraq, but like most Americans I’ve seen enough war highlights over the past quarter century to have some sense of place. I envision a brown and dusty and flat hellhole. And, I’ve been to Lubbock: I went to college at the same school that Tuberville coached and B.J. quarterbacked. I gotta say: “brown and dusty and flat hellhole” sums up Lubbock fast and neat. Just a couple hellholish attributes: Every spring, the winds that never stopped blowing would carry dirt from the South Plains cotton fields into town and these so-called dust storms—think Steinbeck and Armageddon—would turn everything from the sky to your teeth brown. And when it rained those same winds would blanket the town with the smells of the nearby stockyards—think death and poop—and make going outside even less enticing. My mother came to visit me one March and within 15 minutes of landing in Lubbock for the first time she dubbed the place “Buttock.” And so it was.

After my last exam; I skipped graduation and went back to my Washington, D.C.-area home before and since. And in the 30-plus years since I left, most times when I’d mention Lubbock I’d add how I never understood why anybody who didn’t have to would live there. I also figured I’d never go back. But a couple spring breaks ago, I was visiting Austin with my family and we had a few days with no obligations, and on a whim I packed everybody into a car and told the kids they’re gonna see where Dad went to school. It was a 370-mile drive from Lubbock to Austin, with really nothing in between.

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Everybody in the car but me was asleep for the last few hours of the trip, and that gave me time to mull all things me and Lubbock, and I started thinking maybe I’d been too tough on the place. After all, I had an absolute blast when I was there, in no small part because booze was so cheap. The phony religious types running the place liked to be able to boast that Lubbock was a “dry” town, but that just meant carry-out alcohol was banned inside city limits, while every 50 feet or so on the streets bordering the campus you could find a bar offering students get-drunk-quick schemes. And, no fooling, the music and food options were simply amazing. Were it not for Lubbock, I would never have discovered the great Joe Ely (look him up and listen!), and I surely would never have had a pastrami sandwich from Pete’s, a throwback streetside carryout that had great grub at giveaway prices the likes of which I’ve never found in any other city.

So by midnight, when we hit the city line and I saw Lubbock for the first time since I was a young man, I was feeling real wistful and nostalgic and ready to give the place another chance. And then... Lubbock looked more hideous even than I remembered it. Bleakness reigned. Then it started to rain, and there was that death/poop smell! Buttock, indeed!

I drove over to where I lived off-campus back in my school days—it was once Buddy Holly’s neighborhood and was largely working class and Mexican when I was there—and realized that the whole neighborhood was just GONE. As in, blocks and blocks of the homes I remembered had been razed and replaced by a Walmart and lots of blocks of cheap, privately owned townhouses to rent out to students.

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Sad as I was when I went to bed, I woke up sadder when the sunlight showed me that through the years the whole place had stayed just as flat but had somehow become even browner!

We got in the car after breakfast and headed back to Austin. I’d seen too much. All told, the commute lasted longer than our stay in Lubbock.

My return trip was so bad, in fact, that I’d blocked almost all of it out of my mind, only to have the Tuberville/Symons spat bring it back. So Symons can complain all he wants that Tuberville’s Iraq slurs weren’t nice. But if truth is a defense, damn if Lubbock doesn’t resemble that remark.