Sorry State

Football in the Southwest Conference isn't what it used to be, and Texas and Texas A&M are looking to bail out
November 16, 1992

Texas football as you knew it is gone, Billy Joe. It's broke, and your daddy can't fix it. Folks say that by 1994 the University of Texas could be in the Pac-10 or the Big Ten, and Texas A&M might be part of the Southeastern Conference. If that happens, it would almost certainly mean the end of the Southwest Conference. But even if the SWC still exists five years from now, you won't be able to recognize it. The Aggies and the Orangebloods get misty-eyed when they contemplate this sorry end to a storied alliance, but after decades of politicking and bickering, they have mainly themselves to blame.

In 1963 Darrell Royal was coach of the national-champion Longhorns, Lyndon Johnson was the president of the U.S., and John Connally was the governor of Texas. Oil was king, and it seemed as if Texans owned football and ran the world. But on the eve of 1993, oil prices are dismal; a woman, Ann Richards, is governor; the Longhorns have had losing records in three of the last four seasons; and the Southwest Conference, which hasn't had a national champion since 1970, is on the verge of collapse under the weight of weak football and bad business practices. Arkansas left for the SEC last year. The eight remaining teams are depleted by the payoff scandals of the 1980s. Texas and Texas A&M, the wealthy standard-bearers of the conference, would love to bolt, except that they would face bruising resistance on the floor of the state legislature and the potential loss of millions of dollars in state funds if they tried it.

You can't discuss the rise and fall of football in Texas without discussing the state's business and politics, and specifically the business and politics of its most venerable institution, the University of Texas. Longhorn football has long been a training ground for the state's leaders. James R. (Jim Bob) Moffett, for instance, a poor kid and a rather ordinary player under Royal in the 1960s, is now the school's most influential alumnus. "As the state university's football team goes, so goes the state and the favorite sons of the state," he says.

As Royal's teams won national championships, in 1963, '69 and '70, politics and football in the state became ever more entwined. They twined together most tightly at Cisco's, a back-room joint that has been the favorite breakfasting and deal-making spot in Austin, the site of both the state's capital and its main university, for 42 years. On any given morning you can still see the vestiges of the old days. In one corner sits George Christian, a former LBJ aide. In another is Mike Campbell, a former assistant coach under Royal and the man Royal wanted to be his successor. Royal used to have breakfast at Cisco's most Sunday mornings. It was there that the power brokers of Texas met to get the work of the state done—and that surely included football. The proprietor of Cisco's, Rudy Cisneros, says, "I've seen more big deals than you can imagine go down in this room right here."

Back then most of the big deals were done by a man named Frank Erwin, an intimate of LBJ's and Connally's. "Frank Erwin drove an orange-and-white Cadillac with longhorns on the hood, and when he honked, it played The Eyes of Texas," says Fort Worth Star-Telegram columnist Molly Ivins. "Does that explain him?"

Erwin was a member of the Texas Board of Regents, which oversees the eight campuses of the state university, from 1962 to '75 and was chairman for five of those years. Erwin exercised control over all aspects of the University of Texas at Austin's affairs. In 1968 he pushed through a $15 million plan to expand Belmont Hall, the complex of athletic offices built into the side of Memorial Stadium. But a group of students and activists objected because the plans called for razing a row of beautiful old trees. While protesters clung to the branches, awaiting a judge's order that would have stayed the tree-cutting, Erwin personally directed construction workers to topple the trees with chain saws. The judge's order arrived 45 minutes after the job was done.

Erwin was at once a tyrant and a charmer, but he never charmed Roval. Erwin sought to have as much influence over Texas football as he had over the rest of the university's affairs, but for nearly 20 years Royal resisted him. Then, in 1976. Royal decided to retire.

According to some, the reason Royal got out was that a few highly placed state officials and alumni had observed the rampant cheating going on in the conference and intimated that he should join in. Royal, a man who won't even improve a golf lie, refused. When he declared that he wanted Campbell to succeed him, Royal found himself in a power struggle with Erwin and Allen Shivers, a former governor who had become a member of the board of regents. Shivers didn't like Royal's affection for longhaired musicians like Willie Nelson, and he didn't like Campbell; he liked the fresh-faced Fred Akers, who had also been an assistant under Royal and was doing well as the coach at Wyoming.

