The Decline and Fall of the Southwest Conference
Two things are certain: death and Texas.
Buddy Herz lives the good life. He is happily married, likes his work, and shoots a good game of golf. His job as an attorney takes him to New York and London, where he unravels the intricacies of corporate finance for his clients. He owns a comfortable house and is the father of two children, but he would trade it all, he says only half jokingly, just to see the Rice Owls win one more Southwest Conference football championship.
“A Rice-Texas game used to be the biggest night of the year for me,’’ he says, “but I don’t get the same thrill out of it because I don’t have the same optimism. Now I just hope I can see Rice beat Texas before my son goes to college.”
Kenneth Vincent Herz is three years old.
The Southwest Conference is in trouble. Serious trouble.
There was a time when Southwest Conference football was more than a sport; it was a social institution, as definitive of Texas life as the oil well or the open range. Each school symbolized a different way of life, and the meeting of two football teams represented a confrontation between life styles. People who had never attended college nonetheless identified themselves with one of the conference schools: farmers and laborers with Texas A&M, Baptists with Baylor, Dallas socialites with SMU, West Texas farmers and ranchers with TCU. The Southwest Conference is a relic of a time when Texas was both diverse and chauvinistic, varied yet inbred.
Life was simpler then; people knew who they were. They were willing to fit themselves into the categories the conference so conveniently presented. But the old generalizations are no longer valid; Texas has changed, the schools have changed, and the Southwest Conference no longer mirrors the Texas social structure. Tormented by economic and social pressures, the private schools have begun to doubt their own ability to survive. Their athletic programs are only another competitor for the entertainment dollar, and not a very successful one at that.
A color photograph in Dick Davis’s office shows the Cotton Bowl filled to capacity on a Saturday afternoon. Davis is SMU’s new athletic director, a downtown businessman hastily brought in to stabilize the program after revelations that SMU coaches were slipping money under the table to football players as a reward for outstanding performances. The photograph signifies the temporary resolution of a problem which has plagued the school in recent years: where will its football team play its home games?
For years the Mustangs performed at Ownby Field on the southern end of the SMU campus. Then Doak Walker helped usher in the Golden Age of SMU football, and little Ownby (capacity 12,000) could no longer accommodate the throngs eager to see the Mustangs annihilate their Southwest Conference rivals and challenge national powers like Notre Dame. The Cotton Bowl became SMU’s new home, and Ownby was relegated to use as a practice field. The move was so successful that by 1949, Walker’s final season (and the year SMU lost one of the SWC’s all-time classics to Notre Dame, 27-20), SMU ranked second nationally in college football attendance.
A new tenant—the Dallas Cowboys—joined SMU at the Cotton Bowl in 1960 (actually two new tenants; the short-lived Dallas Texans also called the Cotton Bowl home before leaving for Kansas City in 1963). By the mid-Sixties the Cowboys were a developing power and had amassed considerable emotional, financial, and political clout. They wanted to abandon the Cotton Bowl and the declining neighborhood surrounding it, and asked the city to build a downtown stadium. The Dallas Establishment split into two groups, one favoring a downtown site, the other committed to the Cotton Bowl. Banks and prestige law firms threw their weight into the struggle. Eventually the Cowboys decided to ignore both factions and build their own stadium.
Before long, influential Dallasites were urging SMU to forsake the Cotton Bowl and adopt the new stadium, despite its less than strategic location ten miles from the campus, outside the Dallas city limits in the bedroom community of Irving. Under intense pressure from big money contributors on both sides, the university struck a compromise by playing non-conference games at Texas Stadium and conference games at the Cotton Bowl. Naturally this satisfied no one and the pressure for a decision only increased.
The Texas Stadium experiment was a disaster; in three games at the Cowboy arena last year SMU failed to attract a total of 50,000 people. Once the Mustang athletic department would have been disappointed if only 50,000 showed up for a single game. It is true that two of the games were against mediocre opposition (Santa Clara and Virginia Tech), but the third was against national power Missouri at a time when both teams were undefeated and ranked in the top twenty. When that game drew fewer than 20,000 spectators, the Texas Stadium venture for all practical purposes was over.
And so the color photograph on Dick Davis’s wall announces SMU’s decision: the Mustangs will return to the Cotton Bowl for all their games in 1974. At first glance the photograph evokes memories of better days when the Doaker and Kyle Rote led Mustang teams to glory, but upon closer inspection something appears wrong: neither of the teams is wearing SMU’s colors. One is in orange, the other in red; it is a Texas-Oklahoma game. SMU has not filled the Cotton Bowl since the development of color aerial photography.
SMU is not the only conference school with attendance woes. Although college football attendance rose nationally for the twentieth consecutive year, the Southwest Conference could take no share of the credit; the conference suffered its worst drop in attendance in more than two decades. All four of the private schools (Baylor, Rice, SMU, TCU) failed to match 1972 gate totals, and of the four only Baylor bettered its 1971 showing. The conference as a whole sustained a painful attendance decline of 8.32 per cent in one year, the equivalent of playing an entire weekend of football without attracting a single paying customer. Conference teams could lure only 36,000 people per game into their arenas; the neighboring Big Eight and Southeastern conferences each attracted an average of more than 50,000 per game.
Baylor has reached the 30,000 average annual attendance level only once in a decade. Playing in a relatively small stadium (capacity 48,000), the Bears have performed for a full house only twice: a 1956 game with Bear Bryant’s Texas Aggies and a 1972 contest with Texas. (Both games were close; both times Baylor lost.) An even more sobering statistic is that Baylor has never managed to put as many as 28,000 people in its stadium to watch the Bears play Rice or SMU. The big state schools are gate attractions; the private schools are not.
