Southwest Conference

By: Eric M. Pfeifle

Type: General Entry

Published: 1976

Updated: March 23, 2019

The Southwest Conference is an athletic conference made up of eight Texas universities. These schools are all members of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which recognizes them as Division I institutions. The schools of the SWC as of January 1996 were the University of Texas, Texas A&M University, Texas Tech University, Baylor University, Texas Christian University, Rice University, Southern Methodist University, and the University of Houston. However, in August 1996 the SWC was scheduled to cease to exist: Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, and Baylor joining the Big 8 Conference to form the Big 12; TCU, Rice, and SMU joining the Western Athletic Conference; and Houston joining the newly formed Conference USA. The University of Arkansas, a member of the SWC for its first seventy-five years, precipitated this breakup by leaving for the Southeastern Conference in 1990, as massive restructuring of sports television made the one-state organization obsolete.

The SWC officially came into existence on December 8, 1914, when the original eight member schools agreed on a constitution for what was then known as the Southwest Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. Those eight schools were Texas, Texas A&M, Baylor, Arkansas, Oklahoma University, Oklahoma A&M University (now Oklahoma State), Southwestern University, and Rice, which was admitted provisionally. The new conference was the idea of L. Theo Bellmont, athletic director at Texas, who saw the need for the larger colleges of the area to organize to further the interests of intercollegiate athletics. Bellmont tried to increase the geographic area of the conference by getting the University of Mississippi and Louisiana State University to sign on, but both declined. The new conference, however, was able to raise academic and ethical standards for those schools who did join, and they did enjoy greater recognition and respect throughout the rest of the country. By 1925 the name of the conference had been shortened to its present form, SMU (1918) and TCU (1923) had joined, and Southwestern, Oklahoma, and Oklahoma A&M had dropped out. The conference was made up of these seven schools until 1958, when Texas Tech joined. Finally, the membership swelled to nine in 1972 with the admission of Houston. The SWC remained unchanged until Arkansas departed in 1990. The SWC has been tremendously successful over its eighty-year existence, winning sixty-two national championships in fifteen sports. Football, long the most popular sport in Texas, became extremely successful. SWC teams have won eight national championships. In 1940 the conference entered into an agreement with the Cotton Bowl that allowed the SWC champion to be the host team every year; the 1995 Cotton Bowl, however, marked the final year of this structure. Since Oklahoma won the first football championship in 1915 with a perfect 10–0 record, the SWC has been the home of some of the best players in the country. The Heisman Trophy, awarded to the nation's best college football player, has been won by five players from the SWC: Robert David (Davey) O'Brien, TCU, 1938; Doak Walker, SMU, 1948; John David Crow, Texas A&M, 1957; Earl Campbell, Texas, 1977; and Andre Ware, Houston, 1989. However, allegations of cheating and run-ins with the NCAA have also been a part of SWC football, culminating in SMU receiving the "death penalty" from the NCAA in 1987. This resulted in SMU dropping its football program for two years.

The SWC also awarded its first men's basketball championship in 1915 when Texas (5–0) edged out Rice (5–1) by a half game. Women's competition in basketball received the SWC sanction for the 1982–83 season. This coincided with the NCAA's offering a women's national championship in basketball. Once all women's intercollegiate athletics came under the control of the NCAA, women's programs become a part of and recognized by the SWC. Texas won that first SWC championship, as it did throughout the 1980s, an undefeated Texas team won the NCAA championship in 1986; the Texas Tech women captured the title in 1992. Men's outdoor track was also a part of the conference that first year in 1915. Texas has won forty-three conference titles since then, and such international stars as Carl Lewis and Michael Johnson have become a part of SWC lore. A year after track, basketball, and football began, conference singles and doubles champions were crowned in men's tennis. Men's golf began competition in the SWC in 1926, with Texas winning thirty-eight conference championships in that sport since. Men's cross country started in 1927. Soon after these men's sports were offered in the conference, men's swimming and baseball became part of the SWC. SMU won seventeen SWC swimming crowns, while the University of Texas won five NCAA swimming championships and four NCAA baseball championships. Women began SWC competition in these sports in 1983. The Texas women have won seven swimming national championships and every SWC championship since 1983. Finally, the SWC began offering a championship in men's indoor track in 1974, with the women competing in this sport, as well as volleyball, in 1983. Texas has won every conference volleyball championship since then and won the 1988 NCAA championship.

Throughout its eighty-year history the Southwest Conference has provided high-level competition in numerous sports for its member schools. The success and importance of the conference became evident in 1938 when P. W. St. Clair was appointed as the SWC's first commissioner. Steve Hatchell became the conference's sixth commissioner in 1993 and has overseen its breakup. While Theo Bellmont's idea of high academic and athletic standards has been realized by the conference throughout its eighty-year history, integrity problems contributed to its demise.

Vertical Files, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin.

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The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Eric M. Pfeifle, “Southwest Conference,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 10, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

March 23, 2019

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