Royal may have been the most popular man in the state, but he wasn't the most powerful, as he discovered. Akers got the job. Royal continued as athletic director at Texas for three more years after he stepped down as coach, but Akers, Erwin and Shivers made it known that they didn't like having him around. Finally, in 1979, Royal decided to remove himself from the athletic department altogether. As Royal walked down the steps of Belmont Hall on the day he resigned as athletic director, he passed another department official. "I'll be back," he promised.

The cheating that ran through the Southwest Conference in the 1970s and early '80s was masterminded by some of the richest and most powerful men in the state. The payoffs and recruiting scams began as an attempt to correct a disparity in the conference that dates way back to 1923. In May of that year, oil was discovered in a west-Texas grape field that belonged to the University of Texas system. The oil and natural gas royalties from that find were placed into an existing account called the Permanent University Fund. The fund is now worth more than $3.7 billion. The state legislature decreed that two thirds of the annual interest go to the University of Texas, and one third to its next of kin, Texas A&M. None of the other schools in the conference receive so much as a dime from the fund.

All that lucre created a glaring imbalance of resources among the Texas-based schools in the SWC, and that was gradually reflected on the football field. A&M and Texas cither won or shared the league title 18 times from 1940 to '70. By law the oil riches belonged to the big two, but as the '70s approached, Longhorn and Aggie rivals decided that they were loath to let them have all the football riches too. TCU and SMU had been powers in the '30s and '40s, and their alumni—many of them oilmen riding the petroleum boom—wanted their gridiron glory back.

In 1967 William Clements, a successful oilman and SMU trustee, who would twice be elected governor of Texas, became chairman of the board of governors of SMU. Clements and his fellow Dallas businessmen on the board didn't like to lose to anybody—not if money could prevent it. From 1970 to '86, SMU's endowment jumped from $26.7 million to $282.1 million, and the Mustangs climbed to national football prominence, an ascension that culminated in a record of 41-5-1 from 1981 to '84, thanks to players like Craig James and Eric Dickerson. It was during this era of football success that payoffs to Mustang athletes and recruits became a virulent disease.

The sickness did not end until SMU was ordered by the NCAA to suspend football for the 1987 season. The university voluntarily extended the death penalty into the '88 season. In '86 Governor Clements was publicly disgraced when it was revealed that he had ordered the school to continue paying players from a slush fund even after the existence of that fund had come to light. Clements had told SMU to slowly phase out the fund instead of cutting the players off cold. Wealthy SMU alumni, not content with having ruined their own program, proceeded to spend their time and money trying to get the other SWC schools in trouble: A fund was reportedly devoted to investigating rivals and turning them in, and by the end of the '80s, TCU, Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech and Houston—which hadn't even joined the league until '76—had all been punished to varying degrees by the NCAA. Only Arkansas, Baylor and Rice emerged unscathed.

By the mid-1980s the conference was so tainted that homebred football talent, considered to be among the best in the country, began fleeing to other states, an exodus that has not stopped. In 1986 the state of Texas had 12 recruits ranked among the top 100 nationally, and seven of them left the state to play their college ball. Last year four of the top 10 chose to leave the state.

Now, in the belt-tightening 1990s, A&M is the only Southwest Conference school getting fat on state-bred talent, and the smaller schools in the league cannot keep up with the big two, cither on the field or financially. Baylor and Texas Tech are the only schools other than the big two that average more than 35,000 in attendance. In 1990 Houston had a Heisman Trophy winner in Andre Ware and still attracted only 28,000 fans per home game.

Texas and Texas A&M are observing their struggling brethren and concluding, Who needs them? The big two dominate the state's TV markets and, thus assured of their own survival, show little inclination to financially assist the league they helped to found in 1915. "It's a bunch of institutions that care more about themselves than each other," says former Texas women's athletic director Donna Lo-piano, who left the school in March to head the Women's Sports Foundation. "It's a bad business conference."

Proof of that is that Texas and Texas A&M recently won major concessions from the rest of the league that will only serve to further weaken the smaller schools. Gate receipts used to be divided 50-50 between the home and visiting teams, but beginning this season, the home team retains all gate receipts. That's a bonanza for Texas and Texas A&M, which draw the biggest crowds. Bowl participants—read the Longhorns and the Aggies—will now keep the first $500,000 they earn for postseason appearances, instead of the first $300,000. (In the Southwest Conference the leftovers are divided among the have-nots, but in the Big Ten all schools share equally in bowl, gate and TV receipts.) And as of this year, SWC schools playing in televised nonconference games keep 80% of the TV money, instead of splitting the fees 50-50 with the rest of the league, as had been the case.