The same story is repeated elsewhere. Only 12,827 people were sufficiently curious to pay for the privilege of watching Rice play TCU in Amon Carter Stadium (capacity 46,000) last year. In five 1973 home games TCU attracted a meager 103,906 onlookers, a dismal showing by any standard. Almost one-third of that total viewed the Texas A&M game, and a substantial fraction of those came out to see the Aggies, not the Horned Frogs.
SMU outdrew TCU last year, but not by much (15,829, to be exact), and the Mustangs needed a sixth home game to accomplish even that modest feat. The game which put SMU over the top was, ironically, against TCU in a match-up which used to be one of the Southwest Conference’s great rivalries. Indeed, the withering of the SMU-TCU rivalry symbolizes the larger problems facing the entire conference.
Once SMU-TCU was the Texas-Texas A&M of the private schools. The game had a meaning far beyond the struggle on the field; it was a battle not only between two colleges, but also between Dallas and Fort Worth and the different lifestyles they represented, and beyond that between East and West Texas. Even when the teams weren’t winning, the outcome mattered, but when both teams were riding high back in the Thirties and Forties, the game had added importance. In 1935 they played for the national championship and the Rose Bowl (SMU 20, TCU 14). In 1938 they played for the conference championship (TCU 20, SMU 7), and the Homed Frogs went on to claim the national title. Twice during the Doak Walker era TCU spoiled brilliant SMU seasons by holding the Mustangs to ties (19-19 in 1947, 7-7 the next year). The 1948 game was witnessed by 68,000 in the Cotton Bowl.
A quarter-century now separates us from those showcase years of the rivalry. Once partitioned by an empty prairie and a cultural gulf far wider than the 32-mile distance recorded on highway maps, Dallas and Fort Worth have steadily grown closer. The Metroplex is continuous now, one unbroken stretch from downtown to downtown, and the union is more than geographical: the two cities share an airport, a professional football team, and a common disinterest in the outcome of college football games. Only 18,572 showed up to watch SMU and TCU act out an anachronism in 1973.
Rice has never been a home town team in the sense that SMU and TCU were, for the school is too small and too concerned with its elitist image to capture the loyalty of the masses. It would face an uphill fight in any event, for Houston is too diverse to be won over so easily. A game in Houston is virtually another home game for the University of Texas (which has not lost there since 1960) or for Texas A&M; all other conference schools have ample backing in the crowd when their team visits the Owls. Being dependent on your opponent to provide spectators can be a two-edged sword: Rice and Baylor tussled in 1953 before the largest audience ever to see the Bears in a Southwest Conference game, but last year the same two schools performed before a sparse 14,000.
The private schools play each other because the schedule requires it, but they play the state schools for money. Revenue from football ticket sales provides most of the income for athletic departments, and a game against one of the state schools sells more tickets. The Texas game, of course, is a gold mine for all of the private schools; A&M is a solid second, and Arkansas runs ahead of Texas Tech. But Texas is the big one.
One Longhorn athletic official puts it bluntly: “We’re subsidizing the conference,” he says, and he reels off the figures. Every time a conference team goes to a bowl game, each conference school reaps more than $30,000. Every time a conference team appears on television the entire conference shares in the proceeds. The private schools haven’t gone to many bowl games recently, nor is the NCAA arranging its television schedule to get them more exposure on the tube—but they receive bowl and TV income nevertheless. Texas has been the host team in the Cotton Bowl six consecutive years as a reward for its record string of conference championships; each time the UT athletic department kept $100,000 but forked over another $250,000 to the conference to be divided among the remaining schools. For a television appearance, Texas gets twenty percent of its half-share of the TV revenue and puts the rest into the Southwest Conference pot.
It has not escaped UT’s notice that independents like Notre Dame and Penn State, whom Texas contests for national ranking, don’t have to share the wealth with anyone. Notre Dame raked in more than $400,000 for its Sugar Bowl appearance against Alabama, and Penn State took home more than $600,000 from its Orange Bowl game against LSU. Meanwhile each of the Southwest Conference schools annually receives between $125,000 and $225,000 as a result of UT’s athletic prowess. 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.
An ominous portent for the future was the disappointing attendance at last year’s SMU-Texas game, when only 35,000 people—many of them Texas supporters—found their way into the Cotton Bowl. Athletic business managers for both schools had hoped for 50,000, for SMU had a good record, was still in contention for the conference championship, and Texas has always drawn well in Dallas. The absent 15,000 viewers at $7 a head cost the two schools more than $50,000 each in potential revenue. If crowds continue to dwindle like this, someone at Texas will eventually question whether the Longhorns can afford to continue playing SMU.
The private schools are taking the same beating on the playing field that they are suffering at the box office, and the two trends clearly are related. The SMU-Texas game failed to attract customers because no one really believed that SMU could beat Texas. And they were right. The Longhorns stumbled around for a half, trailing 14-0, seemingly in trouble. If Texas had been in SMU’s shoes, you could have left at the half confidently, knowing the final score would be something like 42-14 Texas.
The demoralizing aspect of UT’s long reign over the conference has not been the conference standings, but the failure of the opposition even to keep games competitive. Texas has rolled up embarrassingly large margins and the outcome of most games has rarely been in doubt. Teams are losing by scores of 69-7, 55-13, and 42-7; holding the Longhorns to less than 30 points is a moral victory. TCU, once a Longhorn nemesis, has managed one touchdown from scrimmage against Texas in five years, and that came last season in a 52-7 loss. Rice has also sidetracked Texas teams through the years, but the last six Owl clubs have yielded the Longhorns an average of 42 points per game.
