In the opening scene of the movie "Body Heat," William Hurt watches from his apartment window as a restaurant that he and his parents frequented 25 years before disappears in flames.
"My history is burning up out there," he says.
Many Texans no doubt will feel equally forlorn Saturday, when 81 years of Southwest Conference football come to an end with two games, one a cross-town rivalry, Houston at Rice, that holds little interest, even for the participants, and the other a cross-state rivalry, Texas and Texas A&M, that even Broadway has been unable to ignore.
But, in truth, it has been years since SWC fires raged. When the four "have" schools--Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech and Baylor--announced they were joining the Big Eight to form the Big 12, leaving the "have nots"--Rice, Southern Methodist, Texas Christian and Houston--to fend for themselves, all that did was stop the smoldering.
College football historians who have addressed the issue date the beginning of the end to Dec. 4, 1976, when Texas beat then-member Arkansas, 29-12, in the last game coached by two of the conference's most successful and respected coaches, the Longhorns' Darrell Royal and the Razorbacks' Frank Broyles.
Neither might recall the precise moment he decided to quit, but those around Royal at the time believe they know when it hit him. On a visit to the Texas campus during the previous recruiting season, a highly touted running back boasted that he had already committed to Oklahoma but had come to Austin anyway because he wanted the free trip. When Royal objected, the running back turned his back to the revered coach, bent over and. . . .
Let's just say that an ill wind has blown over the Southwest Conference ever since.
Many of the good teams in recent years became so because they cheated. The only two football programs in the conference that have not been apprehended by the long arm of the NCAA since the mid-'80s are Baylor and Rice.
In 1986, SMU shut down its program for two years after becoming the only NCAA school given the death penalty. One violation involved Texas' governor, William Clements, who contributed to a slush fund for players and then lied about it. Asked about the fib, he said, "Well, there wasn't a Bible in the room."
But even the good teams were not that good. In 10 of the last 12 times that SWC teams have ventured to Dallas for the Cotton Bowl, the reward for the conference's champion since 1941, they have returned home losers.
In seeking a big-picture answer to what happened, blame OPEC.
When the oil boom in the United States went bust, Texans had to diversify or die. They recruited clean, high-tech industries, and, with them, came thousands of employees from other states, joining thousands of Rust Belt evacuees who had come when the Texas economy was better than just about everywhere else except California, and suddenly there were lots of nouveau Texans who did not see the charm of SMU vs. TCU.
When the dynamics of the population changed, so did the sports landscape. Interest in college sports in the state was eroded by the influx, beginning in the '60s, of professional teams in Dallas, Houston and San Antonio. Young sports fans who might once have worn the orange of the Texas Longhorns or maroon of the Texas Aggies more often sported the colors of the Cowboys and the Rockets. For better or worse, the Texas of the '80s and '90s was not the Texas of the '40s and '50s.
There is no for-better-or-worse regarding SWC football. It is worse.
For that, blame the NCAA, although it was trying to do schools a favor when it established stricter scholarship limits. All it did in the SWC was end the dynasty of Texas and Arkansas, which between them appeared in 15 of 19 Cotton Bowl games, were ranked in the top 10 13 times and won three national championships between 1960 and '78.
The parity created when Texas and Arkansas could no longer stockpile players because of the scholarship limitations might have been good for Baylor and SMU, but it was not good for the conference's prestige nationwide. Even in a state richer in high school football talent than any except California and Florida, there were not enough outstanding players to divide among nine schools. So instead of two powerhouses every year, the conference sometimes had none.
With the SWC in free fall, Arkansas fled to the Southeastern Conference in 1992. Texas and Texas A&M would have left sooner if not for the insistence of the Texas Legislature, which controls their funding, that any accommodation they made also include Baylor. The Baptist influence is something that has not changed about Texas.
But we did not come simply to bury the SWC.
John Heisman, who coached at Rice in the '20s, once said, "You'll never have great football played by the southwestern teams. The climate won't permit it."