How UT and Rice conspired to help UH join the SWC


This is a follow-up piece to UH is invited to the Southwest Conference.
The University of Houston was admitted to the Southwest Conference on May 3, 1971. UT sponsored the Cougars and Rice made the official nomination – both in late 1970 and at the May ’71 SWC spring meeting. But why did the two schools choose to support UH at this time?

On the Wednesday leading up to the start of the 1970 college football season, the Houston Post delivered a bombshell: the University of Texas was preparing to sponsor UH into the Southwest Conference. The Post said that UT faculty rep J. Neils Thompson had recently been in Houston conferring with UH and Rice leaders.

Austin American Statesman

The leak to the Post set up an eight-month media campaign aimed at coercing those opposed to UH. Step-by-step, officials in Houston and Austin used the media and public opinion to win over the rest of the league.

Darrell Royal and Rice’s historic change of heart

UH’s march towards the conference most likely began in the fall of 1968 when Bill Yeoman’s squad tied #4 Texas in Austin, 20-20. UT coach Darrell Royal believed his Longhorns would rout the Coogs but after the game, he went into the UH locker room and told the team how much he appreciated what they did.

“I just want to tell you we’ve got all the admiration in the world for you,” Royal told the UH players and staff. “Offensively, we haven’t played a better team.

“I’ve only been in (the visitor’s) dressing room twice. That shows what admiration I’ve got for you.”

Austin American Statesman

Royal’s motivations to go into the UH locker room that night were likely multi-dimensional. He was impressed with the offense UH brought to Memorial Stadium and he was fascinated by the effort of Paul Gipson, the UH running back who went for 173 yards and 3 TDs. The previous summer, Texas had decided to start quietly recruiting black players, and making a show of praising UH’s African-American star could help normalize that decision with UT boosters.

Royal had been tinkering with a new offense that offseason and knew he would need black running backs to make it work. Earlier in the year, he hired Emory Bellard as his new offensive coordinator. The two UT coaches spent the offseason watching film of UH’s Veer as well as other three-back offenses, eventually coming up with a version of their own. After the UH game, UT’s Y formation was given the name Wishbone and after a loss to Tech in Lubbock, they ran off 30-straight wins.

Paul Gipson ran wild that steamy night in Austin / The Houstonian

The next year, UH destroyed Auburn in the 1969 Bluebonnet Bowl, 36-7, to finish 9-2 and #12 in the AP Poll. Yeoman had gone 33-9-3 since he debuted the Veer at Tennessee in 1965. His team had also finished in the top-20 in four straight seasons. With opponents starting to pull out of scheduling agreements, Yeoman spent the spring of 1970 wondering if UH had gone as far as it could.

Around the same time, Royal concluded that UH deserved to be in the SWC. UH’s commitment to sports other than football – namely, basketball and golf – were akin to what UT was doing. But many SWC schools wanted to de-emphasize those sports and Royal believed that adding UH could pressure them to devote more resources to a well-rounded athletics program.

Another reason Royal had come to favor Houston was Corbin Robertson. Robertson’s son Corby was an All-American on UT’s 1969 national title team. The influential Corbin Robertson went to plenty of Texas practices and most games when his son was there and had struck up a close friendship with Royal. As one of UH’s biggest backers, having served on the Board of Regents as well as Athletics Committee chairman, Corbin advocated for UH to finally join the SWC. He told DKR it would be in the interest of both schools.

A few months into 1970, Royal (acting in his role as UT’s AD) called UH AD Harry Fouke with the news of UT’s support. How that went down depends on the version of the story you believe:

In 1971, Fouke remembered that Darrell Royal had called him at home the spring before. Fouke asked his wife to take DKR’s number down so he could call back but Royal told Mrs. Fouke that he needed to take the call.

“Harry, are y’all still interested in joining the Southwest Conference,” Royal asked. Fouke said the question “took me aback. I almost dropped my coffee.”

Yeoman remembers it slightly differently. Coach recalled years later that he was in Fouke’s office, pondering what to do with their future scheduling when the AD’s secretary knocked on the door.

“She told Harry, ‘Darrell Royal wants to talk to you.’ He got on the phone, and as they talked, I could see Harry’s face start to change,” Yeoman said. Yeoman told this story many times over the years.

In a 1971 column, just days after UH was admitted, a Lubbock Avalanche-Journal columnist declared it was just a short phone call without mentioning where Fouke took it.

“Harry, Darrell Royal here. Would you and your people be interested in joining the conference?”

In any event, it was Royal that was the impetus for UH to join the league. “I believe he’s really the one that got us into the conference,” Yeoman told the Houston Chronicle in 2012. “I’ll always be grateful to him for that.”

After talking with Fouke, Royal convinced UT’s faculty rep, J. Neils Thompson, to spearhead his plan. Thompson went to El Paso in June for UT’s Board of Regents meeting to seek the school’s formal approval. With that secured, DKR and Mr. Fouke used the start of football season to begin their publicity campaign.

