The Southwest Conference ended 25 years ago the same way it lived: with fire in its belly and pettiness in its heart.
Even its ceremonial closing came with a tinge of spite. Two football games were to be played that final Saturday, Dec. 2, 1995, but Rice officials were determined theirs would be last. So when they discovered that Texas and Texas A&M — who were playing for the SWC title — were locked into a 2:30 p.m. kickoff on ABC, Rice scheduled its kickoff with rival Houston for 4 p.m., to the dismay of the Longhorns and Aggies.
“There had been some consternation about how the league broke up,” said Mike Pede, who was Rice’s athletics marketing director at the time. Texas and Texas A&M were off to greener pastures of the newly-formed Big 12, and Rice and Houston were left twisting in the wind. “Everybody was looking out for themselves.”
Moments after Houston edged Rice by a point in the league’s football finale, there was a trophy presentation (the Cougars claimed the Bayou Bucket), the two schools’ bands performed a countdown, and one lucky couple, Rice season-ticket holders Dick and Margie Hudson, flipped an actual light switch, turning Rice Stadium dark.
And just like that, after 81 years, Southwest Conference football was officially history. The one-of-a-kind league produced five national champions and five Heisman Trophy winners, but its lasting impact went well beyond the field.
The league was where a president watched the first Game of the Century, where landscape-altering offenses like the wishbone were spawned from coaching icons like Darrell Royal, where runners like Doak Walker, Earl Campbell and Eric Dickerson tortured defenders and where players like Tom Landry and Barry Switzer soaked up enough wisdom to become future sideline legends. It’s also where scores of Texas oilmen kept NCAA investigators drilling, earning an NCAA “Death Penalty” and a new tagline for the SWC: Sure We’re Cheatin’.
ESPN spoke to more than two dozen key figures for an oral history to consider the league’s legacy, explore why it died and examine its lasting imprint on the sport.
‘Wow, this is Southwest Conference football’
The Southwest Conference was a Texas-centric creation. From 1925 to 1991, Arkansas was the only member school outside of the state lines, a contrast to regional conferences that spanned several states. And since its birth in 1914, it also became a volatile incubator for Texas bravado that would become its trademark.
N.D. Kalu, Rice defensive end, 1993-96: There was a max of three degrees of separation in every game that I knew somebody from the high school level and we were playing each other in college.
R.C. Slocum, Texas A&M assistant 1972-80, 82-88, head coach 1989-2002: There was such an intertwining of the coaches. [Texas Tech coach] Spike [Dykes] worked for [Texas coach] Darrell [Royal]. Spike worked for Emory [Bellard, former Texas assistant and Texas A&M coach] in high school in San Angelo. Emory worked for Darrell. Then Emory went to A&M. I worked for Emory. We all moved up a notch and you were still competing against each other. That part of it was fun. You knew the coaches, and knew their kids.
Sonny Dykes, SMU coach, 2017-present, son of Spike Dykes, Texas Tech coach 1986-1999: When I played high school football, I can remember coming in late on Friday night. No matter what, if Texas Tech had a home game, whoever was the opposing coach was sitting in my living room having a cocktail with my dad. R.C. was always there. I came home one time and saw Ken Hatfield hanging with Spike. Just think about how different that is now. Imagine Nick Saban and Gus Malzahn having a drink at Gus’ house the night before the Iron Bowl.
Tom Rossley, SMU coach, 1991-96, former Rice, Texas A&M assistant: During the week of practice, you had to coach your guys up. “Don’t be talking to your buddies about what we’re doing.” Then invariably somebody would come to us and say, “Coach, I talked to so-and-so at TCU, and they’re going to run this trick play.” You didn’t know whether to believe some of it and you were wondering how much of our stuff is getting out.
Britton Banowsky, executive director, College Football Playoff Foundation, former SWC assistant commissioner: I think it made a huge imprint on the growth of college football. And I think it was a key part of the overall mosaic of college football.
Houston Nutt, Played at Arkansas 1976-77, Arkansas coach 1998-2007: I can remember as a player on the sideline in ’76, watching this big ol’ back come down the sideline, three feet from me. It was Earl Campbell. That was like a train going down that sideline as a 18-year-old freshman. It woke me up: Wow, this is Southwest Conference football. This is big-time football. The players were so athletic and well-coached. They had the Texas wishbone. The Houston veer. Bill Yeoman, Darrell Royal, Frank Broyles, great coaches, great icons that I looked up to.
