The Real Killer of the Southwest Conference
A few days ago, I read Dave DeBlasio's righteously furious scathing of the University of Texas for their role in the murder of the Southwest Conference and banishment of SWC schools to bad conference situations.
That article was apparently based on some things I have written and in that regard I feel like I owe UT a bit of an apology.
Now, do they deserve some semi-regular brutal criticism for the decline of the SWC? Absolutely. When you make a decision that has a catastrophic affect on your conference, you tacitly agree to accept the condemnations.
But, you see, UT didn't kill the SWC.
Oh sure, if the death of the SWC was an episode of CSI, UT would be the unfaithful wife who lured her husband (the SWC) on a romantic skiing getaway, taking him up to a dangerously unstable slope where she had removed the warning signs. She then waited until he was halfway down the slope and yelled "Avalanche!" at the top of her lungs causing said avalanche as she stood safely above.
She would see the SWC buried and then would turn her mind to other happy thoughts as she casually skied away down the safe slope on the other side of the mountain.
But with any TV detective story today there is always the surprise twist.
You see the SWC didn't die in the avalanche.
He was only maimed.
Will CUSA West breakaway and form a new SWC in the next 10 years?
It was only then the real killer, UT's jilted lover, skied over, found the SWC alive wiggling around in the snow and popped four bullets into him gangland-style.
Taking our TV show analogy to its conclusion, the article the other day amounted to that feckless wife that is UT being lead away in chains to face legal judgement as she thrashed around and wailed, "...But I didn't say to shoot him!"
No doubt UT maimed the conference when they pushed Arkansas to leave. They started a chain reaction that would inevitably lead to the departure of the conference's two big guns, UT and A&M.
But the facts are the conference TV situation projected as a C-USA level conference in the TV era. There were simply too many teams feeding off too few TVs.
Then there were the attendance problems. The emergence of the Dallas Cowboys and Houston Oilers had over the decades robbed the SWC's four schools in Dallas/Fort Worth and Houston of their game-attending fan base. SMU had held on to their fan base the longest, but the NCAA slapped them with the death penalty—severing the link to most of SMU's fans.
UT, A&M, and Arkansas needed a bigger platform that would allow them to play for national championships without being dragged down by their conference. The competition in the SWC had become horribly unbalanced as member schools turned each other in for recruiting violations. It was as if you had three top Big Ten schools playing in a MAC-level conference.
It was simply a matter of time until the avalanche came that would bury the SWC and unlike in the CSI analogy, the signs were all over the place.
It's true that across all collegiate athletic conferences, UT is probably the ultimate representation of the self-centered trophy wife—loyal to her conference only as long as there is money in the account for fur coats (or cutting edge athletic facilities).
Sure, UT can be an absolutely faithless, spoiled, and criminally self-indulgent partner... but they didn't kill the conference.
So who really killed the SWC?
To understand who the real killers were, I'd like to submit into evidence the following snippet from the much-quoted article on the death of the SWC by M. Wangrin of MySanAntonio.com.
"...SMU wasn't alone in discovering that what it offered in positives was set off by what it promised in negatives.
SMU, TCU and Rice were private schools, and big conferences desire schools backed by state coffers. Houston, TCU and SMU still bore the stain of NCAA probation.
All thought they could deliver big television markets to a league in search of the same, but the Big 12 members felt that UT and A&M could deliver Dallas and Houston.
There were brief discussions about keeping the Southwest Conference alive, but nobody could agree on whom to invite. And the TV money was quickly drying up.
"There was a lot of indecision," said Steve Hatchell, who served as the last SWC commissioner then assumed the same duties with the Big 12. "Those four were not in the habit of looking around to find a place for themselves. The picture changed totally.""
There are your killers.
Houston. SMU. Rice. TCU.
As Hatchell so tactfully revealed, these four schools didn't have their act together enough to save the SWC.
Consider the assets the forgotten four had available to them after the Big 12 four announced their decision to leave in 1993.
They had two schools in both of the state's biggest designated market areas (DMA). They had media relevance in the two biggest DMAs in the central US. Those DMAs accounted for half of the state's population.
They had sympathy from their peers. Much like the rebuilt Big East, a rebuilt SWC would have been given the benefit of the doubt and would be assumed to be better than it actually was until it perhaps reached that level.
They had sympathy from Texans. It would not be surprising to see politicians pushing the Texas Big 12 schools to continue to play the SWC schools if the SWC had survived.
They had two of the richest talent recruiting hotbeds in tow.
They had one of the most legendary brands to ever exist in the Southwest Conference brand. They had a brand that was marketable on TV.
But they just couldn't agree on replacements.
So rather than building a really good conference geographically centered around them, they popped four caps in the SWC and went their own ways, content to deal with the higher travel costs and limited media attention afforded to conference outliers.
Houston was lured in by the Conference USA concept. The privates couldn't agree with UH on expansion candidates, so Houston joined C-USA and the privates slinked off to the super WAC.
The left behind privates should have let in Houston's candidates, even if they weren't the privates they preferred. Houston should have met them half way and stayed.
They had the assets to rebuild a SWC based around D/FW and Houston that fans might come to enjoy nearly as much as the original.
With those assets, the leftover four could have likely had their pick of any independent not named Notre Dame as well as any member of the Big West or WAC within a reasonable distance. (That may not actually sound like much, but it was a pretty good group. Here are the schools and their 1995 football records.)