Is this any way to save a conference? That is not a priority at the University of Texas. "The reality is, UT has to finance its own agenda," says Mullen. "The university has to look at how to draw the biggest revenues."

And that means it no longer makes any sense for big schools like Texas and Texas A&M to play ball—as business partners—with the likes of Rice, SMU and TCU. It is widely believed that the Longhorns and the Aggies, if not actually orchestrating the demise of the Southwest Conference, are doing nothing to relieve the crisis, hoping that the conference will dissolve, leaving them free to join a league in which the schools are bigger and the little guys will not drag them down.

However, Texas and Texas A&M cannot make the first move to break from the league for one powerful reason: money. The legislature could vote to cut off state money to the big two if they bolt. "The SWC is viewed as an economic asset of the state," Lopiano says. "To leave the SWC could be seen as detrimental to the state."

In 1990, fearing that Arkansas's departure for the SEC would spur the Long-horns and the Aggies to follow suit, the legislature's state affairs committee considered calling a special hearing on Texas football. At the time, Speaker of the House Gib Lewis, a TCU alumnus, said, "If they want to leave the Southwest Conference, we can cut their funds with one vote. One simple vote."

Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock, a Texas Tech graduate, added, "Those who consider moving ought to take a course called Common Sense 101. They'd be making a big mistake with the decision-makers of Texas."

Sentiments have not changed. State Senator David Sibley of Waco, a Baylor grad (as is Governor Richards), says, "If A&M and Texas want to leave the SWC, the next time they want to talk about appropriations for new physics professors, they'd have to come through me."

Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds says only that the long-range future of college football is the superconference—perhaps 40 of the biggest, wealthiest schools forming a handful of alliances, with the rest dropping down or dropping the sport. "The world is going to dictate where Texas goes," he says. "The marketplace will dictate it."

Indeed, the Southwest Conference's council of presidents believes that the Big Ten and the Pac-10 will follow the SEC in expanding to 12 teams, and a growing sense of urgency about losing Texas and Texas A&M prompted the presidents to vote last Thursday to approach the Big Eight, which is worried about losing Colorado to the Pac-10, about a merger. The lure of such an alliance is the money that would be earned from a playoff game between the champions of the two divisions of a conference—the members of the SEC will divvy up $6 million from the league's first playoff, on Dec. 5 in Birmingham—and from TV-rights fees. After all, 16% of the TV sets in the country are located in the Big Eight and Southwest Conference regions.

An association with the marquee schools of the Big Light—Nebraska. Oklahoma and Colorado—would add luster to the Southwest Conference, and the Big Eight would enjoy the profits and the exposure generated in the big Dallas and Houston TV markets. Above all, a strong alliance could survive if some of its members decided to drop football, de-emphasize it or move to another league.

If the Southwest Conference does unravel, it will most likely do so from the bottom. At Rice the debate over whether the university can afford to continue playing Division I-A football was a factor in the abrupt resignation last month of president George Rupp. Rupp was said to have grown weary of trying to mediate the endless tug-of-war between a board of trustees wedded to big-time football and a faculty that recently voted to toughen academic standards for the school's athletes, even if that meant having to drop out of the Southwest Conference.

In 1987 SMU brought in a new president, Kenneth Pye, from Duke, to try to restore credibility to the school after the scandals. Now he, too, is under intense pressure from football-feverish alumni for raising academic standards and commissioning a task force to study a projected $4.9 million athletic-department deficit. The task force's report, which is due next month, will most likely determine whether SMU stays in Division I-A, drops down to Division II or even III, or gives up football. The battle lines have been drawn. "We are not Harvard," declares Craig James, now a commentator with ESPN. "Let's get off this high throne, and all the academics can go work at Harvard."

When Erwin died in 1980, his funeral was held in a campus arena in Austin that now bears his name. As the pallbearers carried in his coffin, all 2,000 mourners rose, singing The Eyes of Texas. No one since has had the kind of power that Erwin wielded.

Akers, Erwin's handpicked coach, had two 11-1 seasons, in 1977 and '83, and a Heisman Trophy winner in Earl Campbell in '77, but he never won hearts, which remained firmly in Royal's possession. In '86, when Akers presided over Texas's first losing season since '56, there was no one to save him. He was fired, then replaced by a favorite son of Royal's, David McWilliams, a defensive tackle on the 1963 national-championship team who wore jeans and boots and said ma'am.

