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What the Birth of the Big 12 Tells Us About Its Current Struggle


This article about the death of the Southwestern Conference and subsequent birth of the Big 12 originally appeared in the 1995 edition of Athlon's Big Eight magazine. As Texas A&M prepares to move to the SEC, leaving the future of the Big 12 up in the air, we feel this piece is worth revisiting as history seems to be repeating itself.

By Ivan Maisel

For decades, it was difficult to determine the biggest commodity in Texas. Some said oil, others pride. Anything made in Texas, grown in Texas and, heaven knows, born in Texas, was bigger, better or prettier. That was just a fact of life.

Texas may have been one of 50 states but it had once been its own republic. That sense of self-reliance, of the belief that Texans didn't join the union so much as merge with it, lasted for most of this century. A Texan's biscuits always came out of the oven fluffy. 

An old joke: 
Q: Do you think the recession will have political repercussions in Texas?
A: Son, we don't have a recession in Texas. I'll admit, however, that our boom is worse than it's been in a good while.

That air of superiority could be seen in the state's institutions, one after the other built from nothing. Neiman-Marcus transformed from a small storefront to retailer to the nation's wealthy. The King Ranch and others like it, immortalized in the novel and film Giant, existed almost like their own principalities.

Oilmen who struck it rich had so much money their lives had no limits. J.R. Ewing didn't live in Chicago.

You could tell a Texan, the saying went, but you couldn't tell him much, especially when it came to Southwest conference football.

"There's no question in my mind," former Texas coach Darrell Royal said in 1963, the year the Longhorns won the first of three national championships under him, "that everybody shoots for the University of Texas."

The Southwest conference churned out good players, great teams and national heroes. Slingin' Sammy Baugh and Davey O'Brien took TCU to the fore in the 1930s. Doak Walker of SMU won national Player of the Year awards in two postwar seasons and adorned the cover of Life magazine, the ancient equivalent of having your own Nike campaign.

Royal's Longhorns became perennial championship contenders in the 1960s. The decade ended with the entire nation focused on Fayetteville, Ark., where Texas and Arkansas, ranked 1-2, played for the Southwest Conference and national championship.

But now we are in the 1990s, and it seems redundant to say times have changed. Texas isn't really Texas anymore. It's just another state. part of that change came from without. Technological marvels made this country smaller.

First television, then computers, took the same message into homes from Boston to San Antonio, Seattle to Houston, Miami to Dallas. The oil and real-estate bust of the 1980s weakened Texans as if an epidemic had raged through the state. Economies of scale pushed companies to widen their markets to encompass the entire nation.

Being the best in your region, even in one as large as Texas, no longer guaranteed survival. Neiman-Marcus is owned by a New York conglomerate. Dr. Pepper, born in Dallas, is a British property. The King Ranch no longer exists. And neither, after this season will the Southwest Conference.

Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech and Baylor will merge with the Big Eight to form the Big 12. Rice, SMU and TCU will join an expanded Western Athletic Conference. Houston will become part of a new league called Conference USA with 12 members, mostly city schools. Houston and five other institutions will compete for the college football championship starting in 1996. The homogenization of Texas is complete.

The reasons for the Southwest Conference's death are manifold. The 19902 began with Arkansas announcing its departure for the Southeastern Conference. In an era of college sports where the root of survival is TV, no one state, not even Texas, can generate the ratings that would provide rights fees large enough for a league to survive. When the NCAA monopolized TV rights, before 1984, the Southwest Conference and other leagues didn't have to worry about selling themselves. Everyone received the same amount of money. When a federal court opened the marketplace in 1984, the Southwest Conference survived for only 10 years.

Expansion became paramount, for leagues either had to eat or be eaten. The TV market demanded it. Yet the conference had become vulnerable, weakened by sundry ailments: the advent of professional sports, the widening chasm between small, private universities (SMU, TCU, Rice, Baylor) and large state institutions (Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Houston), the pervasive cheating that peaked int he 1980s and the members' own intransigence. Perhaps the saddest element of the conference's demise is that the league had a window of opportunity to modernize and didn't climb through it.

"I failed," says Fred Jacoby, commissioner from 1982-93. "I spent more time trying to hold it together and trying to make changes." Jacoby should order enough hair shirts to go around. In order for him to lead, someone had to be willing to follow. Rather than take an aggressive course ofaction such as expansion, the league's members allowed themselves to be picked apart. Aggressive action takes conviction, a commonality of purpose by partners willing to take a risk. Conference members had enough trouble agreeing that Christmas came in December.