During the UT championship streak, Darrell Royal has assembled some great teams. Despite an early season loss to Texas Tech, the 1968 Longhorns may have been the nation’s best. The 1969 and 1970 editions stretched UT’s winning streak to 30 games and won national championships. But the last three Texas teams have been decidedly mediocre, victims of three slaughters by Oklahoma and two embarrassments in bowl games. In the Southwest Conference, however, it has been business as usual: these same Longhorns have won 20 of 21, and most have been by scores just as lopsided as those posted by the great teams of 1968-69-70.
The last time Texas lost to one of the private colleges was in 1967 (to TCU). SMU’s last victory over the Longhorns was in 1966, Rice’s a year earlier, and Baylor has to look back to Dwight Eisenhower’s first term for its last conquest. That came in 1956, when Texas lost all—yes, all—of its conference games and escaped a winless (!) season by one point. All of the state-supported schools have defeated the Longhorns (but none more than once) since that 1967 loss to TCU.
The private schools look to history for consolation. At each of the private institutions, when the future of the conference is discussed, someone inevitably refers to the Big Eight in the days when Bud Wilkinson coached Oklahoma and the conference was known as Oklahoma and the Seven Dwarfs. History moves in cycles, someone says, and recalls how Texas was down in the Thirties and Fifties. The Longhorns may be on top now, but that will change, just like the Big Eight changed.
But the Big Eight analogy is faulty. It fails because the Big Eight is composed exclusively of public universities, schools which always had the resources and the backing to challenge the Sooners and needed only the will. A Bob Devaney at Nebraska could and did turn things around in a hurry. The Big Eight also has other advantages over the Southwest Conference: none of its schools competes directly against a pro football team for attendance and support, and all of them are located in a relatively isolated area of the country where college football doesn’t have to fight for public or media attention.
The plight of the private schools today contrasts sharply with their contribution to the rich tradition of the conference. SMU and TCU in 1929 were the first teams from this area to crack the national top ten. Rice helped put the Southwest Conference on the football map with a famous upset over Purdue in 1934 on the same day that Texas defeated Notre Dame. SMU and TCU won the conference’s first two national championships, and the Mustangs were honored with an invitation to provide the opposition for Notre Dame when the Fighting Irish opened a new stadium.
The great years for the conference were the Thirties and Forties, when all of the schools except Baylor won at least one football championship in each decade. (Poor Baylor hasn’t won in half a century, since Calvin Coolidge was president. Baylor’s last championship was closer in time to Custer’s Last Stand than to us in 1974.) Even when the private schools weren’t winning, they played competitive football.
“The amazing fact about the Southwest Conference,” Rice’s president Norman Hackerman says, “is not the way Texas dominates it today, but that for so many years Texas did not dominate it.” By today’s standards it is amazing that the conference was so evenly balanced for so long, but of course the teams weren’t recruiting or playing in our mobile society. They were part of a world where a person grew up identifying with his surroundings, and if he went to college at all, he went where he felt he belonged. In most cases that was close to home. The Southwest Conference maintained its balance only as long as the schools reflected the relatively immobile, structured society around them. When society changed, the schools changed, and so did the balance of power in the Southwest Conference. The tables on this page document the shifting currents since the Thirties.
The story is all too clear: Texas has progressed steadily from the patsy of the conference into a position of leadership, then into unassailable dominance, while its one-time private school competitors—TCU, SMU, and sometimes Rice—have slipped from challenging positions into mediocrity. They have been replaced by public institutions: Texas Tech and Arkansas. Baylor has fallen from the middle to the bottom. The private schools have been losing too much ground too long for their failures to be considered cyclical. The conference is obviously polarizing into two camps, public schools against private, with different goals and different resources.
Why are the state-supported universities so much better off? Part of the reason, of course, is economics. The public schools will tell you that they receive no state funds for athletics, but former SMU president Paul Hardin points out that the state pays public, colleges a per capita appropriation for every student, including athletes. The state may not be subsidizing athletics, but it is subsidizing athletes.
One knowledgeable UT athletic official believes that state universities have a psychological advantage as well.
“The advantage of a big state university is sophistication,” he says. “Go into any state, and the governors, the lawyers, the doctors are mostly people who went to a state university. Students there meet more different types of people, know how to meet people better, how to dress better, how to talk to people more easily.
“Students at a state university—and that goes for football players too—are more sure of themselves. They never question why they went to school there. A lot of football games are won by players who believe in themselves.”
Darrell Royal doesn’t like to talk about such things. He is past the time of worrying about what his opponents are going to post on their bulletin boards, but he genuinely doesn’t like to offend others, and there is no surer route to opprobrium than to look down on other people. When the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) first began looking for solutions to the widening gap between football’s Haves and Have Nots, Royal uttered one of his more famous aphorisms: “The big ’uns will always eat the little ’uns,” Royal told his colleagues, and he has anguished over it ever since.
“That’s one of those things that just slipped out years ago,” Royal recalls, adding that it has been misinterpreted: “It describes life; it’s like a fish pond.” But Royal does say that as a coach he has an advantage at a big state university (and by that he means THE state university and not just any state-supported school). If you ask him what the edge is he’ll refer you to the wire service polls for the last twenty years and tell you that “certain teams and certain institutions are winners.”
Royal is one of the truly fascinating people in Texas, an unusual distinction for a football coach. As a group coaches are not very interesting people, hardly the sort of folks you’d want to invite to a dinner party unless you wanted the conversation limited to golf, football, and the need for discipline in all aspects of life. They tend to talk in clichés. But Royal is different. He converses easily, articulately, on any topic, but his real genius lies in the use of his charismatic charm.
