LET'S BURY the old dear without getting maudlin. Date the
obituary for the end of the 1995 college football season,
football being the Southwest Conference's raison d'etre and the
only thing anyone will remember about it--except that at least
one of its member schools was usually on probation and the
majority of its players free on bond. Those of us who paid
attention see now that the conference was a goner that night in
December 1976 when both Darrell Royal, coach of the University
of Texas, and Frank Broyles, his good friend and counterpart at
the University of Arkansas, submitted their resignations before
facing off for the final time.
For nearly two decades the rivalry between Royal's Longhorns and
Broyles's Razorbacks had been the fiercest in the conference,
maybe in all of college football. Together the teams had won or
tied for 15 Southwest Conference championships in 18 seasons,
and 13 times one or both had finished among college football's
Top 10. But backstabbing, cheating, and mollycoddling
increasingly thuggish athletes was becoming acceptable behavior
to many conference coaches. So be it. Royal and Broyles, two of
the best coaches of modern times, would devote their
considerable talents to golf. From that moment the SWC began to
Those of us who grew up with the Southwest Conference shed no
tears for what it became but remember fondly what it was. From
the time it was founded in 1915 until it began to fall apart in
the '70s, the conference shaped our world and gave us stature.
Until the second half of this century, Texas was a largely
rural, largely homogeneous society. Whites ruled, and blacks
lived on the other side of the tracks and drank out of separate
water fountains. In those days diversity meant that someone was
lefthanded or had red hair. Despite our image of boisterous
self-confidence, we Texans weren't sure if outsiders viewed us
as rugged individualists or just hayseeds. We didn't think of
ourselves as racists, though of course we were. The SWC was the
penultimate major conference to integrate, and it was only after
a talented receiver named Jerry Levias led SMU to a conference
championship in '66 that every school in the conference saw the
wisdom of recruiting African-Americans.
For all of our rustic shortcomings, however, nobody played
better football. Texas had the finest high school players in the
country, and until the 1970s most of them stayed to play in the
Southwest Conference. In the '30s SMU, TCU and Texas A&M each
won a national title, and from '63 to '70, Royal's Texas teams
won three. Those were the two golden eras of SWC football--the
'30s and the Royal years--but there were two others nearly as
good: the postwar '40s, when SMU and Doak Walker battled Texas
and Bobby Layne for state and national supremacy, and Abe
Martin's TCU teams of the mid- and late-'50s.
It would be hard to exaggerate the excitement that the first
kiss of autumn generated at all levels of Texas society. As
early as 1934 the air was literally filled with Southwest
Conference football, thanks to the Humble Radio Network, the
nation's first broadcast network. You couldn't visit a
drugstore or barbershop or even walk along a sidewalk without
hearing the roar of the crowd and the boom of the marching bands
at Kyle Field or the Cotton Bowl--or the voice of Humble's master
of word pictures, Kern Tips, saying, "They give the ball again
to little Jimmy Swink, and this time he rides the back of big
Norman Hamilton down to the four-, make that the three-yard
line, where it's first-and-goal for the Froggies!"
You didn't have to be college-educated to have a favorite team.
Service stations operated by Humble Oil & Refining Company (now
Exxon), which also owned the radio network, gave out
pennant-shaped window decals, each with the colors and name of a
conference school. Bank presidents with degrees from SMU and
pipe fitters who hadn't finished third grade displayed their
choice on the rear window of their cars. Millions of Texans from
Beaumont to Laredo to Amarillo never saw a game but lived and
died from Saturday to Saturday with the Frogs, the Mustangs, the
Bears, the Longhorns, the Aggies, the Owls, the Hogs--and later
the Red Raiders and the Cougars. In our division of loyalty we
discovered unity: Everyone loved the Southwest Conference.
