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'être 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 Long-horns 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 expire.
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 stadium.
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 trash TV.
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.