Royal’s relationship with the press offers a perfect example of his technique. He never fails to answer a question, and he rarely prefaces a remark by telling you that his answer is off the record. Rather, he tells you how remarks can be misunderstood, how he doesn’t like to downgrade people, and lets you know that he trusts you to make the final decision about what to print. The inevitable result, of course, is that writers censor themselves, bending over backwards to be fair to Royal. A Dallas newsman says unequivocally that Royal is the most interesting public figure he has ever met—and that, he says, includes presidents, senators, and international businessmen.
Even when Royal avoids a direct answer to a question, his evasions never appear slick or planned, like a politician’s; instead, he tries to explain that his perceptions are different. He says he won’t talk about the future of college football because he doesn’t think about it, and then quotes an appropriate Willie Nelson song:
I live one day at a tone,
I dream one dream at a time,
Yesterday’s dead and tomorrow’s blind.
The closest Royal will come to discussing the problems facing the Southwest Conference is to refer to his own experiences: he recalls how he graduated from Oklahoma and all he wanted to do was coach football. Where he coached was immaterial. He started as an assistant at North Carolina State, then held similar jobs at Tulsa and Mississippi State, moved to Canada as a head coach in the professional ranks, and returned to Mississippi State as head coach.
“All those boys hated Ole Miss,” Royal says of his two Bulldog teams. “That’s all we’d talk about, how snooty they were, how we were going to kill them. I listened to all that talk and I knew we didn’t have a chance. We didn’t talk that way about people at Oklahoma.
“Mississippi never talked about us, I knew that. Then I started to look around. It was the same way in my home state with Oklahoma and Oklahoma A&M. And I began to realize that there was a big advantage to coaching at big state universities.
“I’m proud of the job I’ve done at the University of Texas. But I don’t kid myself that I could have done the same thing a hundred miles down the road.”
And then a pained look crosses Royal’s face as he realizes that Waco and College Station are both 100 miles away. That isn’t what he meant, not at all
The ratings and the record book confirm Royal’s analysis. Texas A&M has beaten the Longhorns only three times in 33 years. Michigan State did all right against Michigan for awhile, but no longer. (“I knew that would change when Bo Schembechler took over at Michigan,” Royal says.) Auburn had the upper hand over Alabama until the Bear arrived. It is the same everywhere; with the sole exceptions of Southern California and Notre Dame, the big state universities are consistent winners and have been for years. Not private schools, not even public agricultural or engineering schools. All are located in towns ranging from small to medium in size: Oxford, Fayetteville, Tuscaloosa, Baton Rouge, Lincoln, Norman, Knoxville, Austin, Ann Arbor, Columbus…
Except for Los Angeles, where USC has traditionally been a major power, the best college football is not played in metropolitan areas. The biggest cities—New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit—have little to offer. Once-proud Georgia Tech is hurting in Atlanta. Miami (Florida) has never put together one entire good season. Pittsburgh is trying to change its whipping-boy image. Cincinnati, Boston College, and Tulane all compete with varying degrees of success, but none have had outstanding seasons.
Professional football owns the cities today. A pro team is the natural repository for the loyalties of thousands of people who came to the city from far away. To these new arrivals the college means nothing; Doak Walker is a former Detroit Lion, not an SMU Mustang. They can identify with the pro team because they have seen it on television, because it remains essentially the same from one year to the next, and because they are familiar with its history and its opposition. In a rootless and anonymous environment, the professional team gives the newcomer something to identify with.
The colleges keep looking for an answer, a countermeasure to combat the pros, but there is no answer. Given a choice between major and minor league competition, people will naturally choose the former, and so will the media. But in their desperation to offer an attractive product, the colleges have made a calamitous mistake, one which is hastening their own demise: they have adopted a rule which allows the clock to be stopped after every first down. The purpose of the rule is to aid last-minute touchdown drives and thereby make the game more exciting, but the effect of the measure is altogether different. It has lengthened actual playing time by almost a full quarter, a result which might be desirable if teams were evenly matched, but the practical effect has been to exaggerate the difference between good and bad teams. Because games are longer, inferior teams fall out of contention earlier, and the remaining time is taken up with interminable touchdown marches by the prevailing side. Fewer games are close and scores are more lopsided; the likelihood of upsets is also reduced.
Another rules change may have a more positive impact. Last year the NCAA imposed an annual limit of 30 scholarships for football and placed similar restrictions on other sports. The scholarship limit is intended to combat spiraling costs, but in the Southwest Conference the new rule may have the additional effect of restoring balance to the league. This is the hope of many private school backers who recognize that the scholarship limit may be the last chance for their schools to regain parity.
Most of the private schools, as their followers point out, couldn’t afford to recruit many more than 30 football players before the NCAA reduced the scholarship limit, so the new ceiling won’t hurt their football programs. But Texas and the other state schools have been bringing in closer to 50 players a year. Because of the scholarship limit, between fifteen and twenty boys who might otherwise have signed with Texas will have to go elsewhere. The state schools will no longer monopolize all the talent, and the private schools will be able to supplement their teams with players who in other years were good enough to play for Texas.
One long-suffering Baylor fan sees this progression of events; the private school teams will get better, and Texas will get worse, because it will no longer be able to rely on a bottomless pit of talent—third team, fourth team, fifth team, red shirts—to make up for some bad guesses in recruiting or a devastating string of injuries. If he is right, then the gap between Texas and the rest of the league should narrow considerably within five years.
But is he right? The other state schools—Arkansas, Texas A&M, and Texas Tech—recruit as many players as the Longhorns year after year, and yet they have fared little better against UT than the private schools. Southern California has limited itself to 30 scholarships for years without damaging its standing as a perennial national power. Like Texas, the Trojans win with quality, not numbers.
