Nothing is ever going to take the place of football in the hearts of Southwest Conference fans. You can bet your lifetime supply of Cotton Bowl tickets on that. But occasionally there are signs that basketball may move out of the Stone Age and find some diehards of its own.
Not represented at the NCAA national finals since 1956, the Southwest Conference's version of the sport has undergone a recent face-lift that includes out-of-state players, bigger recruiting budgets, new coaches, fully integrated rosters, shattered attendance records and even a new team, Houston. Considering that the league's record has been 50-34 outside the conference this year—its first winning mark in four years—all the commotion seems to be producing the best basketball in SWC history.
It is high time, say the conference's critics, who note with some accuracy that the biggest upswing around the league is in conversation about how improved it is. There is plenty of that, and it is not all wishful thinking. Texas A&M, SMU and Houston each knocked off a preseason Top 20 foe early in the schedule. And despite a banner recruiting year, defending champion A&M, which again is favored to win the conference and has a 4-1 record, is not going to have an easy time repeating. Arkansas proved that last weekend by defeating the Aggies 93-91 in double overtime at Fayetteville. However, the inhospitable manner in which long-feared Houston has been greeted by its new colleagues is the clearest indicator that league play is vastly better.
Cougar Coach Guy Lewis once said that he could beat any SWC team with his freshman squad. That was probably true back in the '60s when Houston was a match for UCLA. This year, after waiting four seasons for their first Southwest Conference game, the Cougars were stomped by Arkansas 92-47. More defeats have followed.
"Things are different now, that's all," said A&M Coach Shelby Metcalf last week after his Aggies handed Houston its third loss in six SWC games, 74-67. "The league is so much better that nobody can dominate it. In 1969, when A&M won the title, I started five white Texans. So when we first agreed to admit Houston in 1971, I was worried. They had great black players from all over the country and were good enough to have put us all out of business. That's why we needed a four-year grace period."
Metcalf's star forward, Sonny Parker, is a perfect example of the changes since 1971. SWC schools now average three blacks and two out-of-staters per starting lineup, and Parker belongs in both categories.
A slim, 6'7" senior from Chicago with plenty of moves and lightning speed, he is quite a contrast to the slew-footed dinosaurs who patrolled the league's front-courts in the past. And pro scouts are high on him, which is unusual since there are no former Southwest Conference players in the NBA or ABA.
Parker is only one of at least four surefire pro prospects now in the league. The others are a pair of senior centers, Ira Terrell of SMU and Rick Bullock of Texas Tech, both Texans, and Houston's junior Guard Otis Birdsong, a native of Florida. And the talent does not stop there. Texas A&M starts two superb freshmen—6'3" Karl Godine and 6'6" Jarvis Williams, who together led Houston's Kashmere High to 78 consecutive victories and turned down nearly 600 scholarship offers between them in order to become Aggies. There are equally skilled recruits at Texas Tech, Baylor and Arkansas.
Five SWC coaches are alumni of the schools where they work, but SMU's Sonny Allen and Arkansas' Eddie Sutton will keep them from becoming complacent. Allen won the NCAA Division II title last year at Old Dominion. When he left Creighton two years ago Sutton chose the SWC, even though he had job offers from the Big Ten, the ACC and the Big Eight.
"I've made a decision to stay in the league a long time," says Sutton. "I don't see why it can't be improved quality-wise to compete with football."
Sounds fine, Eddie. Maybe the league champion will even rise up and win an NCAA tournament game, something that has happened only once since 1969. But fan loyalties to football are not going to swing to the new sport overnight. That was evidenced by a slip of the tongue during last week's A&M-Houston game at College Station. Parker put up a shot that a teammate touched while it was still on the rim. "The basket was disallowed," said the P.A. man, "because of offensive pass interference."