High ideals at center of SWC’s birth 100 years ago

L. Theo Bellmont, athletic director at the University of Texas, met with representatives of rival schools at the Oriental Hotel in downtown Dallas to separate themselves from such odious practices and reform college football as they knew it.
May 14, 2014

A familiar story for a May day in ’14?

College athletics running amok!

Shaky academic standards!

Academically unqualified players on the field commonly known as “ringers,” or “tramp athletes” representing schools!

Minimal safety standards!

Only the year was 1914.

And so it was 100 years ago last week that L. Theo Bellmont, athletic director at the University of Texas, met with representatives of rival schools at the Oriental Hotel in downtown Dallas to separate themselves from such odious practices and reform college football as they knew it.

Proposed solution? Create a conference that would restore integrity.

Or as a story in The Dallas Morning News dutifully put it in its May 7 editions, a conference that would “direct attention to cleanliness and higher standard in athletics.”

That, of course, would prove easier proposed than done.

Details of the meeting that ran deep into the night are sketchy and conflicted. The News’ story, for example, first reported it was attended by representatives of seven schools and later listed: “Texas University; Texas Agricultural and Mechanical College; Baylor, Southwestern University, Arkansas University, Oklahoma University, Oklahoma Agricultural and Mechanical College and Louisiana State University.”

That’s eight.

Although not present, it had been the fervent hope of the attendees that “Mississippi University” would be a ninth school.

But LSU didn’t return for the follow-up meeting seven months later in Houston, and Mississippi likewise proved uninterested. Both ultimately settled in as charter members of the Southeastern Conference in 1932.

That left seven schools to breathe life into the fledgling Southwest Intercollegiate Athletic Conference at the Houston meeting, which took place on Dec. 8, 1914. Rice was invited to join as a provisional eighth member.

The SIAC would later be known briefly as the Southwestern Athletic Conference before finally rebranding itself in 1925 as the Southwest Conference.

The conference’s original sports were football, basketball, baseball, tennis and track and field. Hand grenade throwing was proposed for 1918 and several schools may in fact have competed, according to Bo Carter, who worked in the office of the late Southwest Conference and remains its unofficial historian. But the end of World War I in November of that year softened fervor for the sport.

“We have never found the hand grenade standings,” Carter lamented.

HARDLY NEWSWORTHY

That initial organizational meeting in May 1914 wasn’t really big news at the time.

When it was reported, it appeared on Page 5 of The News. It was summarized in nine paragraphs, wedged below a “once-upon-a-time” fairy tale editors hoped parents would read to their children and above a story on the Sherman city council’s purchase of an $8,000 “automobile fire engine.”

The paper’s front page that May 7 favored news of Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa’s exploits south of the border. Among other front-page topics of note were a meeting of the Southwestern Sociological Conference in Memphis, a story with a London dateline on “radical social reforms” designed to end upper-class “landlordism” in England, and a downtown mugging of a woman along Young Street who claimed her assailant made away with $200.

Two days later, a Saturday, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed that Sunday, and all future second Sundays in May, would be known as “Mother’s Day.”

Mother’s Day lives on. The Southwest Conference died in 1996 at age 82.

Like the initial story that ran above it in The News, the conference’s initial goals proved a fairy tale. Among the causes of the SWC’s death was a decade of football scandals leaving its eight remaining Texas schools — four public and four private universities — divided into large- and small-revenue producers. They couldn’t get along. The end was predictable if not happily ever after.

GRAND AMBITIONS

Theo Bellmont, the Texas athletic director, freshly arrived from the Houston YMCA, brought with him grandiose plans for a new conference.

To that end, for the Dallas meeting he chose the Oriental, considered among the finest hotels in the city. Many considered it even tonier than the relatively new Adolphus, across the street.

Several of the conference’s charter schools had been affiliated with the Texas Intercollegiate Athletic Association, a massive confluence that included high schools.

Bellmont was adamant that the Southwest Intercollegiate Athletic Conference could not allow high school membership.

Bellmont’s vision was inspired by schools to the north and east. And he wasn’t thinking Arkansas and Tennessee.

The new conference would be “equal in magnitude to the athletic organizations among the colleges of the North” that already had passed rules to do away with many of the eligibility and competitive ills of the day.

Southwest schools would no longer take the sewage that flowed from north and east.

“Tramp athletes were no longer welcomed [in the North and East], but in the relatively wide-open confines of Texas, schools still welcomed such athletes,” said Dr. Tai Kriedler, a professor of history at Texas Tech.

Kriedler is an expert on the subject.

In the wake of the death of the SWC, its history, including business records, correspondence and memoranda, were packed up and shipped in 33 boxes from the conference’s Dallas headquarters to Lubbock to be housed at Texas Tech’s Southwest Collection/Special Collections Library.

Kriedler serves as the collection’s deputy director and overseer of SWC lore.

The SWC’s founding fathers called for athletes to “engage in sport solely for the physical, mental or special benefits to be derived from participating,” Kriedler wrote in his seminal study of the conference’s formative years.

SWC sports, it was declared, were to be nothing more than an “avocation.”

To that end, the new conference imposed rules concerning graduation, restricted transfers and “by the 1920s, it had imposed some of the toughest eligibility rules in the country,” Kriedler wrote.

The job of trying to enforce the rules went not to athletic directors or commissioners but to Dr. Daniel Penick, a professor of New Testament Greek at the University of Texas who served as the SWC’s executive council president from 1922 to 1934.

But such high-mindedness proved difficult to enforce from the start.

In the conference’s debut season, Baylor’s use of an ineligible player kept the school from sharing the 1915 football title.

Schools continued to pack their football schedules with high school teams and YMCAs. Brownwood’s Daniel Baker College became a go-to patsy for SWC schools in search of victory. Plagued by financial difficulties that limited its ability to field competitive teams, Daniel Baker was shut out 23 times by SWC schools.

Meanwhile, conference membership churned. Comings and goings became annual rites.

Rice gave up provisional membership after 1915 but returned in 1918 along with late-to-the-party Southern Methodist University, five miles up the road from the Oriental Hotel.

Southwestern University of Georgetown, Texas, left in 1917. Oklahoma’s Phillips University joined in 1920 just as the University of Oklahoma was leaving for the Missouri Valley Conference.

Phillips was out by 1921. Texas Christian University joined in 1923. Oklahoma A&M left in 1925 to realign with Oklahoma in the Missouri Valley.

From 1926 to 1955, the SWC stabilized at seven schools — six in the state of Texas along with the University of Arkansas.

Texas Tech joined in 1956. The University of Houston arrived two decades later.

The end was foreshadowed when Arkansas left to join LSU and Mississippi in the SEC after the 1991 football season. Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Baylor and eventually TCU found a home alongside Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, formerly known as Oklahoma A&M, in the Big 12, leaving SMU to finally land in the American Athletic Conference.

At least the conference outlived the Oriental Hotel, which hosted that first organizational meeting. Its majesty was torn down in 1924 to make way for a bigger, grander hotel. Across the street, the Adolphus will be 102 later this year.

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