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."