Pat Neff, governor of Texas and president of Baylor University, was born in Coryell County, Texas, on November 26, 1871, the son of Noah and Isabella (Shepherd) Neff. He attended McGregor High School in neighboring McLennan County and earned an A.B. degree at Baylor University, Waco, in 1894. After teaching school two years in Magnolia, Arkansas, he earned an LL.B. degree at the University of Texas in 1897. He began his law practice in Waco and received an A.M. degree at Baylor in 1898. Neff, a talented orator, launched his political career by serving in the Texas House of Representatives from 1899 to 1905, the last two years as speaker, the youngest in Texas history to that time. He afterward resumed legal practice in Waco and was elected county attorney in 1906, a post he held until 1912. A brilliant, merciless prosecutor, he tried 422 defendants and won convictions in all but sixteen cases. During this time he was twice offered the position of assistant attorney general but chose to remain in McLennan County.
In 1920, however, he determined to enter the Democratic primary race for governor. He waged an independent campaign, with no clear group of supporters initially, no political headquarters, and no campaign manager. His main opponent was former United States senator Joseph Weldon Bailey. Neff, a strong prohibitionist, offered a sharp contrast to Bailey, who opposed prohibition, woman suffrage, and most of the Progressive era reform agenda. Neff waged an energetic campaign, covering 6,000 miles in his car and touring thirty-seven counties never before visited by a candidate for governor. Bailey won a plurality in the primary but was forced into a runoff with Neff. Neff won the runoff, and his victory helped end Bailey's longstanding influence in Texas politics. Neff entered office in January 1921 with an extensive agenda. Viewed by many as a crusader and a moralist, he immediately put his campaign issues before the legislature. His agenda included reforms in education, prisons, public health, law enforcement, and taxation, as well as proposals to reduce the number of state agencies and establish a state park system. He never developed a solid relationship with the legislature, however, and many of his goals were never achieved. He succeeded in increasing funding to rural and vocational schools and establishing Texas Technological College and Texas State Teachers College. He also achieved a reorganization of the Highway Commission and establishment of the park system, which he believed was one of his most important endeavors. In contrast to his predecessors, Neff drastically reduced the number of pardons issued from the governor's office. Twice during his first term he declared martial law to restore order. In January 1922 he sent a Texas National Guard unit and Texas Rangers to the oil boomtown of Mexia to control the bootlegging, gambling, prostitution, and robbery in the area. Later that year he declared martial law to control violence in Denison resulting from a strike by the Federated Railroad Shopmen's Union. The governor drew controversy in his first term when he vetoed the bill to establish West Texas Agricultural and Mechanical College. Outraged West Texans mounted the "Sweetwater Secession Movement," which led to no formal action but drew wide publicity across the state. Neff was also criticized for his reluctance to take a strong stand against the Ku Klux Klan. This criticism brought several opponents in his bid for reelection in the 1922 Democratic primary. However, he won the primary without an intensive campaign and was easily reelected in November 1922.
Neff was considered for the University of Texas presidency in 1923 when Robert E. Vinson resigned. Faculty and former students strenuously opposed the appointment of a politician, and when the divided board of regents eventually offered him the job, Neff declined. He was also mentioned as a favorite-son candidate for the 1924 Democratic presidential nomination, but Texas delegates eventually supported William Gibbs McAdoo. Neff completed his second term as governor early in 1925. He headed a Texas Education Survey Commission in 1925–26 and was president of the Texas Watersheds Association in 1939. In 1927 he was appointed to the United States Board of Mediation by President Calvin Coolidge. Governor Daniel J. Moody named him to the Railroad Commission in 1929, a position he held until 1932.
Neff resigned from the commission in 1932 to become president of Baylor University, at age sixty. A strict educator and careful financial administrator, he brought Baylor out of debt in the 1930s into a period of growth in the 1940s. During his tenure as president, enrollment at the university jumped from 1,200 to 4,000, the area of campus was doubled, and the university's endowment was increased. Despite these successes Neff was viewed by many Baylor supporters as too rigid a disciplinarian who lacked a modern approach to education. When Neff invited President Harry Truman, a Baptist, to Waco to receive an honorary degree from Baylor, he further irritated trustees who disapproved of Truman's drinking and general loose interpretation of Baptist doctrine. In 1947, when he was seventy-six, Neff resigned to become president emeritus.
Neff was president of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, 1926–28; president of the Southern Baptist Convention, 1942–45; and grand master of the Masonic Grand Lodge of Texas in 1946. He married Myrtle Mainer, a former Baylor classmate, on May 31, 1899; they had a daughter and a son. Mrs. Neff died in Waco on July 19, 1953. Neff died at Waco on January 20, 1952, and was buried there in Oakwood Cemetery. His papers and personal mementos are a major part of the Texas Collection at Baylor, which he helped start. The university's main administration building is named for him.