The flavor of the conference came not so much from the coaches
and the teams as from the customs and folk wisdom imparted by
different groups of fans. It was said that TCU fans wore jeans
and white socks and called each other Bubba and Betty Bob. SMU
fans drank Chardonnay and lived off their trust funds. Baylor
fans did not make love standing up, lest God mistake the act for
dancing. Longhorn fans sipped tea and were insufferably
high-handed. Aggies were zealots, superpatriots and bumpkins.
On the day he arrived at Texas A&M in 1954, Bear Bryant won the
undying adoration of a mob of supporters around the traditional
Aggie bonfire by stripping off his sport coat, slamming it to
the ground and yelling, "I'm ready to fight them right now!"
Bryant remains the most-beloved figure ever to coach at College
Station, despite the fact that his recruiting excesses were the
first black mark on the conference. The attitude of University
of Texas supporters, on the other hand, was best exemplified by
the legendary Frank Erwin, autocratic chairman of the
university's board of regents in the '60s, who drove an orange
Cadillac around campus and personally supervised the bulldozing
of ancient oak trees to clear the way for additions to the
Even the cheerleaders matched their institutions. Texas's
best-known cheerleaders from the 1950s and '60s were Kay Bailey
Hutchison, Texas's first female senator, and Harley Clark,
inventor of the "Hook 'em, Horns" sign and later a judge. SMU's
best-known cheerleader was Aaron Spelling, now the titan of
I'm not old enough to remember the 1930s, but I grew up on the
legends. Sammy Baugh and John Kimbrough were more meaningful to
me than Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie. Words like discipline,
obedience and sacrifice weren't abstractions, they were football
terms. Coaches Dutch Meyer of TCU and Matty Bell of SMU were
good friends who fished together in the spring and tried to beat
each other's ears off in the fall. Their '35 game was for the
national championship, which SMU won.
The conference's second national champion was Meyer's 1938 TCU
team, with the great Davey O'Brien at quarterback, but my
favorite stories involved the Southwest Conference's third
champions of that decade, the 1939 Aggies. I heard about them
from my old granny, who had become addicted to Texas A&M
football as a girl when she watched the Fightin' Texas Aggie
Band parade down Fort Worth's Main Street before a game at TCU.
Though she never saw a game, Granny could recite plays from
every Aggie season. "When time was a-runnin' out," she would
tell me as I lay curled at her feet, "we give the ball to
Jarrin' John Kimbrough, and he went and followed Marshall
Robnett's block, bodies going this-a-way and that-a-way, plumb
to the end zone." In the '40s and '50s, Granny and I listened to
Aggie games on radio. Before each game she would kill a chicken
and study the entrails, then place an appropriately colored
candle in the window. When the Aggies scored, we would march
around the room, waving maroon-and-white pennants and singing
the Aggie War Hymn.
My first Southwest Conference game was SMU versus Texas in
Dallas in 1947, which was the second and final meeting between
Walker and Layne, who had been teammates at Dallas's Highland
Park High. Their rivalry took SWC football to its highest level.
Layne was primarily a passer and leader but also played defense.
Walker did it all--ran, passed, caught, kicked, played
defense--and was the most graceful and indomitable player I ever
That was not only the first major college game I ever saw, it
was also the best. After SMU took the lead on a backward reverse
from Walker to wingback Paul Page, the Longhorns tied it with a
plunge by running back Tom Landry--you'll remember that name,
though probably not from his days as a Longhorn--but SMU struck
again when Walker caught a 54-yard pass in front of Landry, now
playing defensive halfback. Layne's passing pulled Texas to
within a point, 14-13, but the Longhorns missed the extra-point
attempt. The Mustangs' margin of victory was Walker's second
extra point. Walker accounted for 125 of SMU's 199 yards on
offense. Layne passed for 120 of Texas's 196 yards.
In the 1950s I became directly involved with the Southwest
Conference, first as a student at TCU, then as a sportswriter
for the Fort Worth Press. I was in the stands as a cheering
undergraduate in '55 when Jim Swink led TCU to a conference
championship. Swink was a fluid runner, dashing through
defenders like a mountain stream rushing past boulders. The
Frogs won the title again in '58 and tied for it in '59.