‘We were our own worst enemies. Everyone in there hated everybody.’
The immense state pride of the Texas teams also played against the conference. Everyone wanted to be the king in Texas, and in the 1980s, a war raged to claim the crown.
Rossley: All the assistant coaches knew each other in your area. We’d all sit together [at high school games] and talk and converse. It was that way until it got closer to signing day and then you started separating. You would be wondering what the other guys were doing. There were some crazy things going on in those times. You had to kind of watch each other pretty closely to make sure that the other guys were being fair with recruits.
Slocum: It was so competitive within the state that some of those people got out of bounds. Once they started, well … “He’s doing it too!”
Grant Teaff, Baylor coach, 1972-1992: There were some of us that weren’t cheating and were not going to cheat. And so it’s hard to go out on a football field, and know that you can have that player and he could be scoring touchdowns for you, except that black bag arrived at the little airport. Everybody knew everything that was going on. You knew when the new cars were delivered. You would get a call from someone in that town: “So-and-so got a new car today.”
Jackie Sherrill, Texas A&M coach, 1982-88: You had the alumni involved anywhere else, like Ohio State or Notre Dame. But it wasn’t like the Southwest Conference because all the schools were close and most of the kids here did not go out of state.
Jack Crowe, Alabama native, former Auburn and Clemson assistant who was Arkansas coach in 1990-92: The thing about it is we had state lines [in the SEC]. And there were no lines in Texas. It was like, “What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine.”
Sherrill: Texas and Texas A&M, and then you throw in Arkansas, none of the rest had the same money. But the oil money in Texas made a big difference. So you did have some alumni at Rice, at Baylor, at TCU, at SMU that were very, very wealthy.
John Jenkins, Houston offensive coordinator 1987-89, head coach 1990-92: [In the 1980s, SMU] started lining up and beating the likes of Texas and certainly A&M. And that’s when some problems started occurring … the bitterness of rivalries, the intense competition of recruiting. [SMU coach] Ron [Meyer] went on probation but so did everybody else at the same time. I mean, everybody, other than Rice, got put on probation for cheating with some sort of restrictions put on ’em.
Mike Frazier, NCAA enforcement 1979-86: What we believed at that period of time is that there was a lot of money or benefits being provided to athletes to go to certain schools. Obviously, SMU got caught up in that at the time and then probably other schools, either trying to compete with SMU or SMU was trying to compete with some of the other schools and they’re the ones who got caught first. Who knows? It’s kind of a chicken-and-egg deal. But at that point in time, I think many would have considered football recruiting in the Southwest Conference to be — I don’t know what the right term is … but almost [with] no limits.
In 1985, the NCAA banned SMU from bowl games for two seasons and stripped them of 45 scholarships over two years, one of the strongest punishments in NCAA history. It stemmed from a payroll system for players involving wealthy boosters. The same year, oilman Dick Lowe, a TCU trustee, confessed to helping the Horned Frogs with their own slush fund and personally paying players, including star running back Kenneth Davis. The scheme “was born out of total frustration, from getting our butts beat by people we knew were buying players,” he told The New York Times. ”I think there are 91 Division 1-A schools and my assessment is that 80 of them are buying football players.” The SWC could not keep its members from pointing fingers at each other to the NCAA.
Sherrill: You had a lot of coaches that completely started the whole thing [turning each other in]. And then some of their alumni got involved in putting up some money to go after some schools.
Teaff: It became very much a lot of hard feelings, because you knew what was happening. I saw kids cry and say “Coach, I’ve got to go to such-and-such school. I can’t afford not to.” The men I knew that were coaching at other schools were not criminals, they were not bad guys, you know. But they had to do what they had to do and they did it.
Frazier: At the same point in time, recruiting in the Southeast was very competitive, specifically the Southeastern Conference. Charley Pell at the University of Florida was involved in a pretty significant infractions case then. I can tell you what the sense was at the time was that you could start probably in West Texas and move directly east all the way to the East Coast through the Florida Panhandle and all the SEC schools, and it was all pretty wide open in terms of recruiting back in those days.