Royal himself isn’t particularly worried, which should be a clue. He would like to see the limit slightly higher, closer to 35, but “as long as everybody is under the same blanket, it’s all right.” What worries Royal and other members of the UT athletic family is that pressure from outside the conference will cause the NCAA to raise the limit to 35—and that the Southwest Conference won’t go along.
“I can’t holler too loud about a rule that is national,” he says, “but if the national limit is higher and the conference won’t go along, we’d really have to think that one over.”
If Royal isn’t worried, it is because all the trends are in UT’s favor. Royal says that recruiting hasn’t really changed since he entered coaching, that Texas has the same pluses now it had twenty years ago (“anything a student could want, better prospects for employment after his football days are over, more influential alumni, more social variety”) and the same minuses (“big, cold, impersonal, no contact with teachers, good players sitting on the bench”). The spiel may be the same today, but it is falling on different ears. Twenty and thirty years ago, the best high school football was played in West Texas and in the smaller cities; the all-white big city schools were notoriously weak. UT’s size intimidated schoolboy athletes from towns with fewer people than the enrollment on the Austin campus. Longhorn recruiters were most successful in the Houston area and along the cosmopolitan Gulf Coast, but they had trouble in the rural areas. Coaches from other schools played up UT’s size and emphasized their own folksiness; one former TCU player recalls that Frog coach Abe Martin would concentrate on the parents, “and by the time Ole Abe was through with them, they wouldn’t let the Texas coaches on the farm.”
But the farms are disappearing now, and so are the people: as the water table drops on the High Plains, people flee the unproductive land for the city. The best schoolboy athletes are no longer found in the small towns of West Texas, but in the bigger cities and the suburbs. Texas doesn’t recruit much better in the rural areas than it ever did, but that no longer matters. The players are no longer there.
No team has been hurt by the shifting social patterns more than TCU. Once Horned Frog recruiters swept over West Texas, hauling in the mammoth linemen and powerful running backs that pulverized the conference in the Fifties. Four times in those years the Frogs won the Southwest Conference, and they narrowly missed a fifth despite a 9-1 season in 1956. TCU’s decline can be traced directly to the entrance of Texas Tech into the conference: the Frogs’ last title (a three-way tie with Arkansas and Texas) came in 1959, the last year before Tech began competing for the SWC crown. Tech soon replaced TCU as the dominant force in West Texas recruiting, and the Frogs had no ready replacement for their lost source of talent. TCU has had only two winning seasons since its 8-2 success in 1959, and both times it could do no better than win six while losing four. The Frogs haven’t beaten Arkansas in sixteen years, since Frank Broyles’ first year in Fayetteville, and in recent years TCU has lost by scores of 7-69 to Texas, 14-66 to Penn State, 0-62 to Ohio State, and 9-42 to Baylor.
The lengthy string of bad seasons has led Dave Finney to wonder whether there is a place for the independent schools in the Southwest Conference. Finney played halfback for the Frogs in 1952-53-54 and still lives in Fort Worth, but he spends most of his time in Austin where he has served in the Legislature since 1963. His third floor office in the state capitol swarms with activity—he is chairman of the important State Affairs committee and is an announced (but dark horse) candidate for Speaker of the House—but Finney is never too busy to talk about TCU football.
“There’s no doubt that Texas Tech has hurt TCU recruiting,” he says. “Look what is happening out in West Texas: with no growth and a low birth rate, there are fewer kids, and now two schools are trying to recruit out there instead of one.”
Football economics are no mystery to Finney, who holds an MBA in international finance from the University of Chicago in addition to a law degree from UT, and he finds the economic indicators ominous for his former school.
“You’ve got to wonder whether schools like TCU and Baylor have the financial resources,” he says. “Money can’t buy a championship—but you’ve got to have it to compete.” But Finney still believes there is a place for college football in Fort Worth.
So does Dick Lowe, like Finney, another former TCU football player. Lowe was a member of the TCU team that spoiled a perfect SMU season by holding the Mustangs to a tie in 1948. Now he is an independent oilman in Fort Worth, and one of TCU’s strongest athletic boosters, both vocally and financially.
Lowe came to Austin last year for the TCU-Texas game with no illusions; later, after Texas had done the expected by a 52-7 score, he talked about the future of TCU football. Most of TCU’s problems, he believes, are superficial. The Cowboys wouldn’t hurt interest or attendance if TCU had a first class program. The growth of the Metroplex can compensate for the loss of West Texas as a recruiting ground.
And Texas? “There’s nothing magic about Texas,” Lowe snapped.
Lowe is an ardent proponent of the Great Man theory, that the right coach is the catalyst for all the remaining factors that go into making a winner. Recruiting? “The two most important factors in recruiting,” Lowe maintains, “are the proximity of a school to a boy’s home and who will coach him when he gets there.” Attendance? “We have a hard core of 15,000 people who’ll come out no matter what. The rest will come to see a first class event run by first class people.” Money? “There are lots of people who’ll give money to a first class program, but no one believes in flushing it down the crapper.”
As he spoke, he knew that Billy Tohill’s days as TCU coach were numbered, and that the search for a replacement was already underway. The opportunity for TCU’s football renaissance was at hand.
“We need a well-educated, well-organized, intelligent, articulate coach with a talent for public relations, somebody who would have been a success at anything he tried,” Lowe said. “And we need somebody who wants to coach at TCU, not someone who’ll move on to Texas or Oklahoma and leave us right back where we started.”
And that is what’s wrong with the Great Man theory: great men wind up at Texas. So TCU concentrated its search on former Frog players, finally settling on San Francisco assistant coach Jim Shofner.