Colorado St. 8 4 0
Air Force 8 5 0
BYU 7 4 0
Utah 7 4 0
San Diego St. 8 4 0
Wyoming 6 5 0
Fresno St. 5 7 0
New Mexico 4 7 0
Hawaii 4 8 0
UTEP 2 10 0
Nevada 9 3 0
ULL 6 5 0
Utah St. 4 7 0
Arkansas St. 6 5 0
N. Mexico St. 4 7 0
Northern Ill 3 8 0
Louisiana Tech 5 6 0
Pacific 3 8 0
San Jose St 3 8 0
UNLV 2 9 0
East Carolina 9 3 0
Louisville 7 4 0
Cincinnati 6 5 0
Southern Miss 6 5
Army 5 5 1
Navy 5 6 0
Tulsa 4 7 0
Memphis 3 8 0
NE Louisiana 2 9 0
North Texas 2 9 0
Tulane 2 9 0
Tulane was the private schools' second choice to replace Arkansas in the eight-team SWC. They were close enough to Houston and were a fellow founding member of CUSA, so they were probably not objectionable to UH.
They offered a very good basketball program at the time and the New Orleans market. They had no football home and likely would have accepted an offer from any SWC incarnation.
The first candidate the privates pushed to replace Arkansas was BYU. While there is little reason to believe BYU would not agree to join the SWC eight, would BYU agree to join the leftover four?
I think BYU would not leave on their own, but history suggests they might have agreed if an offer was made to the 'gang of five' (BYU, Wyoming, Colorado State, Air Force, and Utah), BYU's cabal within their conference.
From there adding UNM and UTEP to bridge the now SWC five to the gang of five would have yielded a pretty good 12-team SWC with much better media coverage.
The ramifications of this down the road could have been huge. Hawaii, San Diego State, and Fresno State would likely have had to drift back into the Big West. That could have lead into the Big West splitting into the Big West and a Big Central conference that might raid some of the schools who would eventually become members of CUSA.
The Big West had an unbearable footprint at the time that would leave all of their member schools on untenable ground. The Pacific schools might have held on with a friendlier footprint and more TV revenue coming in. Incoming teams Boise and Idaho likely both would have prospered without extreme travel costs.
The tough runs as outliers experienced by schools like Idaho, New Mexico State, Utah State, La Tech, and others might not have occurred if the SWC's leftover four had the guts and the sense to pursue expansion.
Would BYU sell out conference mates for a better TV deal? We know that answer, but lets assume that as this predates the super WAC, that the gang of five's patience would not have reached their breaking point and they would have passed.
If the gang of five turned down the SWC four, it seems unlikely that UNM or UTEP would have turned them down. UTEP and UNM were longtime rivals. Both schools were distant outliers and longtime football also-rans in the WAC. Membership in any SWC could be a dramatic upgrade in esteem. Access to DFW and Houston talent would give both the chance to climb to a higher status.
Both schools had pretty well supported basketball programs. UNM and Tulane were tourney teams in 1995. With Houston, they would provide the new SWC some real basketball legitimacy to lure new members.
With UNM and UTEP and the SWC privates never joining the WAC, the super WAC would never have formed—and subsequently split—sparing Hawaii and Fresno State from a tough run of years.
Independents Louisville and Memphis ultimately bought into the CUSA concept, but likely would have been more than willing to be seen as UT and A&M's replacements in a new SWC instead.
Tulsa was left an independent when the MVC dropped to the FCS level. As a religious private, they'd have jumped for a chance to join a SWC.
Non-football schools UALR and St. Louis would likely have been on board to join as non-football members making a very strong 10 football/12 non-football team league.
St. Louis (non-football)
Arkansas- Little Rock (non-football)
That would have given the new SWC a very solid collection of DMAs. Some of the DMAs have changed in rankings over the years, but this list from a few years ago gives a good idea of the markets available to them.
This membership would have the new SWC in DMAs No. 5 (DFW), No. 10 (Houston), No. 21 (St. Louis), No. 44 (Albuquerque), No. 47 (Memphis), No. 48 (Louisville), No. 53 (New Orleans), No. 57 (Little Rock), No. 60 (Tulsa), and No. 98 (El Paso).
The league would likely have seen Louisville and TCU duel annually for the league title, with the early weakness in the conference giving both schools a good shot at nine wins and a top-25 finish each year. Fuelled by Texas recruiting Houston, UNM, Tulsa, and Memphis would likely have been middle of the conference schools.
The conference would have been a very strong basketball conference with many of the CUSA's better basketball schools in conference and being able to pull from two of the richest basketball recruiting regions in the US in DFW and Houston—something CUSA couldn't claim in their heyday.
It could have worked
It could have worked, but they didn't get it done. They proved incapable of pulling together and leading.
They probably blamed each other for the violations that helped bring down the SWC (three of the four were on probation). Perhaps they also resented the in-conference whistle blowing that dogged the SWC in their last days. Regardless of the source of the conflict, they could not park their egos to reach consensus on replacement member schools.
So they killed the SWC and decided it was a good idea to be pawns, fringe players, and conference outliers for other school's conferences.
It is eyeopening to see how many schools have struggled as conference outliers because the leftover four couldn't get anything done.
It is also interesting to think that if the Big 10 or ACC raids the Big East, Louisville and many of the very same schools mentioned above as members of a new SWC could be in play if Houston, SMU, and Rice decide to try to make up for past mistakes and make another go at it. It is almost like fate keeps pushing these schools in a certain direction with peer institutions that makes sense.
Is fate conspiring to give these schools a second chance to do right by the fans of the state and build a second conference radiating around Texas? Will we see CUSA West breakaway and form a new SWC in two to five years? Who can say.
We at least can say for certain who killed the SWC.
Rest in peace, SWC. Your killers have finally been named.
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