Slocum: In other parts of the country where the schools were more scattered, things would probably not have reached the level where they got the publicity they got. But with everybody here living right on top of each other, word got out. Every Sunday in church everybody’s upset at each other.
Nothing scarred the league more than the NCAA’s “Death Penalty” handed down to SMU in 1987 after it was designated a repeat offender for continuing the payroll to honor its promise to some of the players. The Mustangs were forced to cancel their 1987 and ’88 seasons. After going 41-5 in the pre-probation years from 1981 to ’84, the Mustangs would have only one winning season from 1989 to 2005 and would not win 10 games again until 2019.
Gene Wojciechowski shares a first-person account of the day the SMU football program received the “death penalty” in 1987.
Rossley: I think the death penalty was not only the death penalty for SMU, it was kind of the beginning of the death penalty for the Southwest Conference. It cast such a bad light on the conference. SMU wasn’t the only [program] that was guilty at that time. They were paying the price for teams across the country.
Jenkins: I think at that point, everybody — I’m talking about everybody in the conference — pulled back their aggression in recruiting. There were no alumni groups out there cutting deals to buy players. Everybody went to a very straight-across-the-board, scholarship offer, nothing else, no-shenanigans [approach]. Except the Texas Aggies kept taking players to the back room for cars and clothes and cash and you know what? They got caught, and they got probation [in 1988]. Fortunately for them, the NCAA had seen what happened at SMU. That program had nearly completely gone out of business and they said, “We’ll never do that to another team ever again.”
While the conference tempered its recruiting excess, the old grudges never died. The financial divide between the big state and private schools continued to grow, infighting continued and the conference started to show cracks in the foundation.
Slocum: We were our own worst enemies. Everyone in there hated everybody. There never was a “what can we do collectively to uphold our league?” I never saw that. At meetings it was, “hooray for me!” and “screw you.”
Sherrill: I remember sitting in the meeting when Arkansas was going to the Orange Bowl to play Oklahoma and they asked for half a million dollars more in part of the pot for traveling expansion and other things. And you had TCU, SMU, Rice, were not willing to give them the extra expense. I raised my hand and said, “Hey, if one team goes to the Orange Bowl or any other big bowl like that, that brings prestige to the whole conference.” Reluctantly the [schools] passed [the request], but there were votes against.
Another one that really bugged the Hogs: Visiting teams were guaranteed $175,000 per game. Arkansas’ enthusiastic fans would fill up opposing stadiums and the Razorbacks would not earn a penny more.
Bo Carter, SWC director of media relations, 1986-1995: Rice came to Arkansas and brought maybe 400 fans. They still got $175,000.
In January 1990, Ken Hatfield, who had played at Arkansas and returned the Hogs to glory as coach, going 55-17-1, bolted for Clemson in what many considered a lateral move at the time. Crowe, his offensive coordinator whom Hatfield had hired a year before — from Clemson — replaced him. On July 13, 1990, Arkansas athletic director Frank Broyles, the legendary former coach of the Razorbacks, told reporters at a SWC meeting that he was going to meet with SEC reps the next week to consider a move, but that it was a “strong possibility” they would stay if changes were made to their liking.
Crowe: I always wondered around that time, why did Ken Hatfield really leave? You played there. You were an All-American there. You won back-to-back conference championships. Now why did you leave? My answer — I don’t know for a fact — is that he knew what was coming, and didn’t think it was workable.
Hatfield: I heard right about the time I was leaving that there was some talk to it. That had nothing to do with me leaving.
Crowe: Frank asked me, “Jack, what would you think about us going to the SEC?” I told him, “Let me tell you something, Frank. We have a hard time beating Texas here. There’s five Texases over there. Five.”
Barry Switzer, Hall of Fame Oklahoma coach, played at Arkansas in 1956-60: Hell, in the SEC all those stadiums seat 100,000. They’re all the University Ofs, you know?
On July 30, Broyles and Arkansas announced the school was officially accepting the SEC’s invitation, becoming the first in the modern era to jump from one major conference to another, ushering in the new world of realignment. On Aug. 4, Crowe was dispatched, along with quarterback Quinn Grovey, to the Southwest Conference kickoff luncheon in Dallas, the conference’s media day. He said he was booed for three minutes straight.
