Poseur Steps In the Wayback Machine: The SWC Dies

I know you're getting sick of realignment talk, but I'll be honest, I can't get enough of it.  This is one of the most exciting offseasons in memory, and it's almost eased the sting of the baseball team's early exit from the tournament (almost is the key word). 

So, in my non-stop desire to find even more realignment news, I came across this old piece regarding the SWC's implosion.  It's a great read, and reading it during the current Big 12 implosion gives the piece a whole different tenor.  In fact, I think we can draw some lessons from the past.  What do we know about the SWC's last days and the formation of the Big 12, and what can it tell us about today's expansion?

Well, first and foremost, Texas was clearly the school driving the demise of the SWC.  It's hard to blame them, given the state of the SWC at the time.  Houston, SMU, and TCU were all coming off NCAA sanction in various degrees, and the Texas football team was also saddled with a football conference with four private universities.  Private schools can compete in college football, just ask Notre Dame, but they do have additional challenges.  The quality of play in the SWC had, if you can remember, absolutely cratered.  If any one school "killed" the SWC, it was Texas.  They showed absolutely no interest in saving the SWC, but who could blame them? 

More lessons after the break.

Texas' academic concerns are real.

"Texas wanted desperately the academic patina that the Pac 10 yielded," recalls Berdahl, who went on to serve as chancellor at Pac-10 member California-Berkeley. "To be associated with UCLA, Stanford and Cal in academics was very desirable."

I've long discarded UT's academic concerns as a cover for their quest for more money, but there is the Academics card being played back in 1995.  They also rejected the SEC out-of-hand, due to academic concerns.  Texas was not nearly the juggernaut then as they are now, so I think it is fair to say I have underestimated their academic interests.  Texas has long desired having their academic snobbery verified.  But what killed the deal?

UT and TAMU are not joined at the hip

Still, expansion in the Pac-10 depended on unanimous approval of the member schools. And Stanford, which had long battled UT in athletics as well as academics, objected. For UT, the way west never materialized.

The Longhorns next turned to the Big Ten.

But after adding Penn State in 1990, Big Ten officials had put a four-year moratorium on expansion. Although admitting interest, Big Ten bosses ultimately rejected UT's overtures.

That's right, kids.  When the SWC started to flounder, Texas declared it was every man for himself and they solicited entry into the Pac-10 and the Big 10... without Texas A&M.  Texas didn't turn to A&M until they had been turned down by their desired destination... twice.  In fact, Texas went to the Big 8 by themselves as well.  It was the Big 8 which forced the two schools together.

Still, the Big Eight wanted to expand to 10 teams, not nine, so each school could play a round-robin schedule in football and still have two non-conference games. UT needed an expansion partner and the obvious choice was A&M.

Both schools offered large alumni bases, rich tradition and solid academic reputations. Both excelled in a variety of sports other than football and basketball.

The two programs were perfectly willing to go their own way, it was really just the right sequence of events which married the two schools, not any grand plan.  To argue now that these two schools must be linked flies in the face of how both schools behaved during the collapse of the SWC

The SEC has long desired TAMU

But in August 1993, A&M regents chairman Margraves flew to LSU for his son's graduation, taking time to meet with LSU chancellor William Davis to discuss the possible migration of A&M — and Houston — into the SEC. Margraves later said he came away from the trip favoring a move.

Despite the repeated wooing from both sides, however, the relationship was never consummated. A&M administrators, apparently fearful of a backlash if the school made the first move solo, held back. UT wasn't interested and a suitable partner from the SWC couldn't be found. The SEC, meanwhile, backed off on expansion.

Note that A&M tried to bring along Houston.  Can you imagine a 14 team SEC with A&M and Houston?   Yeah, neither could the SEC.  Note also that it was LSU then trying to bring the Aggies into the SEC fold.  We may have been rivals on the field, but LSU has always wanted A&M as a partner. 

Also, and most importantly, note what caused A&M to hold off from the move: fear of a Texas backlash.  Texas' current plan to bully A&M and threaten to punish A&M for any independent act seems to be an established play from the playbook.  It also reeks of hypocrisy.  Here's Texas, on the one hand, courting membership from the Pac-10 and the Big 10, yet on the other hand threatening reprisals if A&M made a solo move.  A&M backed down before, but the Big 8 was a decent fit for the Aggies so it probably wasn't as big of a deal.  Moving to the Pac-10, however, is a huge change, and one that has to be more concerning to the Aggies.

Texas Tech sucks, too   

It was time, as one state politician with a vested interest in the matter later recalled, "to turn loose the dogs of war."

The pack included Dobermans, a veritable who's who of Baylor and Texas Tech alumni. Ann Richards, then governor, and Bob Bullock, then lieutenant governor, were Baylor grads. Sibley held a high-ranking position on the powerful Senate Finance Committee.

Tech unleashed its own influential alums: John Montford, president pro tempore of the Senate; Robert Junell, destined to become chairman of the House Appropriations Committee; and Speaker of the House Pete Laney.

Sibley threatened a cut in funding for UT and A&M if they bolted on their own. Junell collared UT president Robert Berdahl and spelled out what was at stake.