"Someone told me Texas had more undergraduates than Rice had living alumni," says Rick Chryst, Atlantic Coast Conference assistant commissioner, who went to the ACC from the Southwest Conference office in 1991. "You begin to see the differences in resources and philosophies. The public/private distinction is pretty big anywhere. We face it here (in the ACC) with Duke and Wake Forest. The day-to-day decisions are animated by the character of institutions. Tuition costs translate into scholoarship exposure. How many private schools compete (well) in football?"

These are tough issues for privates. Three of the four private schools in the Southwest Conference were based in Texas' two largest metropolitan areas. Rice, TCU and SMU all had thrived prior to 1960.

"There's a reason why Rice has a 70,000 seat stadium," Jacoby says. All of Houston once made the Owls their own. TCU and SMU staged a showdown for national supremacy in 1935 that remains one of the sports legendary games. The Mustangs won it 20-14 despite the efforts of Baugh.

Thousands of Texans followed SMU to the Rose Bowl, where they lost to Stanford 7-0.

A quarter of a century later, the National Football League came to Dallas. The Cowboys, thanks to Tex Schramm and Gil Brandt, began as the darlings of the state and peaked as America's Team.

"Pro sports usurped newspaper space," Jacoby says. "We all have time and money. How do we allocate them? That has had irreparable damage. Where are colleges flourishing in attention? Oklahoma, Arkansas, Nebraska, Alabama, Tennessee. Where are colleges flourishing in pro markets? You have to have a real strong winner. Miami's support is four miles wide and an inch deep. If they drop off, that will plummet."

Dallas, Fort Worth or Houston hasn't had a consistent winner in years. Even when the University of Houston went 10-1 in 1990 the Cougars drew an average crowd of 29,934. By 1993, when Houston won one game, that average dropped by one-third. Fans deserted SMU, TCU and Rice as well. The Owls may have a large stadium but they haven't filled it since 1970. In fact, the most recent attendance record set by those three schools occurred in 1984, when TCU-Texas attracted 47,280 to Amon Carter Stadium in Fort Worth.

Even that achievement highlighted another problem. Texas and Texas A&M couldn't sell their own tickets to alumni in Houston and Dallas. Those fans didn't have to make donations to their respective alma maters in order to buy season tickets for games three hours away. They could drive over to TCU--or SMU or Rice--on the day of the game and buy tickets. The lack of interest in the pro-dominated cities manifested iteself in TV ratings, too.

"You didn't have the support in the two biggest markets, Dallas and Houston, to keep it going," says Ken Haines, vice president of Raycom, which holds the conference's syndication rights. With Arkansas, he added, the Southwest Conference "wasn't the Big Ten. It was viable. When Arkansas left, it made it difficult for us to break even financially."

Arkansas athletic director Frank Broyles has been in charge of the Razorbacks' program for more than a generation. Unike most schools, where athletic directors only made suggestions to the president or the board of trustees, Broyles could make decisions unilaterally. He could see the future and, in his mind, it didn't bode well for Arkansas. So he took the Razorbacks to the Southeastersn Conference. It's difficult to tell what hurt the Southwest Conference more: Arkansas departure or the perception of the conference it left behind.

Broyles has often said he felt compelled to make the switch because the realities of the marketplace. Arkansas abandoned its lifelong partners to save its own existence. The move has worked out well. The Southweastern Conference is an integral part of the culture in the South. That and the ever-increasing population, i.e. TV market, made the league attractive to the networks.

Arkansas, toughened by SEC basketball, has climbed to the national elite. However, the equally tough competition in football has taken a toll on the Razorbakcs, clearly a level or two below the Alabamas and Auburns.

The departure made it more clear than ever that the league needed to change its configuration. In defecting, however, Arkansas left the SWC in a weak position to negotiate the future. Though Arkansas may be a small state, its university had been a strong partner.

"The ratings were so high (in Arkansas)," Haines says, "that it was bringing a population base to advertisers at half of what that base would cost in the SWC."

When Arkansas announced its decision in 1990 to bolt to the SEC, the conventional wisdom held that Texas and Texas A&M would soon follow. Grant Teaff, then head coach at Baylor and now the executive director of the American Football Coaches Association, compared the renegades to Iraq, which days earlier had invaded Kuwait. Texas and Texas A&M never came out and said they wanted to leave. As it turns out, Arkansas provided the two flagships with a dress rehearsal of what they would need to do. Both schools would have to sell the move to legislators at the capital in Austin.