Shortly before Christmas last year, Paul Hardin picked up the telephone in the president’s office on the second floor of the SMU administration building and was surprised to hear the voice of Darrell Royal. The Texas coach was calling to congratulate Hardin for cracking down promptly on SMU coaches who were making illegal payments to football players. Royal, who considers cheating a growing cancer on college athletics and has urged the NCAA to take extraordinary measures against it, told Hardin that if more college presidents followed his example, the cheating problem would be eliminated.
Not everyone thought so highly of Hardin’s efforts. Many SMU football boosters were already suspicious that Hardin opposed intercollegiate athletics; his action in publicizing the payoffs only confirmed their fears. They would have preferred that he use more discretion, keeping the affair out of the papers and hopefully away from the NCAA’s attention. (“It blows my mind,” Hardin said of their reaction, “when people blame me for hurting recruiting by blowing the whistle on cheating.”)
Hardin’s tactics were later vindicated when the NCAA assessed SMU a light punishment, precisely because he had acted so forcefully. But the damage was done; he had alienated the wrong people. Five months later he resigned under pressure. At some schools when the football team has a disappointing year, and the coaches are caught cheating, the board members get rid of the coach. At SMU they got rid of the college president.
The same problems that confronted Hardin will greet his successor. The nagging stadium issue continues to divide SMU supporters at a time when the athletic program badly needs unity among its followers. Many Mustang backers want the team to return to the campus, where crowds that go unnoticed in the vast Cotton Bowl would fill an expanded Ownby Stadium. They feel the move would generate interest and enthusiasm, and make an SMU season ticket worth having again.
“If I had a wish list, going back to Ownby would be at the top,” SMU’s athletic fundraiser Fred Hoster asserts. “I guarantee that I could relate to a lot of people I can’t get to now.” But one University of Texas’ athletic official states flatly that UT would refuse to play SMU in the diminutive stadium and would insist that the Mustangs schedule Texas in the Cotton Bowl.
Finding the right place to play is only the first step; what SMU really needs is a way to attract the crowds that help finance major college athletics. “People in the big cities support a winner, period,” Hoster says, and the only football team in town that has been winning lately is the Cowboys. SMU athletic officials are bitter about the Cowboys’ unprecedented success—eight consecutive years in the NFL playoffs, a record—at a time when the Mustang program is struggling to stay afloat. They realize that before SMU can hope to reclaim the allegiance of a fickle public, not only must the Mustangs produce a winner, but also the Cowboys must lose.
It is axiomatic in sports that losing seasons lead to poor attendance, but in college football the process is self-perpetuating. Because SMU can’t support its athletic program at home, it must look elsewhere for the big crowds. They’re not hard to find, not if you don’t mind playing Ohio State in Columbus or Nebraska at Lincoln. From 1968 through 1971 the Mustangs visited Ohio State (14-35), Michigan State (15-23), Tennessee (3-28), and Oklahoma (0-30). Only Oklahoma reciprocated by visiting Dallas.
This is not the way to build a winning team, Mustang athletic officials reasoned. Not only do you lose, you become demoralized and often suffer physical injuries which plague you for the rest of the season. So for the last two years SMU went the other route, playing at home against Wake Forest, Virginia Tech, New Mexico State, Oregon State, and Santa Clara. The Mustangs won a lot of games (seven of eight non-conference matches), but couldn’t sell any tickets, so this year it’s back to Columbus and Ohio State. Eventually the SMU schedule may look like TCU’s 1974 slate, which requires the Frogs to visit Arizona State, Minnesota, and Alabama.
SMU’s plight resolves itself into one issue: how much can the university afford to spend on intercollegiate athletics? Hardin was not optimistic that the athletic budget could ever break even, but he believed that a good university could justify subsidizing an athletic program. He conditioned university support on two factors: the amount of the investment must be reasonable, and the athletic program must be morally acceptable to the university community. SMU’s annual athletic deficit has been running near $250,000, which, he speculated, was about all the university could stand to lose. Hardin’s successor will undoubtedly conclude that the university can stand to lose more.
Like their counterparts at other private schools, Rice athletic boosters maintain that a winning football team will solve the school’s athletic problems. They point to the Jess Neely era (1940-1966), particularly the stretch between 1944 and 1962, when the Owls won four Southwest Conference championships and compiled a 9-8-1 record against Texas. But winning won’t be easy for Rice, which shares many of the problems faced by the other private schools—declining attendance, rising costs, recruiting difficulties, and competition from professional football—and faces another crisis uniquely its own. The critical question for Rice is whether big-time intercollegiate athletics can coexist with the intellectual and educational ideals of a school which has been known to bill itself as “the Harvard of the Southwest.”
Rice’s rigorous entrance standards are relaxed—indeed, ignored—for athletes. One recent year, athletic officials waited until June to give the admissions office the names of freshman athletes who would be enrolling in September; that was the first and the last anyone in the Rice administration heard about athletic admissions that year. Like a nominee for secretary of defense promising to reassert civilian control over the military, Rice’s president Norman Hackerman pledged that this year the admissions office would have final say over entering athletes. But it hasn’t quite worked out that way. Richard Stabell, Hackerman’s special assistant for admissions and records, reviews athletic admissions with an athletic department representative, but neither the director of admissions nor anyone on the admissions committee (other than ex-officio member Stabell) ever sees any information about athletic applicants.
Relaxing admissions standards for entering athletes is nothing new, of course; most schools are concerned only with an athlete’s ability to meet NCAA requirements. But Rice has an additional problem; because the size of the student body is so small (only 2400 undergraduates), athletes cannot be assimilated easily. Athletes comprise eight per cent of the student body at Rice, enough to affect the quality of education adversely if they don’t measure up academically to the remaining 92 per cent. And most do not. A special memorandum to Hackerman from the admissions office last year concluded that approximately one-fourth of the athletes who had entered Rice in 1972 had little hope of surviving academically; it pointed out that fifteen of the seventeen athletes in that group were on scholastic probation or had dropped out.