Crowe: I mean it had been broke in the newspapers five days when I walked into that event. Two-time defending Southwest Conference champions. You don’t think them people in Texas were ready to get after my ass? Do you realize what an unequal playing field that was? Let’s give ’em some more ammunition, Frank.
During his speech that day, Teaff was met with raucous applause when he told the crowd, “I’m now thoroughly convinced that the Southeastern Conference is the Iraq of the college football scene in America” and Slocum said players would be trying to “get their last licks on Arkansas.”
DeLoss Dodds, Texas athletic director, 1981-2014: They were a great rival and it probably hurt them more to leave than it hurt us to have them leave.
Crowe: We were just asked to be good soldiers. I almost had a revolt on my team. Those kids, so many of them were from Texas. They came there to play games in Texas.
Teaff: I think those of us that loved the conference were hurt. And if we had any common sense, we knew that it was probably the beginning of the end. It was a blow. I think some of the big schools started looking around for a better-looking girlfriend.
Crowe: I was told that Texas and Texas A&M were coming with us, along with Florida State. [SEC commissioner] Roy Kramer was going for the whole enchilada, now. He was going for all the television markets because that’s all it was about. It was about television. It was about going to get the TV contract and sharing the revenue.
Switzer: I remember Frank Broyles telling me why he went to the SEC. He said, “Hell, as soon as I signed the contract, I got a $6 million raise for our program.”
Toward the end, attendance had become a major problem for the league’s smaller schools, with Texas, Texas A&M and Arkansas essentially subsidizing the rest of the teams.
SMU had moved back to Ownby Stadium, which held just 23,783. Texas A&M drew seven of the 10 biggest crowds in the history of Baylor’s Floyd Casey stadium, which the Aggies called Kyle Field North. Rice Stadium, which held 70,000 fans and once hosted a Super Bowl, drew 17,900 for a 1990 game against SMU.
“I beg the media and the people of Houston to please, come to the dadgum game,” Rice coach Fred Goldsmith said that day, after the Owls’ 30-28 win clinched their first winning season in 27 years. “Come and cheer for Baylor. I don’t care. Just come.”
Rankings and entertainment value didn’t matter. In November 1990, 25,725 fans showed up at the Astrodome to see No. 6 Houston (8-0) play 5-2 TCU, a game in which TCU’s Matt Vogler set FBS records with 79 pass attempts for 690 yards, and Houston’s David Klingler threw for 563 yards and seven TDs. The 1,563 yards of total offense was another record only since surpassed by the 2016 Texas Tech-Oklahoma 66-59 shootout between Patrick Mahomes and Baker Mayfield.
Broyles, who died in 2017, once told The Dallas Morning News that he hated to leave but couldn’t watch the conference continue to wither.
“There was no magic formula to turn the tide back to Rice and SMU being the kingpins in attendance like they were in the old days,” Broyles said of the schools in Houston and Dallas, which had become pro football towns. “There was no way to turn the clock back. How do you get the pride back in a conference with probations and a lack of attendance?”
‘It can’t go forever’
While the feuds, scandals, fan apathy and Arkansas’ departure hastened the demise of the league, the beginning of the end can be traced to a 1984 Supreme Court case in which Oklahoma and Georgia won an antitrust case against the NCAA, seizing control of television deals. Suddenly, market size and TV sets were a big factor in conference affiliation. With the SWC so saturated with 90% of its schools in one state, that hurt its marketability for a big-money TV deal. It was a regional conference in a sport going national.
Crowe: There’s no way you can put that many private schools and that many public schools together and have it work. There’s no way. There’s a Vanderbilt in the SEC. But you can’t have a split like was in the Southwest Conference with private schools and public schools. They don’t think alike.
Switzer: There were too damn many Little Sisters of the Poor. Private schools, church schools, small schools.
Slocum: There just wasn’t a market for Rice-TCU or Rice-Baylor or Baylor-SMU. Nationally, no one’s saying, “Oh, I get to get up and watch this today.”
Bill Carr, Houston athletic director, 1993-97: There was an enormous amount of distrust and tension and a total separation of resource capabilities. The disparity of resource and ambition was profound. When you have those two dimensions it can’t go forever.
Dodds, [The Supreme Court ruling] had a huge impact. It took the NCAA off football. Then people started doing TV contracts and competing against each other on TV contracts.
