November 23, 2017

Essay to the Old Southwest Conference; Reflections on the “New” SWC

In the 1999-2000 college athletics era, a small hue and cry raised its head again.

“Boy, I wish we could be back in the old Southwest Conference,” was heard on probably eight or nine campuses of the old membership as the new leagues arranged primarily for revenue and television purposes were working but just did not have the traditional rivalries and “oomph” of the defunct circuit.

Yes, the SWC did have its problems for the last 20-plus years of its existence. Squabbles over ending the traditional Humble/Esso/Enco Radio Network and allowing Mutual Network and later Host Communications to pick up the broadcasts left some ruffled feathers. Still, the format allowed broadcasters to “cut into” other games during an exciting time or scoring drives and then go back to studios for additional information.

That was the precursor of many of ESPN’s and CBS Sports’ techniques of “throwing back” various broadcasts at NCAA basketball and baseball tourney times as well as college doubleheaders or “split” national/regional telecasts in recent years. It also made the SWC Radio Network’s Saturday broadcasts some of the longest-running (from 1934-95, 62 seasons) in radio history other than the immortal Texaco Metropolitan Opera programs from New York City.

SWC schools had differences of opinion about game gate guarantees and which teams would receive the most television coverage (even providing a hardship stipend for teams which had there or more games televised). Professional teams were cutting into attendance at both the high school and college levels throughout Texas and Arkansas, and the private school members – Baylor, Rice, SMU, and TCU – were feeling the effects.

A Rice ticket office employee once summed up the meat of the issue when he spoke of summer season ticket sales.

“We rotated football players, especially the starters and youngsters who were well known, coming into the office and making calls to previous and prospective ticket holders,” he related. “By the late 1980s, the fan base was shrinking so much that we were calling the older season ticket holders first before they became too ill to attend the games.”

SWC marketing people were tearing out their hair trying to offset fan indifference, competitive issues, fighting highly-funded pro franchises, and a number of obstacles.

Then in 1991 Arkansas became the first team to withdraw from the loop since Oklahoma State (then Oklahoma A&M) in 1925 and joined South Carolina to give the Southeastern Conference 12 teams and the chance to have a divisional playoff and championship game annually starting in 1992.

Initially, panic sank in but SWC directors of athletics later removed one financial onus (a game guaranteed fee for all SWC contests for each team regardless of attendance) and allowed the home schools’ to keep all game receipts starting with 1992 football. Though Arkansas felt betrayed and as the Razorbacks suffered in SEC football competition for several seasons after being dominant from 1957 through the 1980s in the SWC, the new financial policies literally forced most of the private schools such to step up to the plate and increase season ticket and gate receipts.

The results have been apparent in recent years after a bit of a hiatus. Baylor produced its first Heisman Trophy winner in 2011 in Robert Griffin III (RG3) and won its most games since the 1986 season under National Football Foundation College Hall of Fame head coach Grant Teaff. SMU has gone to bowl games a school-record three consecutive years under coaching genius June Jones. Rice played its first bowl game since 1961 in the 2006 New Orleans Bowl and later the ’08 Texas Bowl (thrashing Western Michigan 38-14 for the Owls’ first postseason triumph since downing Alabama 28-6 in the famed Dick Maegle Bench Tackle Game – by Tommy Lewis – in the 1954 Cotton Bowl). TCU has enjoyed its best 11-year run in school annals with a 108-30 composite record under head coach Gary Patterson since 2001 and 11 bowl games in 12 seasons.

Even a public school Houston program which had major ebbs and flows in the 1970s and ‘80s stabilized with a 36-16 record since 2008, six bowl appearances from 2005-11 (capped by a 30-14 win over powerful Penn State in the 2012 TicketCity Bowl). In 2009 six of the SWC teams from the 1980s, and there have been years in the 2000s where as many as 7-8 of the old members, had winning marks in football.

SWC baseball thrived throughout the 1915-96 existence with annual national contenders in Arkansas, Baylor, Texas, Texas A&M, and later in the period Texas Tech. Basketball rivalries thrived with Phi Slama Jama at Houston in the 1980s, Arkansas under coach Eddie Sutton and Texas under coaches Tom Penders and Rick Barnes. SWC individuals excelled in the Olympic sports with hundreds of individual titles and over 200 Olympians since the 1920 games and several qualifiers from old SWC schools for the 2012 Games. The SWC also produced 64 national championships in 17 sports over its 82-year history and 350-plus first team All-America choices.

Events such as The Great Shootout – Texas’ 15-14 win over Arkansas to pave the way for UT’s second national football title in 1969 after a 21-17 Cotton Bowl Classic victory over Notre Dame Jan. 1, 1970 – Texas A&M’s first-ever Associated Press national grid crown in 1939, and the shared college football crown between SMU and TCU in 1935 set the stage for a long and colorful football history.