At the same time that Rice has become increasingly lax with athletic admissions, it paradoxically has made life more difficult for athletes once they arrive by phasing out sheltered degree programs. Two years ago the university eliminated the BS in physical education, replacing it with a BA that requires athletes to take all but their major courses from the general university catalog. The school of commerce, open only to athletes, accepted its last entering class in 1973; beginning this year athletes interested in business administration will have to take the same courses as other students. The contrast between admissions and academics indicates clearly the indecision, bordering on schizophrenia, which characterizes Rice’s attitude about the role of athletics on its campus.
Many members of the Rice community fear that Rice will decline academically when athletes are merged with the rest of the school. In a recent university survey, 49 percent of the faculty and 43 percent of the students felt that Rice would benefit if athletics were de-emphasized; only 24 percent of the faculty and 41 percent of the students felt Rice would suffer.
Many members of the faculty are upset with huge financial losses suffered by the athletic department in recent years. They point out that faculty salaries were frozen last year and were raised only five percent this year, not coming close to keeping up with inflation. And they are enraged by Rice’s athletic bookkeeping methods, which, they say, turn half-million dollar losses into profits.
Rice accomplishes this feat by waiving tuition for athletes. SMU charges its athletic department approximately $3000 for every scholarship held by an athlete, and the department is expected to reimburse the school. That’s why Fred Hoster has a job. But at Rice, the administration does not charge the athletic department a cent. Hackerman explained the reasoning behind university policy: if the athletic department were eliminated, athletes would not be replaced by any more students. No extra faculty is hired for the athletes; their education represents no additional cost to the university. Therefore the administration does not charge the athletic department for their education. (But an official at UT with a knowledge of athletic budgeting described this process as nothing more than “hocus-pocus with the books.”) Using Rice’s accounting methods, football showed a slight profit in 1972 and intercollegiate athletics as a whole showed a loss of $150,000. But if the cost of tuition is added in, the intercollegiate athletic budget showed a whopping deficit of $600,000.
In sharp contrast to the attitude of athletic and administrative personnel at other conference schools, Baylor officials are reluctant to discuss Baylor’s future in the Southwest Conference.
“We don’t worry about other people’s problems and we don’t have time to think about our own,” Baylor athletic director lack Patterson says. “We’re just trying to build up our own program.”
Looking back—the Bears have managed only two winning football seasons in seventeen years, none at all in the last ten—one is tempted to dismiss Baylor as a factor in the conference. Yet ironically, the team with the most dismal past may have the brightest future of all the private schools, for Baylor has three advantages which neither TCU, SMU, nor Rice can put together. It is the only private institution which does not perform in the shadow of a professional franchise. In Texas Baptists, it has a large core of potential supporters. And it has solid, support from its administration, for as one UT athletic official notes, “As long as Abner McCall (Baylor’s president) decides that Baylor will have a football team, Baylor will have a football team.”
Texas is not the only part of the country where intercollegiate athletics is in trouble; rising costs and dwindling revenues are a nationwide problem which has caused 45 schools to give up big-time football in the last decade. Most of the rest are struggling. The NCAA estimates that two-thirds of its member schools show a net loss for their athletic efforts. Football is far and away the most lucrative sport—at some Southwest Conference schools, football accounts for more than 90 percent of all athletic income—but slight increases in college football attendance nationally have not kept pace with escalating expenses for all sports. Football subsidizes the athletic program, and when football is not doing well, losses may reach staggering levels.
Duke, once a football power before it joined the low-prestige Atlantic Coast Conference, reportedly lost three-quarters of a million dollars on intercollegiate athletics in 1972-73. Another school with a rich football tradition, Georgia Tech, dropped close to $600,000. Not even a winning football season can guarantee overall financial success; despite conference championships and high national rankings last season, both Oklahoma and Texas suffered losses for the entire athletic year.
Even these devastating figures do not reveal the full picture, for annual balance sheets reflect only income and ordinary expenses, omitting capital outlays for special projects like stadium expansion. Firing the coach has long been the traditional remedy for a losing season, but construction of new facilities is rapidly gaining popularity. (“It shows people that you’re committed to having a winner,” a TCU alumnus explained.) The ironic result is that capital expenditures are often highest at schools where the athletic budget is already running far in the red. In recent years TCU has spent millions to install what one Frog booster describes as “the best playing surface, the best training room, and the best locker room in college football,” without having any noticeable impact on the school’s deteriorating gridiron fortunes.
Although athletic construction is rarely financed from athletic department revenue, somebody has to pay the bills. A minor furor arose at Rice when the university announced a plan to advance the Owl Club, its athletic booster organization, $225,000 without interest for a new lounge at Rice Stadium. Faculty spokesmen charged that “the University cannot afford to encourage such an extravagant venture…, when financial difficulties are causing cutbacks in faculty and fellowships.” Under pressure, the school devised a complicated scheme which in effect made university funds available to the Owl Club at a friendly interest rate lower than five per cent.
The usual method of financing capital projects, however, is through solicited contributions. Athletic directors (like college presidents) are spending more and more of their time on fund raising, particularly at private universities. Many schools have hired professional hustlers for athletics: Baylor’s Bear Club and SMU’s Mustang Club each have a full-time fundraiser. Ten pages of the Arkansas football program are filled with pitching and wooing messages from the Razorback Educational Trust Fund, a name which wins the prize for Best Euphemism for an Athletic Booster Club. The money raised by these groups ($260,000 by the Mustang Club in 1973) comes from tax-deductible grants, and helps defray the cost of tuition scholarships and occasional capital projects.