The best team of the 1950s may have been Bryant's '56 Aggies,
who included John David Crow, Bobby Joe Conrad, Jack Pardee,
Charlie Krueger and an unheralded defensive end who would become
better known as a coach, Gene Stallings. Unfortunately, as the
conference's first major pay-for-play scandal enveloped a number
of the players, the Aggies became best known as the finest team
money could buy. They went 9-0-1 that season but went nowhere on
New Year's Day because they were on probation.
One other thing I remember about the 1956 season is a song that
several writers for the Fort Worth Press composed in the press
box after the Frogs lost a 7-6 heartbreaker to the Aggies in a
rainstorm. Sports editor Blackie Sherrod had hired the editor of
the TCU student newspaper to cover the Frogs' dressing room, but
when the game ended, the kid said he couldn't face those valiant
boys. Sherrod reminded the lad that his attitude was less than
professional, but the student stood his ground with this
immortal reply: "You never went to that school, buddy!" That's
why, anytime I watch the Frogs play football, I remember this
You never went to that school, buddy!
You never walked down Tom Brown Hall.
You never had no dealings
With M.E. Sadler.
You never attended a Howdy Week Ball.
(No, you never went to that school, buddy
And you don't know nothing at all!)
For most of us living in Dallas, two events in the fall of 1963
affected us profoundly: the assassination of President Kennedy
and the weekly struggle of Royal's Longhorns in their drive for
a national championship. I was with the Dallas Morning News,
sharing an apartment with fellow sportswriter Bud Shrake. In the
evenings we hung out in smoky bars like Jack Ruby's Carousel
Club, sometimes partying all night. My day job was covering the
Cowboys and occasionally the Longhorns. Two days after the
assassination, Shrake told me in the parking lot of Cleveland's
Memorial Stadium that the man arrested for shooting Kennedy had
himself just been shot in the basement of the Dallas police
station. Shrake asked me to guess the name of the gunman. I
guessed Jack Ruby. I still don't know why that name popped into
my head, except it was the wildest thing I could think of.
A few days later I was standing in the mud and cold at Kyle
Field, watching the Longhorns try desperately to salvage the
season and their No. 1 ranking against fired-up A&M. In the
dying minutes defensive back James Willenborg appeared to
intercept a Texas pass in the end zone, which would have ended
Royal's dream of a national title. But Willenborg was juggling
the ball as he fell over the end line, and it was ruled that he
did not have possession. The ball went to Texas, which scored
and won 15-13. The Longhorns were on their way to the Cotton
Bowl against second-ranked Navy and its Heisman Trophy-winning
quarterback, Roger Staubach.
In the days before that game Shrake and I spent time in Austin,
eating Mexican food with our new friend Darrell and writing
about how he was preparing his team to contain the scrambling
Staubach. We didn't realize that Royal was also putting a
wrinkle in his three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust attack. The 1963
Longhorns had a defense that was among the best in the country.
It included linebacker Tommy Nobis, the most efficient predator
since Vlad the Impaler. But the Eastern press was unimpressed.
One sportswriter called the Longhorns "the biggest fraud ever
perpetrated on the football public" and wrote that Texas linemen
had "skinny legs like centipedes or girls and high rear ends."
Navy never had a chance. The Longhorns not only contained
Staubach, but their journeyman quarterback Duke Carlisle also
outgained him as Texas won 28-6. A few weeks later the American
Football Coaches Association named Royal its Coach of the Year.
In the winter of 1964, when he was in Dallas, Royal would hide
out at our apartment. "I need to get away from the media," he
told us with a wink. I also remember him telling us, "Great
players make great coaches, but great coaches make champions."
In 1968 Royal and his offensive coordinator, Emory Bellard,
introduced the wishbone offense and transformed college
football. With James Street at quarterback, the Longhorns built
a 30-game winning streak, the most memorable game of which was
the Big Shoot-out--a.k.a. the Game of the Century--a
heart-stopping 15-14 victory over Arkansas in December 1969.