Fort Worth Star-Telegram

At the same time, Royal and Thompson decided that Rice needed to be brought on board with the plan. Rice’s approval would be vital to UH’s chances to getting six votes from the SWC membership. Rice had always been opposed to Houston’s entry to the SWC but Royal found a way to get the school on his side.

How did he get Rice to reverse 25 years of opposing UH?

DKR and other UT reps had been quietly making veiled threats about leaving the conference after several SWC decisions had gone against them. But Royal made it more personal for Rice: if they left, UT would be starting a super-conference that would include UH but not the Owls.

Rice’s new president, Dr. Norman Hackerman, surely understood what that would mean. He also knew Rice needed UT much more than they needed Rice. How could he not? He had just been hired after spending 25 years at UT. Royal used his personal influence to get Hackerman to his side: the new Rice president had missed just one UT home game in the 25 years he worked there.

Rice’s years-long fear of UH smothering them in the city was trumped by the chance, however small, of being left out entirely. A week after the Post story, Hackerman began laying the groundwork for Rice’s support of UH’s invite.

Fort Worth Star-Telegram

He told the press that Rice was discussing the matter but hoped it would be resolved soon. Behind the scenes, Hackerman’s administration began working with UH on their formal application and finding other ways to nudge the Cougars closer to admission.

In mid-November, Rice pushed out head football coach Bo Hagan. Hagan had worked for Jess Neely for 11 years before succeeding him as head coach. Both Neely and Hagan were opposed to playing UH much less including the Cougars in their conference. This move would prove pivotal.

Just three weeks before the expected SWC vote, Harry Fouke announced that Rice and UH had agreed to play a basketball game in January 1972, which would be the first-ever regular-season game between the schools in any sport. The announcement showed the other SWC schools that Rice would support UH’s inclusion.

Brazosport Facts newspaper

But with DKR turning the screws, Rice did even more than that. The school’s faculty rep Dr. Alan Chapman made the motion to invite UH at the December 1970 conference meeting in Dallas. UT’s Thompson immediately seconded the motion.

That led to a lengthy discussion that showed Arkansas and TCU were against UH’s admission. Baylor was panicked that a new member could signify the end of round-robin play, meaning the Bears would lose important paydays from home games against UT, Arkansas, and Texas A&M. Baylor insisted that any expansion include a continuation of the round-robin format. With no chance of getting to six yes votes for his motion to invite UH, Chapman offered a compromise where an expansion committee would study the situation. The study idea passed on an 8-0 vote.

Corsicana Daily Sun

Corpus Christi Caller Times

The motion was to “investigate the feasibility and mutual benefits to be derived from inviting the University of Houston to join the Southwest Athletic Conference. The continuation of round-robin competition is a requirement for feasibility,” according to the SWC’s press release.

“It was foolish to pretend they are not there…that Houston does not have a recognized athletic program in Texas,” Rice’s Chapman said after the meeting. A report would be made at the May 1971 meeting in College Station.

In his column, Austin American-Statesman sports editor Lou Maysel revealed that going into the meeting, ADs and football coaches had “feelings towards UH that ranged from jealousy to contempt to almost outright hatred, or so it seemed.” The fight for inclusion wasn’t over.

“Arkansas will fight it to the bitter end,” an anonymous Baylor official predicted.

A week after the SWC meetings, Rice hired Florida State’s Bill Peterson to be their football coach and AD. Peterson had played UH in 10 of his 11 seasons at FSU and had become friends will Bill Yeoman. Almost immediately, discussions began between the schools about playing a football game in the fall of 1971. The idea was unthinkable six months earlier.

On Thursday, February 11, 1971, the schools held a joint press conference to announce that UH would visit Rice Stadium on September 11th to open the 1971 season.

Bill Yeoman, Bill Petersen, and Harry Fouke announce first UH Rice football game – The Houstonian
Harlingen Valley Morning Star

“This is a fine day for the city and the two universities,” Bill Peterson said. At the press conference, the schools announced that the Cougars and Owls would play a tennis match in just two days and the golf teams would play a dual match the next Monday – speeding up the first-ever contest between the schools by nearly a year. UH baseball had also agreed to a four-game, home-and-home series with the Owls for the 1972 season.

Rice’s stance regarding UH went from not even acknowledging the school to begrudgingly working on their behalf to becoming a full-fledged advocate and partner – all in the span of six months. After a quarter-century of stonewalling UH in every way, it was UT’s Darrell Royal that guided Rice towards building a working arrangement with their neighbor.

Less than 3 months after the football announcement, UH would be admitted to the SWC. And four months after that, UH would beat Rice in their first meeting. It was headline news all over the state:

Bryan Eagle

This fall’s game vs. Rice on September 11 will mark exactly 50 years since that first meeting.


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