Alumni of Texas Tech and Baylor help power in Texas state government well out of proportion to the power held by those schools in the SWC. When Arkansas bolted, the phones started to ring at the capital. Soon, hearings would be scheduled. The legislators threatened to restrict access to the oilfield royalty checks that Texas and Texas A&M had used to become two of the best-regarded academic institutions in the nation.

Texas and Texas A&M wrested concessions from their conference brethren. Rather than equitably split gate receipts, the two schools forced the others to agree to what DeLoss Dodds, Texas athletic director, described as "You keeps yours and I'll keep mine." That didn't do anything to solve the basic problem--getting people through the gate. The lack of interest affected the SWC in many veins, all of which lead to the beating heart of TV. A network is looking for marquee games: Alabama-Auburn, USC-Notre Dame, Michigan-Ohio State. Arkansas-Texas, a rivalry that once decided the national championship, would be no longer. That left the conference with only two perennials: Texas-Texas A&M and Texas-Oklahoma.

"As a league," Chryst says, "you went in trying to create three packages: national, syndicated, plus they (the members) wanted to hold something on their own. The conference wasn't deep enough to support it. TV brings issues into sharper focus."

In the days when the NCAA controlled the TV rights of its members, issues such as inventory control did not exist. The NCAA controlled the inventory and all the members received a check. But in 1984, the University of Oklahoma and the University of Georgia sued the NAA for control of their TV rights. U.S. District Court Judge Juan Burciaga ruled in favor of the universities. College football began appearing on four to six channels every fall Saturday.

The timing couldn't have been worse for the SWC. When SMU arrived among the national polls in the early 1980s, the route it took changed the face of college sports forever. SMU cheated and received two years of NCAA probation in June 1981. In 1985, SMU got three more years. Then came the revelation that ended all revelations: Not only had SMU been paying its players, but the school's highest officials had approved the payments. Bill Clements, SMU chairman of the board of trustees, gave his approval while serving as governor of the state of Texas. When asked why he had lied about his actions, Clements said, "There weren't any Bibles in the room."

Shortly before Clements' role became public, he had dinner in his home with Bum Bright, former Cowboys' owner and a devout Texas A&M Aggie. About that time, Clements had promised Bright that if SMU went down, everyone would go down. Before the 1980s ended, seven of the nine conference schools received NCAA probation, the worst punishment, of course, being the "death penalty" meted out to SMU in March 1987. The athletic program hasyet to recover.

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Although the level of cheating may have been unprecedented, neither could it be labeled a phenomenon. "I wasn't here two weeks before I knew we had a problem," Jacoby says. "When you have violations, you have a lack of trust."

The price the conference schools paid for dealing in scandal and the resultant NCAA probation grew exponentially. The NCAA demanded a heavy toll in scholarships and TV exposure.

The effects of losing those two essentials, the meat and potatoes of a revenue-producing program, have been well-documented at school from Florida to California. Yet in Texas, given the state's ability to produce the finest high school football players in the nation, an extra tariff was paid. The stain on the conference's name drove those top players away from home. By the late 1980s, the retention rate by the SWC of the state's Top 100 Prospects, as identified by The Dallas Morning News, dwindled to 60 percent. The better the player, the more likely he would leave.

From 1980 to 1984, of the 18 All-Americans who listed Texas cities or town as their homes, 12 (66.7 percent) attended SWC schools. In the next five-year-period, 1985-89, 17 Texas residents won All-America recognition. Only five (29.4 percent) played in the SWC.

Two cases illustrate the mess the conference wrought. One is Tim Brown, the Notre Dame wide receiver who won the 1987 Heisman Trophy. Brown grew up in Dallas and attended Woodrow Wilson High, which makes it one of the two high schools that has produced two Heisman winners. Davey O'Brien, the 1938 winner from TCU, also went to Woodrow, as the locals call it.

Brown narrowed his choice to SMU and Notre Dame. On the fay before the signing date, Brown claimed, SMU recruiters made promises that would have broken NCAA ruled. He went to Notre Dame, where he spearheaded the Fighting Irish's resurgence under head coach Lou Holtz.

Other Texans who achieved greatness elsewhere included quarterback Ty Detmer of Brigham Young, tailback Thurman Thomas of Oklahoma State, linebackers Brian Bosworth of Oklahoma and Alfred Williams of Colorado, and center Jake Young of Nebraska. Detmer was the Heisman winner in 1990. For the last five seasons, the trend has returned to normal. Ten of the 13 All-Americans from Texas went to Texas schools. Bu the barn door had been left open too long.