Played in an icy fog at Fayetteville, this game had everything:
It was the climactic game of college football's 100th year, No.
1 Texas versus No. 2 Arkansas, with war protesters outside the
stadium and President Richard Nixon, accompanied by the Reverend
Billy Graham, inside to bestow on the winner a national
championship plaque. With 6:10 remaining, Texas trailed by six
points and faced fourth-and-three from its own 43. Royal told
Street to call "right 53 veer pass" to tight end Randy Peschel,
a play that hadn't worked all year. Street asked Royal if he was
sure, and Royal said he was: He'd noticed that the Razorback
secondary was crowding the line to stop the triple option and
ignoring the tight end. Street heaved the ball, and Peschel ran
under it and was tackled at the Arkansas 13. Two plays later the
Longhorns scored, then kicked the winning point after. A few
weeks later Texas beat Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl to finish
Royal's second perfect season. Great coaches make champions.
After Broyles and Royal quit, the University of Houston under
Bill Yeoman emerged as a power for a time, then sank out of
sight under the stigma of recruiting violations. Starting in the
mid-1980s, SMU, TCU, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Texas and Houston
were found to have committed violations and were placed on
probation. The Mustangs suffered the ultimate punishment when
the only "death penalty" ever assessed by the NCAA, in 1986,
shut down their program for two years. The conference crimes and
misdemeanors covered a wide and imaginative range--paying
players, fixing test results and even, in one case, editing
clips from porn movies into game film for the edification of
How they handled problems with the NCAA said a lot about the
schools and the coaches. TCU coach Jim Wacker blew the whistle
on himself when he learned in 1985 that some of his players,
including Heisman candidate Kenneth Davis, were taking money
from a group of oilmen. Most Frog followers believed this was
the honorable thing to do; others felt Wacker was a fool. A&M's
Jackie Sherrill, on the other hand, stonewalled the NCAA in '88,
in effect telling investigators, "I don't understand the
question," and escaped unscathed.
SMU produced the most egregious display of mendacity the
conference ever witnessed. An NCAA investigation turned up
evidence that a group of Mustang alumni had set out to buy a
national title or the players to provide one. By the time SMU
began serving its sentence in 1987, the former head of SMU's
board of governors, Bill Clements, was the governor of Texas.
Initially he denied approving payments, but later he admitted
his part in the scheme. Asked why he lied, Clements replied,
"Well, there wasn't a Bible in the room...."
In the 1990s the only nationally recognized conference team has
been the Aggies, who won 29 consecutive SWC games before Texas
Tech upset them on Oct. 7. The league's dismal level of
competition has assured the Cotton Bowl of consistently mediocre
host teams: With A&M on probation in '94, five SWC teams
finished as runners-up, at 4-3. Texas Tech went to the Cotton
Bowl and was routed 55-14 by Southern Cal.
A lot of factors contributed to the demise of the conference:
Arkansas's pulling out to join the Southeastern Conference; the
rising cost of tuition, which made it difficult for the private
schools (Baylor, Rice, SMU and TCU) to compete with schools
subsidized by the state; having eight schools in one state
competing for fans and media with eight major pro teams; the
saturation of sports on TV. Like a senile old man, the
conference seemed only dimly aware of its own history. There was
no sadder illustration of this than at the SWC's Hall of Honor
ceremony last summer. Among the 12 former players and coaches
inducted was Yeoman, on whose watch Houston began to drag the
conference to the bottom. Worse, whoever selected the honorees
forgot Broyles. Maybe he'll be named posthumously.
Oh, one other thing. The late Bobby Layne was also inducted. As
a gesture to the University of Texas, a replica of his trophy
was cast for display at the Longhorns' Memorial Stadium. It's a
fine replica, except for this: Somebody misspelled the name of
Texas's greatest quarterback, engraving it as BOBBY LANE.
Gary Cartwright, who covered the Southwest Conference for 10
years, is now a novelist and a senior editor at Texas Monthly.