Only NCAA investigations, which began in the 1970s and culminated with SMU’s death penalty from 1986-88 and seven schools being scrutinized or placed on probation from 1971-90, marred the landscape a bit. And not to minimize the seriousness of the situations, but the SWC teams virtually fought over the same giant talent pool in all sports from the state of Texas and bordering areas for decades. The temptation and proximity proved to be too much in many cases with recruits in all sports.

But, lo and behold, now look at the Big 12 (minus two at this point) membership as of July 1, 2012.

There are now six former Southwest Conference members: Baylor, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas, TCU, and Texas Tech. TCU starts in 2012-13 along with former Big East and Southern Conference contender West Virginia, coming off a 70-34 Discover Orange Bowl BCS triumph over Clemson in January 2012.

Texas A&M, a 82-year SWC member before joining the Big 12, left the second league to join the SEC for the 2012-13 seasons. Same with initial Big 12 member Missouri, a 87-year member of the Missouri Valley and later Big Eight Conference. Nebraska bolted from the Big 12 to join the Big Ten in 2011-12 while Colorado opted out for the Pac-12 Conference, which played a football championship tussle for the first time in 2011.

Is there a temptation to bring Houston and Rice back to the Big 12 in future years and almost “re-form” the SWC? Probably not… The two Bayou City schools have thrived as members of the Western Athletic Conference (Rice) and later together in Irving-based Conference USA. SMU will leave Conference USA in 2013-14 to join the Big East Conference after being in the WAC and CUSA from 1996-2013.

Yes, those old SWC traditions – first conference ever to sign a tie-in with a bowl game starting with the 1942 Cotton Bowl Classic, which hosted SWC champs from 1942 until 1995 – died hard, but they are being relived in many minds as many yearn for the old days of Kern Tipps or Frank Fallon on radio, Doak Walker singlehandedly leading SMU to a major national upset, Keith Moreland blasting a baseball into the alley, Michael Johnson setting another world record in the 400 meters, or even Kamie Ethridge leading Texas women’s basketball to a 34-0 record and 1985-86 NCAA championship.

Some of those happy days are here again in Austin, Fort Worth, Lubbock, Norman, Stillwater, and Waco on any number of 22 sports’ playing fields or hardcourts.

 

Brief SWC History and Membership:
The first organizational meeting of the conference was held in May 1914 at the Oriental Hotel in Dallas (later the corporate headquarters site for AT&T). It was chaired by L. Theo Bellmont, who came up with the idea of the SWC and was director of athletics at Texas. Originally, LSU and Ole Miss were invited to join the league and decided to remain independent while later becoming part of the Southern Conference and the SEC.

The conference formally came into being on December 8, 1914, at the Oriental Hotel in Houston and began competition for the 1915-16 season. The conference closed its doors at 1300 Mockingbird Lane in Dallas on June 30, 1996.

 

Membership:
Arkansas (1915–1991); Baylor (1915–1996); Houston (1971–1996, began competition in September 1976); Oklahoma (1915–1919); Oklahoma A&M, later Oklahoma State (1915–1925); Phillips (1920); Rice (1918–1996); SMU (1918–1996); Southwestern – Georgetown, Texas, restarting its football program in 2013 (1915–1916); Texas (1915–1996); Texas A&M (1915–1996); TCU (1923–1996); Texas Tech (1956–1996).

Teams Leaving (Year, Conference): Arkansas (1991, SEC); Baylor (1996, Big 12); Houston (1996, Conference USA); Oklahoma (1919, MVC); Oklahoma A&M/Oklahoma State (1925, MVC); Phillips, Enid, Oklahoma (1920, Sooner Athletic Conference); Rice (1996, WAC); SMU (1996, WAC); Southwestern (1916, Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference); Texas (1996, Big 12); Texas A&M (1996, Big 12); TCU (1996, WAC); Texas Tech (1996, Big 12).

For a detailed newsletter/history of the SWC or for information about the SWC at the Southwest Collection at Texas Tech in Lubbock, please go to http://swco.ttu.edu/exhibits/pdfs/Newsletter_Spring_2004.pdf.

 

Bo Carter is college football historian and a college administrator with over 40 years of experience.

A version of this article was originally published in the July 2012 issue of The College Football Historian, the official newsletter of the Intercollegiate Football Researchers Association.

 

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  1. […] regular-season title was the program’s first championship since the Mustangs hung a banner as Southwest Conference champs in 1993. That was also the last time that Southern Methodist played in the NCAA […]

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