Sports

Losing Our Religion: Texas’s College Football Identity Crisis

With UT headed to the SEC and the Big 12 on life support, the state stands to lose its century-old football culture.

Illustration by Texas Monthly; Getty

Texas’s state bird is the mockingbird, its state food is chili, and its state religion is football. For more than a century, Texans have linked their sense of independence, ruggedness, and superiority to the gridiron. Generations of Texans have been raised with the belief that they came from the best football state in the country.

This tenet of state pride is now dead.

When the University of Texas asked out of the Big 12 (a move that, along with Oklahoma’s planned defection to the SEC, could kill the conference), it ended Texas’s claim as the football state. This isn’t the first time UT has tried to abandon its conference, but what’s different now is Texans’ identity crisis. With politicians willing to legislate who is a real Texan and how we should learn our history, what happens when the state loses its religion? 

College football in the state traces its roots to the University of Texas playing the Dallas Football Club at Fair Park in 1893. The following season, the Longhorns introduced Texas A&M to the game by trouncing the Aggies 38–0. For the next twenty years, football grew on college campuses across the state. In 1914, L. Theo Bellmont, the athletic director at UT, rallied colleges in and around Texas to form the Southwest Conference. While Oklahoma and Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State) were charter members, both left by 1925 to join the Big 8. From then on, it was a Texas football conference, comprising Baylor, Houston, Rice, SMU, UT, A&M, TCU, and Texas Tech, that allowed the University of Arkansas to join them.

For 82 years the Southwest Conference helped stitch together Texan identity and football. National champions like SMU in 1935, TCU in 1938, Texas A&M in 1939, and University of Texas in 1963, 1969, and 1970, built state pride. The heroes of these teams earned sainthood with Davey O’Brien, Doak Walker, John David Crow, Earl Campbell, and Andre Ware winning Heisman Trophies. UT defeated Arkansas in the “Game of the Century” in 1969, perhaps redeeming the state from some of the shame that followed the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas six years prior. President Richard Nixon handed Darrell Royal a personalized national championship plaque following the game. No, he didn’t have the authority to grant this, and, yes, Penn State was also undefeated that season, but neither stopped Nixon from declaring, “Having seen this game, what convinced me that Texas deserves that is the fact that you won a tough one.”

The story of Texas college football also reflected some of the state’s worst sins. The SWC banned Black players from its creation in 1914. Despite this overt oppression, Black Texans created their own sense of identity through the sport. While UT and OU faced off in the Red River Rivalry, Wiley College of Marshall played Prairie View A&M at the State Fair Classic in the Cotton Bowl. Eventually, the SWC powerhouses realized they needed to integrate if they wanted to remain competitive. SMU’s Jerry LeVias became the conference’s first Black scholarship football player in 1965. But progress came with a price—integrating the SWC spelled doom for onetime football powerhouses among historically Black colleges and universities in Texas. Wiley ended its famed program in 1969, the same year the University of Texas fielded the Southwest’s last undefeated all-white college football team. Nevertheless, the desegregation of college football in Texas broadened the fan bases of the state’s major football schools and allowed more Texans to find an identity in their team.

But all was not well. In September 1974, Texas Monthly’s cover displayed football’s mock funeral with a uniformed player lying in an open coffin with two tearful cheerleaders, each wearing a Texas-size mum, looking down at him. The issue predicted the death of the Southwest Conference and asked, “What’s Happening to Texas Football?” The answer was the stain of TV money.

“There was a time when Southwest Conference football was more than a sport,” wrote TM‘s Paul Burka. “It was a social institution, as definitive of Texas life as the oil well or the open range.” He pinned the crisis of Texas college football on one culprit: greed. UT administrators believed that private schools in the conference—Baylor, Rice, SMU, and TCU—did not deliver enough viewers to attract lucrative TV contracts. Burka’s prophecy of the death of Texas football didn’t come true then, but UT’s lust for money and power grew.