An uneasy truce exists between these athletic fundraisers and their counterparts in the academic sector of a university. Many athletic contributors are also major academic donors whose decision to support athletics inevitably means less money for the remainder of the school. Private colleges depend heavily on large individual contributors and are particularly sensitive to competition between fundraisers; at TCU, the university administration has intervened to ask athletic boosters not to approach certain contributors when an important academic project is scheduled.
All Southwest Conference schools except Texas have been soliciting funds to supplement their athletic budgets, and UT will join them next year when it seeks $250,000 from potential donors. Even that amount is modest compared to the ambitions of the Mustang Club, which is aiming at a $6 million endowment fund that would subsidize all athletic tuition scholarships at an annual cost of $400,000.
Why are athletic departments searching for contributions from outside sources instead of asking the university administration for help? The answer is that autonomy is even more important to athletic departments than won-lost records. On any campus, intercollegiate athletics has its share of enemies—faculty and student intellectuals, department chairmen envious of the athletic budget, women athletes who covet the men’s jealously-guarded funds—but as long as the athletic program is self-sustaining these dissident voices can be ignored. Once the athletic department is forced to come with hat in hand asking for a share of general university funds, it suddenly must justify not only its requests for financial aid, but also its very existence. Every dollar spent for sports will mean fewer books in the library, lower faculty salaries, and less laboratory equipment—or higher tuition.
Viewed in this light, intercollegiate athletics is not easy to justify; its purposes are far removed from the traditional concerns of a university. The usual argument in support of major college sports competition is based upon the ancient Greek concept that developing the body helps to develop the intellect, but one suspects that football practice is not exactly what the Greeks had in mind (as Larry King’s story elsewhere in this issue amply illustrates).
Not even its strongest proponents seriously contend that intellectual development is what intercollegiate athletics is all about. The true student-athlete is an endangered species. Athletic departments hire academic counselors who advise the majority of players which courses and which professors are likely to tilt in their favor, and academically marginal athletes are urged to drop out of school during the off-season to preserve their eligibility.
Well aware that the sound body/sound mind vindication of college athletics is fraught with hypocrisy, defenders of the faith have recently begun to rely on other arguments. One theme they sound repeatedly is that athletics focuses attention on the school.
“What other function of any kind ever comes close to rivaling the interest, attention—and attendance—that a football game brings?” Darrell Royal asks rhetorically. A Rice alumnus who is a “Golden Owl” contributor to the Owl Club expresses a similar viewpoint: “What other event keeps alumni in touch with the campus year after year?” The corollary to their argument is that some of this interest and attention eventually is converted to donations flowing into the coffers of the university. If football is going to be accused of being a business, they are saying, then we can justify it as a business.
Rice’s president Norman Hackerman cites—and accepts—an article of faith among academic fundraisers that intercollegiate athletics, particularly football, stimulates alumni contributions. He is supported by Fred Hoster, a former academic fundraiser for SMU who switched his talents to the Mustang Club; Hoster states flatly that if SMU dropped intercollegiate athletics, the school would suffer financially.
“I can’t put statistics on it,” Hoster says, “but I wouldn’t want to raise money for SMU without intercollegiate athletics. They keep you in the newspaper.” (Even bad publicity apparently is preferable to none at all. When news that SMU coaches had been awarding incentive payments to football players hit the Dallas papers last year, one influential Mustang supporter rejoiced that his school had at last found a way to crowd the Dallas Cowboys off the front page of the sports section.)
Like Hoster, Rice’s Hackerman cannot pinpoint any definitive relationship between football and contributions, but believes nevertheless that football is a valuable tool in raising money.
“When I talk to potential contributors, we talk about the football team first,” he says. “It breaks the ice. These conversations would be more difficult if Rice didn’t play major college football.” Perhaps. But one wonders what the president of Yale talks about with his contributors. And what about the presidents of the 45 colleges which have given up football since 1963? What do they find to talk about? And if football brings in so much money, why did their schools drop it?
Not all college administrators agree with Hackerman. SMU’s former president Paul Hardin took the opposite position: “At a private university, intercollegiate athletics inevitably results in a net financial loss,” he said in January, five months before his sudden resignation.
The contention that intercollegiate athletics represents a financial bonanza for an institution is tenuous at best. No direct relationship between sports and contributions has been substantiated; furthermore, athletic fundraising efforts siphon off money which might otherwise be donated for academic endeavors. On the other hand, there is ample evidence that athletics imposes a heavy financial burden on a university.
An NCAA study revealed that athletic budgets at major colleges have mushroomed 108 per cent over the last ten years. The most costly items are larger coaching staffs—the University of Texas has 25 full-time coaches—higher recruiting budgets, and ever-increasing tuition expenses. Southwest Conference schools have suffered these increases along with the rest of the nation. What makes the situation critical for the SWC is a combination of other factors unique to the conference; declining attendance, the highest proportion of private colleges of any conference, one-team domination, competition from professional football in major cities, and a change in the surrounding social climate.
Recognizing their predicament, the private schools have set their sights much lower than they once did. An SMU athletic official confessed that “once I would have said our goal was to be number one nationally, but now I’m more realistic. A private, religious-based institution just can’t compete financially with schools like Nebraska and Alabama. Now I’d say our goal is to win the Southwest Conference.”
Rice’s Hackerman, who came to Rice from the presidency of UT-Austin and knows both sides of football dominance, was even more pessimistic.
“I’d like to get back on the old Neely schedule of winning once every four years,” he said, “but there were seven teams in the league then and there will be nine in 1976 (when the University of Houston starts competing for the football title). We should be able to win every nine or ten years if we have the right combination of circumstances—good recruiting, good coaching, and a favorable attitude on campus.”
And, he might have added, an off-year for Texas.