Len DeLuca, CBS VP/director of programming, 1979-96, ESPN SVP programming/acquisitions 1996-2010: I got a call from DeLoss Dodds in 1990, a month after Notre Dame went to NBC, asking me if CBS was interested in the University of Texas. We weren’t ready to do that.
Bucky Richardson, Texas A&M quarterback, 1987-1991: You’ve got people having secret meetings about TV deals and trying to go off and do their own thing, and it doesn’t work. You don’t have that mentality. That’s what happened.
It became clear that the SWC’s long-term survival was in danger. Texas and Texas A&M acted accordingly. Dodds and Oklahoma’s then-athletic director, the late Donnie Duncan, began discussing a different kind of future.
John Underwood, Oklahoma administrator (1987-97), Big 12 associate commissioner, (2002-2018): They were the two guys that envisioned that we had to get out of our footprint and get into a situation where we had more viewership. They were the guys that had the vision and the initiative to initiate the process.
Dodds: It just became apparent to both of us that the Big Eight and the Southwest Conference were both too small to do business on their own. And we went through the process of convincing the other member institutions that it was the right thing to do.
Banowsky: It got to the point where I think the Big Eight guys said, “As long as Texas and Texas A&M are in the deal, we’re gonna give you two more spots. You guys figure it out and tell us who they are.”
As the merger neared, Texas politics played a key role in who went to the Big 12 and who didn’t.
Banowsky: I think everyone assumed it would be [Texas] Tech and Houston. Because it was the publics [Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech and Houston] and the privates [Baylor, Rice, SMU, TCU]. That was kind of a clean way to do it. Public schools get public funding and it just seemed like the legislature would want to make sure it happened. Then out of the blue, Houston was out and Baylor was in.
Texas’ governor at the time, Ann Richards, was a Baylor graduate. Lieutenant governor Bob Bullock graduated from both Texas Tech and Baylor. The Texas House Speaker [Pete Laney], House Appropriations Committee Chairman [Rob Junell] and Texas Senate Finance Committee Chairman [John Montford] were all Texas Tech graduates.
According to the book “Bob Bullock: God Bless Texas,” by Dave McNeely and Jim Henderson, Bullock summoned Texas and Texas A&M’s presidents to his office in early 1994 as the merger neared. “You’re taking Tech and Baylor, or you’re not taking anything,” Bullock told them. “I’ll cut your money off, and you can join privately if you want, but you won’t get another nickel of state money.”
Dodds: We could leave, and we thought about it, but the politics just didn’t work right. A&M could slip out the back door, but we couldn’t have. It wouldn’t have worked for Texas to leave.
Carr: Bottom line, it was money and politics. Does that sound like Texas? Oh my gosh, that’s the Lone Star State, ain’t it?
The breakup happened quickly. The Big Eight officially invited Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech and Baylor in February 1994. Those at Houston, Rice, SMU and TCU were stunned and suddenly scrambling. By the end of the 1995-96 academic year, the conference would cease to exist.
Carr: What amazed me was that three public institutions left the fourth one behind. Houston was just not acceptable to A&M and Texas, bottom line. You go back to the early origins of the University of Houston and it was a junior college. The Texas A&M people called Houston Cougar High. That was part of the disdain that flowed naturally from the hearts and minds of the folks at A&M. They had emotion and more negativity than the [University of] Texas tea-sippers. Theirs was a social disdain. The tea-sippers weren’t emotional, they were sophisticated and snobbish. They looked at the University of Houston as unworthy: “We won’t give them the time of day.”
‘The Southwest Conference changed offenses for everybody’
The SWC egos didn’t change much in the new Big 12. Teams were wary of Texas’ influence and aspirations and nobody could agree on much at first. The Big Eight teams considered the new structure as an expansion. The SWC schools viewed it as a brand-new conference. The first proposed logo was the same as the old Big Eight’s, but the number was just changed to a 12. Even that irked the SWC teams.
Banowsky: They yanked [the league office] right out of Kansas City and brought it down here to Texas. That kinda hacked some people off who were traditional Big Eighters.