The SWC began to crumble when its non-Texas school, Arkansas, left for the SEC in 1992. The Razorbacks chafed at having to pay the smaller private Texas schools $175,000 for a home game in Fayetteville despite the visiting team bringing in a paltry number of fans. But Texas-centric college football culture survived by merging the Big 8 with UT, A&M, Texas Tech, and Baylor to create a new conference, the Big 12.

Throughout the history of the SWC and the Big 12, no fan base built a stronger religious fervor by defining itself against a competing sect than A&M against UT. Aggies sway to “saw Varsity’s horns off,” celebrate the Corps’ kidnapping of UT mascots, and buy maroon trucks at a prolific rate. These anti-UT rituals forged the Aggie faithful’s identity for generations. No matter the team’s record, success was defined by beating “TU.” Until it wasn’t.

In 2011, A&M broke almost a century of Texas football history when the school announced it was joining the SEC. UT’s continued push for greater shares of Big 12 revenue led to the divorce. The creation of the Longhorn Network enraged A&M’s board of regents. UT believed its brand and devoted fans could sustain an independent cable TV network. Like Icarus, the Longhorns wanted to escape their confines. But moderation gave way to greed and the wax holding Texas college football together began to drip, drip, drip.

It turns out that A&M’s move to the SEC was the smart move, not UT’s bet on the Longhorn Network. Over the past decade, the Aggies have prospered while UT has watch those underfunded private schools Baylor and TCU claim three Big 12 Conference Championships to the Longhorns’ none. Not to mention OU claiming the other seven. Now UT has admitted defeat by spurning the Big 12 for the SEC. It turns out that UT needs A&M.  

Texans’ loss of their claims to college football superiority adds to the state’s current identity crisis. Politicians preach fear to their constituents on the California invasion and critical race theory. Remembering the Alamo, the state’s most sacred site, seems to be more of a creation myth than historical fact, yet our governor and lieutenant governor remain committed to defending it. A key part of being Texan has long been the blessed assurance that our brand of football was superior. Schools in the South lacked our flair. Midwestern slugfests paled in comparison to high-scoring Texas shootouts. And don’t even start with California football. But those days are no more.

What’s surprising about the demise of the Big 12 is not that UT sparked it, it’s the lack of political leadership to defend the last vestige of Texas-centric college football. Sure, the Senate Select Committee on the Future of College Sports in Texas asked UT president Jay Hartzell to explain himself, but the hearing resulted in little more than a viral video.

Now the two highest-profile Texas schools won’t compete to face each other in a conference championship showdown at Jerry’s stadium in Arlington. They’ll play for a chance to get to the SEC title game in Atlanta (and good luck with that against the likes of Alabama and Georgia). The Red River Shootout will be left to the behest of SEC schedule makers who have been more interested in fostering new rivalries than protecting old ones. While UT clearly wants to follow A&M’s path to football success, the Aggie administration doesn’t appear keen to forgive and forget the Longhorns’ previous sins. The remaining Big 12 teams’ best chance for salvation might be found on the West Coast, with a possible Pac-12 merger. Otherwise, Baylor, Texas Tech, and TCU appear destined to land outside of a Power Five conference, where the annual TV payout would be $30 million less than their athletic departments received in the Big 12.  

While California ex-pats, liberal professors, and critical race theory have been bandied about as recent threats to Texas identity, the bigger danger comes from university presidents, athletic directors, and wealthy boosters. Burka saw it coming 47 years ago: “The search for more money, not a desire to play stronger opposition, is behind the occasional talk of a Super Conference that would see Texas pulling out of the SWC to join an elite organization of the nation’s traditional football powers.”

The prophet wasn’t wrong, just an early voice crying in the wilderness. Now, in the death of the Big 12 conference, Texans have lost a key aspect of our religion. We can no longer claim to be the best football state in the country. We can no longer claim to even have a cohesive college football identity. UT and OU’s deal with the SEC traded our pigskin creed for money and power.

Let’s hope the Pac-12 will have mercy on our souls.