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

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

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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 doneā€”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.

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