Ever since Arkansas left, there has been an air of inevitability wafting about the league. Immediately after the announcement in 1990, Jacoby began beseeching the Big Eight to consider, if not merger, then a pooling of resources. The Big Eight never showed much interest. Jacoby remembered an early meeting at an airport hotel in Oklahoma City.

"I went over scheduling, marketing, negotiations of TV," Jacoby says. "When I got through, they looked at me like, 'What the hell are you talking about?"

There had been a meeting over dinner at the 1991 NCAA Convention in Nashville and at the College Football Association conventions in 1991 and 1993. Little had come of them.

"I was convinced," says Jacoby, "that the only way the Big Eight would be interested was if it got a slap across the face."

Jacoby pushed his own presidents not to sit back and get picked over. He wanted to expand. "The presidents said, 'Don't talk to anyone already in a football conference,'" Jacoby recalls.

Tulane made a pitch, but Dodds and others didn't believe the small, private school could deliver the New Orleans TV market. Jacoby believed it could have.

"The ACC expanded to get Georgia Tech, and all of a sudden Georgia Tech went 0-17 (in ACC football games)," he says. "Then Tech started to grow and ended up winnings the (1990) national championship."

Jacoby campaigned to bring Memphis and Louisville, which would have strengthened the league's basketball presence. But no one wanted to make a move only for basketball.

"We were in the driver's seat in 1991 and 1992," Jacoby says. "Once it got tot he spring of 1994, the contracts had been negotiated." 

The CFA TV alliance long had been an uneasy one. In 1990, after the CFA had negotiated a five-year, $350 million contract with ABC and ESPN, but before it had signed, Notre Dame bolted to make its own five year, $37 million deal with NBC. Once one member left, others lost their reticence. The SEC negotiated with CBS up to 45 minutes before agreeing to remain part of the CFA's revised $300 million, Irish-less deals. The SEC made the agreement by  wrenching more appearances out of the CFA, which left other conferences, chiefly the Big East, disgruntled.

The cntract turned out well for all parties. Rather than show one or two games per Saturday as CBS had, ABC adoted a regional schedule, televising as many as five games simultaneously. The strategy proved to be ideal for the Southwest Conference. Texas, with two of the top 10 TV markets in Dallas and Houston, could guarantee a good rating for a regional telecast featuring Texas or Texas A&M.

During the 1993 and 1994 seasons, ABC televised Texas to the Southwest region six times. The Longhorns earned an 8.5 rating. Texas A&M, which could not appear on TV in 1994 because of the NCAA probation, earned a 7.2 rating in three games in 1993. SWC games featuring the other six schools earned a 6.3 rating. In other words, Texas was watched by 35% more viewers than the others.

Even more interesting, Big Eight games earned an average 7.7 rating in those two seasons, a rating 22% higher than the others. The Big Eight held substantially more appeal to the Southwest fan than the SWC have-nots.

The TV-rights marketplace, which had been soft throughout the early 1990s, changed abruptly at the end of 1993, when the Fox network outbid CBS for the rights to the National Football Conference games in the NFL. Suddenly CBS had a lot of money and nothing to buy with it. The network, partly by design and partly by consequence, had been left with few marquee events. However CBS had a long-standing relationship with the NCAA. Televising the men's basketball tournament meant CBS Sports executives, chiefly programming vice president Len DeLuca, had kept open avenues of communication even though CBS televised no I-A football.

In the fall of 1993, the CFA began negotiating a renewal contract with ABC. The network felt the deal had worked for both sides. So, too, did the CFA hierarchy. CFA executive Chuck Neinas and the group's television consultant, Mike Trager, operated under the assumption that the market remained soft. They negotiated a small increase in rights fees. What they failed to realize, however, is that Fox had changed the playing field.

The contract came before the CFA membership in January 1994 in San Antonio, where all of the college athletics had congregated for the annual NCAA Convention. Approval was expected. It did not come. SEC commissioner Roy Kramer, in particular, raised questions about whether all avenues had been explored. When the meting ended, ABC executives walked in expecting good news. They didn't get it. That meeting would be the first step down the slippery slope of change.

