Bring Back a Bigger, Better Southwest Conference
Forgive me for writing something that will seem obvious to those who live in Texas and what will seem like a Lone Star slanted point of view to those elsewhere. While this blog does dedicate most of its baseball writings to things concerning the big leagues, I want to take a departure and look at college athletics, especially within the state of Texas.
Many of the major universities in larger states even today after a dizzying array of conference realignment are in one or two major college conferences. A third smaller conference is home to the remaining schools at the division I level in big states like Florida, New York and California. When I first truly began paying attention to all sports in 1985, to include college athletics, the state of Texas at college athletics largest level was basically part of just two conferences, the Southwest and Southland. The Southwest was home to 8 Texas schools, Baylor, Texas, Texas A&M, SMU, TCU, Texas Tech, Rice and the University of Houston, along with Arkansas. The Southland was for the smaller Division I programs that actually did have a true playoff even in those days, the old I-AA was for those smaller football programs, while division I schools that did not have a football program were listed as I-AAA. IN those days, the Southland was home to a few out of state schools, Northwestern State, Louisiana Tech and Northeast Louisiana, plus McNeese State were all part of that league, while Texas programs included UT Arlington, Lamar, and what was then called North Texas State, now the University of North Texas. Arkansas State was also part of that Southland league.
Over time membership changed in the southland and the Southwest died in 1996. Schools that were not even Division I-A in 1985 like UT Arlington and Texas State in San Marcos, as well as North Texas are now playing in various conferences at that level. UT San Antonio did not even field football until 2011, now it too is at that top level of classification, while the smaller schools like Lamar, SFA, and Sam Houston are now joined by other similar schools around the region, Incarnate Word, Abilene Christian, Texas A&M at Corpus Christi and Houston Baptist among them. While the Southland does still have a degree of rivalry between many of the smaller programs, though some old division II rivals were split up when Incarnate word stopped facing St. Mary’s and Abilene Christian stopped facing Angelo State, there is at least a degree of Texas identity in that league. To follow sports is still enjoyable and this baseball fan does keep up with who the players are to watch from those different teams. The historic Southwestern Athletic conference has never lost its identity, Texas Southern and Prairie view A&M have been part of that league as long as I can remember and while they are small Historically black Universities, they deserve their due here too.
With the larger schools though, it is almost impossible. UT El Paso, which is so far west it naturally fit in the old WAC way back when, now is in the same league (Conference USA) as Rice, UT San Antonio and North Texas. Texas State and UT Arlington play in a second league, the Sunbelt which has teams spread over a huge geographic footprint. The largest of the old Southwest conference membership lingers in the Big 12, Baylor, TCU, Texas Tech and Texas. Houston and SMU call the wide spread American Conference home, while Texas A&M moved to the Southeastern conference and renewed ties with Arkansas after 20 years apart. Who is in the old WAC, the newly renamed UT Rio Grande Valley, which was forever known as Texas Pan American.
One successful baseball only program should get mentioned here, Dallas Baptist University, which plays in the Missouri Valley as a baseball school, rather than with some of their local competition.
Given how large some of the once smaller universities have become, while not all play football, I firmly believe it is in the best interest of these programs to come back to their roots as Texas rivals and face one another in leagues that draw from among the best athletic talent in the nation. Texas is still one of the leading producers of football and baseball prospects, and we are better now in basketball as well. So my message is simple, realign into something that creates true rivalries that can bring students together even if it means leaving larger money on the table.
My proposed alignment would look like this. The old southwest Conference comes back with its eight original Texas schools, Baylor, Texas, Texas A&M, Houston, Rice, SMU, TCU and Texas Tech. It adds North Texas, UT Arlington, Texas State, UT San Antonio, UT El Paso and UT Rio Grande Valley as full members and Dallas Baptist is a baseball only school. Note that UT Arlington and UT Rio Grande Valley do not field football, so your league would divide into a pair of 6 team divisions for football, Texas Tech, TCU, North Texas, SMU, UT El Paso and Baylor would be the western division, Texas State, Texas, Texas A&M, Rice, Houston, and UT San Antonio would be the eastern division. In football divisional teams would play every year, four of the six teams in the opposite division would play on a rotating schedule. In basketball, you would have a 14 team league, divisional placements would add UT Arlington to the West and UT Rio Grande Valley to the east, playing 2 games against each divisional and 1 against each opposite divisional member each season for 18 conference games. The top 12 would make the postseason tournament.
IN baseball, SMU, UT El Paso and North Texas do not field teams, though North Texas has been rumored to be looking at renewing the sport since a five year experiment from 1984-88. If that happened, Dallas Baptist as a baseball only member would play in what would be a western division of six teams. The east would maintain its basketball look. If North Texas fails to get baseball, an eastern team would rotate from those seven schools into the west each season to create a balanced 12 team baseball league. It should be noted that SMU has no baseball plans since it dropped the sport for good following the 1980 campaign. The baseball tournament could be an 8 team double elimination event and played at some of the largest ballparks in the state. The league would be a mix of Texas’s top universities, Dallas Baptist would give the league a 5th private school for baseball, while all of the large public universities would field teams in the major revenue sports of football and men’s basketball.
Could this happen and is it easy to draw up on paper, sure it is. Will such a reality of school spirit and local rivalry bring back together old conference partnerships, not for quite a long time I am afraid. The fractures created have their roots in the politics of money and big college athletics and as we see today in modern politics, no one really cares how much damage is done to what was once a great Texas, a great American institution.