One of my first great assignments was the 1974 Southwest Conference football press tour. It was the beginning of my senior year at the University of Texas, and it would be years before I realized how lucky I’d been that my student gig at The Daily Texan had gotten me a seat alongside the boys on the bus and let me rub elbows with giants of Texas sportswriting such as Dave Campbell, Dan Cook, and Denne Freeman, among others.
At each stop, we were treated like royalty. Arkansas Razorbacks head coach Frank Broyles regaled us with tales of a lifetime in coaching over one seemingly endless night in Fayetteville. TCU hosted an evening with coaches and officials at the Fort Worth palace of Tex-Mex, Joe T. Garcia’s. Grant Teaff believed so passionately in his Baylor team that the coach managed to convince several of us to buy in.
Readers seemed to devour our dispatches from the tour, in part because the Southwest Conference was such a cozy arrangement. For most of its existence, the SWC never had more than one member school outside Texas. Fifty years later, the reconfigured Big 12—after last week’s raid on the Pac-12—will span ten states and three time zones. Starting in 2024, the Big Ten will have eighteen schools stretching across fourteen states, from Oregon to New Jersey.
But in the seventies, fans could drive to virtually every Southwest Conference game, and schools competed for the same pool of high school talent, coaching hires, and newspaper coverage. Assistant coaches from rival schools huddled at Friday night high school games to swap gossip, and that’s just one reason everybody knew everyone else’s business. As former Rice defensive end N. D. Kalu told ESPN in 2020: “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.”
Tom Rossley, who coached at three SWC schools, would tell his players: “Don’t be talking to your buddies about what we’re doing.” Routinely, though, according to ESPN, a player would tell him: “Coach, I talked to so-and-so at TCU, and they’re going to run this trick play.”
For three quarters of a century, the Southwest Conference was deeply woven into the fabric of life in Texas, as much a part of our daily existence as politics and the weather. Brothers and sisters frequently attended competing schools, and a mixed marriage was an Aggie marrying into a Longhorn family. Nothing ignited a rivalry like an alum of one school catching hell from the alum of another when they were seated a few feet away from each other at work on Monday morning. But the Southwest, which broke up in 1996, also serves as an explainer for the waves of conference realignments that have followed and created weird patchworks of schools that seem to serve no one.
Well, almost no one. The Southwest Conference was doomed as far back as 1984, when Oklahoma and Georgia won an antitrust case that allowed them to negotiate their own television deals. The impact of that ruling can be seen now, as each round of conference realignment has become a pursuit of television ratings and market share. The Oklahoma Sooners and Texas Longhorns’ decision to join the SEC next year makes sense when viewed through the lens of TV-rights dollars.
The Southwest Conference sped up its own demise in other ways, but even if there hadn’t been all the scandals, a conference in which Texas and Texas A&M essentially subsidized every other school was not going to last once the league’s third drawing card—Arkansas—left for the SEC in 1991. (The Aggies drew seven of the ten largest crowds ever at Baylor’s Floyd Casey Stadium and nicknamed it Kyle Field North.)
In the end, the Southwest Conference was a regional conference in a sport that was going national. Now that the transformation signaled by the SWC’s demise decades ago is nearly complete, don’t bother wasting any tears on the end of the Baylor-Texas rivalry. Things could have been much worse for alumni and fans of Baylor, TCU, and Texas Tech, all of which still have a home in a Big 12 that has a solid television rights deal and a slew of new members joining what will become a sixteen-team league in 2024.
Leadership matters. Both the Big 12 and the Pac-12 faced an existential threat when they lost their flagship schools—Texas and Oklahoma to the SEC, USC and UCLA to the Big Ten. While the Pac-12 did nothing, the Big 12’s then-commissioner, Bob Bowlsby, furiously stitched together a passable conference by adding Houston, Central Florida, Brigham Young, and Cincinnati to the eight holdover schools. Then Bowlsby’s successor, Brett Yormark, secured a media-rights deal for the conference worth $2.28 billion over six years, beginning in 2025. He also persuaded Colorado to jump from the Pac-12 just before that conference melted down last week. Then, when Washington and Oregon joined the Big Ten after getting a look at the Pac-12’s proposed television deal, Yormark grabbed Utah, Arizona, and Arizona State.
Whether the Big 12 can be truly relevant without Texas and Oklahoma remains an open question. Storylines change by the day. As recently as a year ago, college sports seemed headed for a dividing line between three superconferences and everyone else. Now even that seems uncertain. With remaining Pac-12 schools Cal, Stanford, Washington State, and Oregon State left out in the cold, and with Florida State looking for a better deal than the Atlantic Coast Conference can currently provide, more change will come. Does the Big 12 say “Come on down!” to all of them?
Who benefits? Certainly not the fans, who are stuck trying to make heads or tails of rivalries like Texas Tech versus Central Florida. Student athletes? That’s complicated. So many nonfootball and nonbasketball sports programs are being subsidized by their universities that every additional revenue stream is critical—even if it means having to travel across the country to play road games.
Financial stability is what spurred Colorado, Arizona, Arizona State, and Utah to join the Big 12. Their shares of the conference’s overall television revenue won’t come close to the distributions Big Ten and SEC schools will receive, but the payouts will be much richer than they would have been in the Pac-12.
One of the few unequivocal benefits of NCAA conference realignment will be felt by nostalgic fans of the old Southwest Conference. For the first time in decades, the Texas Longhorns, the Texas A&M Aggies, and the Arkansas Razorbacks will be reunited in the updated SEC. Those three teams represented the best of the SWC—and are now all that remains of it.