CBS struck immediately, going hard after the SEC. Super Bowl XXVIII was held in Atlanta in January 1994. Kramer went as the guest of CBS Sports, which had a Skybox in the Georgia Dome that shared a glass wall with ABC's box. When Kramer walked in, he turned and saw ABC Sports president Dennis Swanson looking at him. The next week, CBS and the SEC made a deal. That move effectively ended the CFA package. ABC quickly reached agreement witht he ACC. CBS then signed the Big East.

"For a long time in there," Dodds says, "and I can't define it--two or three years--ut was obvious (the SWC) was going to have to break up. But politicaly, it couldn't. The SEC leaving the CFA package was the impetus to make it happen."

That left the Big Eight and the SWC. When the CFA coalition broke up, the two leagues agreed to negotiate as a unit. CBS, after acquiring the rights to the SEC and the Big East, said it had room for no one else. That left ABC, which within a week made a $60 million offer to the two leagues.

On Friday, February 11, 1994, the presidents of the 16 Southwest Conference and Big Eight institutions met at the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport Hyatt to discuss the deal. Dr. Robert Berdahl, University of Texas president left no doubt that Texas had no qualms about dissolving the SWC.

Berdahl told them that the university had had discussions with the PAC-10 Conference and that Texas leaned toward going west. Texas A&M's most recent probation--several Aggies football players had been paid for no-show or no-work jobs--convinced him that the league still couldn't police its own. Furthermore, the Big Eight schools accepted Prop 48 students, freshmen who failed to meet the NCAA minimum academic standards for athletic eligibility.

Berdahl's speech rocked both leagues. Big Eight officials began to explore what the league's worth would be to ABC without the SWC. But they also realized that they would have to make some sort of agreement or else Texas and Texas A&M would walk.

"There was a concern among the CEOs," Kansas State president Jon Wefald told The Dallas Morning News, "who were then realizing that the Big Eight Conference had value and might have more value with several other members of the Southwest Conference."

Berdahl did no engage in bluffing. He almost literally had the cards in hand. One senior university official told the Morning News that Texas would have an offer to join the PAC-10 "as fast as a fax machine works." Teas A&M, on the other hand, actively began pursuing leads to join the SEC.

Yet both Texas and Texas A&M faced the same hurdle in 1994 they had failed to leap four years earlier: Texas Tech and Baylor still had substantial power in state government. With Texas leaving its commitment to the SWC and the Big Eight in question, Texas Tech president Robert Lawless called his legislators on Wednesday, Feb 16. "The dogs are loose in Austin," he said.

By the end of the week, according to one Texas state legislator, Univerisity of Texas chancellor William Cunningham "had a religious experience." An SWC official said Lt Gov. Bob Bullock, a Baylor graduate, gave Cunningham a "come to Jesus" speech. Cunningham laughed at the religious overtones and denied both premises.

Whatever the truth, it soon became clear where Texas' future lay. The PAC-10 let Cunningham and Berdahl know that it had an interest in Texas and Texas A&M. But that was it. Baylor and Texas A&M would not receive an invitation. The Big Eight would take those two schools but had no interest in a 16-team merger.  ABC had said the value of its offer for 12 schools would be the same amount of money as if the Big Eight and the SWC merged. By leaving Houston, Rice, SMU and TCU behind, the 12 schools received one-thrid more money.

"By going along to the Big Eight," Cunnongham says, "we were able to take care fo four schools."

And so it happened. On Monday, Feb. 21, the news leaked. By the end of the week, the invitations had been formally made and formally accepted. The Southwest Conference would remain together through the 1995-1996 school year. Hatchell, a lame-duck commissioner, albeit with a contract that lasted until 1998, engineered getting Rice, TCU and SMU into a newly-expanded WAC. A year later, he was appointed commissioner of the newly organized Big 12. Houston decided to join, for football, a conference of former independents.

So the Southwestern Conference will die next year at age 81. Some tradition will live on. Texas A&M students will stand for the entire game, representative of the 12th man, ready to play. Texas Exes will continue to wear burnt-orange sport coats and be dissatisfied with fewer than eight wins.

But some tradition will expire with the league. The Cotton Bowl, once a Jan. 1 showcase, has fallen to the second tier. As hospitable as the hosts were, they wouldn't put a smile and a handshale on an icy, 35-degree day in Dallas. Bowls are about playing golf and getting sunburned. Rivalries such as Texas-SMU and Baylor-TCU will be filed away with ads for Sakowitz stores. Texas-Oklahoma will be a press-conference game.

And, just maybe, the Texas boom that has been down for so long will rise again.

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