Steve Hatchell, SWC commissioner 1993-95; Big 12 commissioner, 1996-98: Are you going to have a football championship? Where’s it gonna be? What’s the logo gonna look like? What’s the trophy going to look like? Who are you going to hire to your staff? Everything was seven [votes] to five. And it wasn’t always the same seven and not always the same five. Eagles don’t fly in formation.
Eventually, the Big 12 found its footing and significant success. It had three football national champions in its first 10 years. But some of the same issues that hastened the SWC’s death — TV markets, politics and revenue — resurfaced in 2010 and 2011, when the Big 12 nearly imploded.
Texas’ agreement with ESPN to launch the Longhorn Network sowed discord in the league, in part because of an intent to broadcast high school football games, largely viewed as a recruiting advantage. The NCAA eventually would disallow it.
Slocum: When they first started talking about the Longhorn Network, we said, “Naw, you can’t do that!”
Texas’ perceived power in the league and a separate revenue agreement from their own network had already miffed some members. Colorado and Nebraska departed the Big 12 in 2010; Missouri and Texas A&M to the SEC a year later. A highly publicized flirtation to create a Pac-16 never materialized and eventually, the Big 12 added TCU and West Virginia.
Dodds: I think Nebraska felt they belonged in the Big 12, but I think Tom [Osborne] talked so much about Texas running the Big 12 that he fired up the fans up there that nobody liked Texas. Texas this, Texas that. On A&M, I think that was a call made by maybe a past coach there, people that had SEC ties. I don’t think it was about television. I just think it was an opportunity that they could leave.
Slocum: In my heart, it’s my take that had it not been for the Longhorn Network, there’s a good chance Texas would’ve gone to the Pac-10. They were told, “We’d love to have you. We want you.”
Rossley: I was personally surprised that OU and Texas stayed [in the Big 12]. You think eventually they’d look for greener pastures. I think A&M was looking toward the future and it’s a great conference that they’re in. I think it helps them to get the very best in Texas, because I think a lot of the best players in Texas want to play in the SEC.
Banowsky: There were some fundamental principles that were the same then and are the same now. One is you can’t force a university to do something it doesn’t want to do. You couldn’t force Texas or Texas A&M to stay in the Southwest Conference. The institutional will was going to do what it wants to do and base its decision primarily, I hate to say it, on revenue.
Dodds: Times continue to change and I think the Big 12 is probably concerned about the number of institutions in the Big 12, the future TV contracts and those kinds of things. I think there’s going to be some movement again in the next two, three, four years. I think things will change again. How that happens or when that happens, I’m not sure. But I think maybe the Big 12 probably needs more members.
Banowsky: These guys are counting on revenue and if you can come up with a better TV deal for them, they’re going to come into your league. If the league they’re in is viewed as a league that can’t generate that for them, they’re gonna want to move on.
Slocum: Baylor threatened to sue A&M about leaving for the SEC. For those of us who were involved in the breakup of the Southwest Conference, it was sort of humorous. They had played TCU for [almost] 100 years and they packed up and left TCU in a heartbeat.
After 118 games, the Texas-Texas A&M rivalry was finally a casualty after the Big 12 spat. The schools continue to evade a renewal of the series, opting for endless fan debates about which school is dodging the other.
Fin Ewing III, Dallas car dealer, TCU alum, longtime member of the Cotton Bowl board of directors: I just thought it was the greatest rivalry. You either watched it because you hated one of them and you love one of them, or hell, a lot of people watched it because they hated both of them. It’s OK for the Aggies to hate Texas, and it’s OK for Texas to hate the Aggies. I just don’t think it’s OK for everybody to pick up their toys and go home.
Meanwhile, the SWC castaways went to new leagues. Rice, SMU and TCU were in the Western Athletic Conference, and Houston joined newly-formed Conference USA. Rice later moved to C-USA where it still resides, and Houston and SMU are in the American Athletic Conference. The SWC snub had untold reputational and financial impact on the schools.
Kalu: I don’t want to overstate it, but I want to say it’s killed the [Rice] program. I think it’s killed the SMUs, the Rices of the world, even UH. It blows my mind that they couldn’t get into the Big 12 or a bigger conference.
Andre Ware, ESPN college football analyst, Houston quarterback 1986-89: When you’re handed the kind of money that the Power 5 conferences are, you know you can compete. But when you’re not in the conference, it hurts. I don’t believe a Group of 5 school will ever compete for a national championship or be in the playoff for that matter, but it’s also trickled its way into individual awards, to where I don’t think there will ever be a Group of 5 Heisman winner.