McWilliams was Royal's choice, but he was also the wrong choice. He was not a strong leader, nor could he recruit outside Texas. And while the Longhorns were suffering three losing seasons in five years, their graduation rate fell to 27%. Last January, McWilliams resigned.

Now there is a new power base at Texas, and out front is Royal, the man who promised he would be back. But behind him is Moffett, 53, his former player who went on to become a fabulously successful wildcatter. Moffett's New Orleans-based company, Freeport MacMoRan, is worth $1.7 billion. When it became clear midway through the 1991 season that McWilliams would have to go, Texas convened a committee to search for a new coach. A 50-member panel spent an entire day drafting a list of qualifications. But that was just for show. When John Mackovic, who had been al Illinois since '88, was selected, only four men were really involved in the decision: Moffett, Royal, Dodds and university president William Cunningham, who has since become chancellor of the Texas system. But the power lay with Moffett because, says one source close to the athletic department, "Jim Bob runs Cunningham." Mackovic was chosen because he possessed the characteristic that Moffett was looking for: a sound if cold business sense. That attitude is guiding the Longhorns in the '90s.

Royal likes to size people up on the basis of whether or not they would be good company on Willie Nelson's tour bus. Texas basketball coach Tom Penders, for instance, will hang out on the bus and drink a couple of beers with you. Of Mackovic, Royal told Penders, "He's not bus material." But that doesn't matter anymore, and it didn't keep Royal from endorsing Mackovic wholeheartedly.

Mackovic has done the seemingly impossible in his first season at Texas. He has broken with tradition without mortally offending anybody. He junked the time-honored Longhorn running attack in favor of a pro-style passing game. As Mackovic embraces the future, he also courts the past. He had Royal address the team before its Oct. 10 game with Oklahoma, a resounding 34-24 win.

Texas's attempts to blend tradition with the imperatives of the future are further embodied by three Longhorn freshmen: Shea Morenz, the top-rated quarterback in the nation as a Texas schoolboy, and a pair of wide receivers, Lovell Pinkney and Mike Adams. A year ago none of the three would have considered visiting Austin, much less signing with the Longhorns. Adams, a home-stater like Morenz, was the highest-rated receiver in the region but expected to go elsewhere to find a passing offense. Pinkney, a onetime crack dealer from Washington, D.C., reformed himself and became a high school All-America—and another key Longhorn acquisition. His presence demonstrates that Texas is finally able to attract talent from well outside the state.

About the only familiar ingredient in the offense is quarterback Peter Gardere, a senior from Houston. Bitter fans hold Gardere responsible for the losing seasons, despite his having engineered four straight victories over Oklahoma, an unprecedented feat for a quarterback on either side of that rivalry. He holds eight school career passing records, but his parents have been hounded so badly that they had to change their phone number. Gardere is booed even as he breaks the records of the revered Bobby Layne.

Sometimes success isn't enough if the Orangebloods decide they don't like you. Akers found that out. So has Gardere. So, perhaps, will Mackovic. On the other hand, he could be at the helm when tradition is scattered to the winds and the Longhorns join forces with their mortal enemy, Oklahoma, in a new confederation or forsake the Southwest Conference altogether for the Pac-10 or the Big Ten.

Gardere's only regret is that he has to graduate, whereupon he will join the legions of favorite sons and passionate alumni. He is a handsome and self-assured kid from a wealthy family, a kid whose father and grandfather both played football for the Longhorns. He understands Texas football the way some overbred children instinctively know which silverware to use. "Texas football is big business," he says. "And where there's business in Texas, there's politics."

TWO PHOTOSRICH CLARKSONThe Hook 'em Horns salute never changes, but McWilliams (left), Akers (far right) and Mackovic (above, in hat) each ushered in a new Longhorn era. PHOTOPHIL HUBER[See caption above.] TWO PHOTOSDOUG HOKE[See caption above.] PHOTODAVE BLACK[See caption above.] PHOTOPETER READ MILLER[See caption above.] PHOTORONALD C. MODRALed by Dickerson, SMU was the best team that money could buy in 1982. PHOTOPETER A. SILVA/HOUSTON POSTClements told SMU to keep paying its players. PHOTONEIL LEIFERA win over Arkansas in 1970 clinched a national title for Royal. TWO PHOTOSKEN GEIGERWhen the Aggies crushed the Mustangs last month at the Cotton Bowl, about the only fans there were A&M's corps of cadets.