"As I recall, it wasn't a very veiled threat to cut budgets if Tech was left behind," Berdahl recalls.

Laney doesn't recall any hints of reprisal.

"We'd be a whole lot easier to get along with if our teams were in there, but I don't think there were any threats," Laney said. "We (the legislators) are temporary. We'll be replaced sooner or later."

This one is a personal beef.  As a Baylor Law alum, I have a certain affection for the Bears.  I root for them casually, and I have no illusions about their place in the pecking order, but I wish them well.  But the constant Bear-Bashing has gotten on my nerves.

The standard line is that Baylor forced their way into the Big 12 through politics.  And that's true.  They very easily could have been left behind like Rice, SMU, and TCU -- the other private schools that UT and A&M could honestly give a damn about.  But let's not forget that Texas Tech owes its place in the Big 12 to the same political machinations.  It's just assumed that Tech deserves a place at the table now, while Baylor is completely worthless.

This leads to my next point...

Don't be fooled by a team's current quality

Tech is currently experiencing their greatest success in the history of their program.  This is the pinnacle of Red Raider football... and they still have never won an outright Big 12 or SWC title.  Not one.  Though they have shared two titles.  Oddly enough, that last one was in 1994 with Baylor.  Baylor's no heavyweight, but they at least have won four outright SWC titles, the last in 1980, which is, admittedly, a long time ago.  Tech is historic dead weight as well, and even in their current Golden Era, they still have the same number of titles as lowly Baylor: none.

Additionally, look at the fortunes of the major programs at the formation of the Big 12.  Texas A&M was the top football program in the state of Texas.  From 1984-1994, A&M lost to Texas exactly once.  Texas broke the streak in 1995 and won the SWC title, their first outright title since 1990.  The Texas of today, the one coming off nine straight ten win seasons, was most certainly not the Texas of 1995.  There's also no guarantee that the Texas of tomorrow will be the same as the one today.  Just look at who the Big 8 powers were in 1995.

In 1995, Nebraska was awesome.  They were the two-time defending national champs and they had won five straight Big 8 titles.  They would win another national title in 1997, but since then, Nebraska has been an also ran.  They have not won a conference title since 1999, and they only have two divisional titles in the last 11 years.

On the flip side, football greatness seemed to have passed Oklahoma by.  OU hadn't won a Big 8 title since 1987, and the Gary Gibbs era was coming to its dismal close.  OU was mired at 500, and John Blake was about to arrive and take the program to new depths.  People have completely forgotten how low OU was before Stoops arrived. 

The point here is that A&M might be suffering through one of its worst decades, but it is a historically good program.  To think that A&M is destined to forever hover around 7-4 is a mistake, just as its a mistake to think that OU and Texas must continue as 10-win teams year-in and year-out.  It also could be wishful thinking that Tech can ever take the next step and win its first conference title.  When looking at expansion, look at quality 20 to 30 years down the road. 

The Big 12 was destined to fail

Texas and Nebraska pretty much despised each other from the start, and once Texas won pretty much every major political battle, it was only a matter of time before NU just got sick of it.  I think it may be unfair to blame one school, but I think the problem was clearly that not one school had loyalty to the conference, and the two major powers, NU and UT, openly despised one another.  The final story illustrates my point:

Even the ticket offices got into it.

In a conference call to set up the will-call ticket windows, a Big 12 official asked Nebraska's representatives what they needed. "Two tables and three chairs," came the reply.

He posed the same question to UT officials.

"Two tables and four chairs," said UT's ticket manager, earning a round of high-fives from his staff.

The underdog Longhorns, using a bold pass play on fourth and inches at their own 28-yard line in the final minutes, had the final say on the field, too, winning 37-27.

Nearly a decade later, Berdahl, an academician not normally given to moods of vengeance, can't contain himself when he recalls those early growing pains of the Big 12.

"It was," he says, "a real sweet victory."

 Gee, how did the Big 12 fail?

It was always an uneasy alliance, but once there was no balance of power, and it was simply Texas' play land, the Big 12 had no chance of survival.  The Big 12 ditched the old Big 8 and was considered a new conference, which sowed the seeds of its destruction.  No one, not Texas, not Nebraska, not OU, not A&M, not even Iowa St, had any historic loyalty to the conference.  At the first sign of trouble, there was no anchor to hold everyone in line. 

I'll get into "who's to blame" in another post, but it really all stems from this.  The Big 12 was set up to fail, and eventually, it failed.  This surprises no one, really.  And now Texas gets to go back to its original, and preferred, suitor: the Pac-10.  A&M has the chance to correct its mistake as well and go back to its original, and preferred, suitor as well: the SEC. 

A&M backed down before because it didn't want to cut historic ties with the SWC and it feared reprisals for doing so.  Well, the SWC is long since dead, and it's unlikely Texas holds so much political power it could punish A&M for refusing to go along with its move to the Pac-10.  It's not like anyone can rationally claim that it was A&M that killed the Big 12, which was the source of the worry before. 

A&M and Texas were willing to go to different conferences before, but the circumstances simply weren't right.  Are they right now? 

 

EDIT:  Oops.  Added the link.

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