The exception was TCU. The Horned Frogs moved from the WAC to Conference USA to the Mountain West, culminating with a Rose Bowl win over Wisconsin in 2011. That success made them attractive when the Big 12 sought new members during the 2010-11 realignment cycle.
Slocum: They made a commitment to build facilities. Gary Patterson has done a great job. It was kind of a do-or-die thing. The powers that be said, “We’ve got to put some money in this thing and do something where our coaches will have a chance.” They were fortunate they had a good coach who could coach.
The SWC’s legacy was not simply about TV dollars and conference realignment, though. For much of its existence, it was home to cutting-edge offensive football, an impact that’s still felt today.
Dykes: That’s really where the Houston veer and wishbone [at Texas] were invented and the run ‘n’ shoot got its biggest exposure. It had a lot of innovative minds that were creative and had a huge impact on college football. You had a lot of guys that were way ahead of the curve.
Crowe: I mean, those were good football coaches. Hell, the Southwest Conference changed offenses for everybody. It’s been the most offensively innovative conference in my opinion. Everybody started studying what they were doing.
Dykes: The exposure to major college football of the run ‘n’ shoot was obviously at Houston. I mean they’d been running it at Portland State, some other places, but nobody had been running it where a player could actually win the Heisman Trophy like Andre Ware did. Then years later, the air raid took over what was the Southwest Conference in the Big 12 and so much that was borrowed from the run ‘n’ shoot.
Crowe: That is the offense that changed smash-mouth football everywhere else. By the time 1991 rolled around, they had all gotten the goddang message.
Ware: I would stack that conference against anybody in any era in terms of the competitiveness and the uniqueness of the conference itself. I think it stands apart.
‘I don’t wish either of them well’
After all bickering, political maneuvering and merciless decisions, the SWC’s end was bittersweet.
For the sadness that existed among nostalgic fans who mourned its end, there was sentimentality around the league’s swan song.
Kyle Kallander, the league’s last commissioner, said once he took over in spring of 1995, “people really worked together to make things the best they could be.” There was a genuine effort to “celebrate” the end of the SWC.
“There were some hard feelings among those institutions,” he said. “But they handled it very professionally.”
On Dec. 2, 1995, Texas beat Texas A&M 16-6 at Kyle Field to win the conference. Before Kallander presented the championship trophy — which had no replicas, since there would be no conference offices to house it in — he made a few remarks.
“You are the undisputed conference champions,” he told the Longhorns, to raucous cheers. “And you are the final Southwest Conference champions.”
Roughly 100 miles southeast, Houston and Rice was scrapping it out before a crowd slightly more than one-third the size of the 75,000-plus fans who were at Kyle Field. But it was close and competitive, coming down to the final minute.
As the second half wore on, the crowd grew. Scores of fans, many donning colors from the conference’s other six schools, filed into Rice Stadium to witness the SWC’s final football moment.
“We were just letting people in at halftime,” said Pede, now Houston’s alumni association president. “We wanted them to witness it. We probably had 40,000 people in Rice Stadium when it was over.
“We had Baylor fans, Tech fans, Texas fans, A&M fans.”
What they saw was Houston quarterback Chuck Clements throw two-fourth quarter touchdown passes and a go-ahead two-point conversion with 1:19 left. Rice missed a 38-yard field goal attempt with 12 seconds left and the Cougars won the league’s last game 18-17.
When the lights shut off, thousands of fans were on the field for the moment. A cheer of appreciation went up. The league began in 1915 with a Rice game, and was now ending the same way.
Obviously, feelings weren’t warm and fuzzy for everyone. Reality would soon set in: Four SWC members were headed for greener pastures, the rest were off to football Siberia, as far as they were concerned.
Days before the SWC finale, then-Houston coach Kim Helton — who declined to comment for this story — summed up his feelings to the Houston Chronicle:
“We do recruit against Texas A&M and Texas and I’m glad they’re somewhere else playing against each other,” Helton said. “I’m glad they are going to other conferences. I don’t really care what happens to them.
“I don’t wish either of them well.”
ESPN’s Alex Scarborough contributed to this story.