Expand-or-fold decision is approaching for SWC


The undercurrent during the 1990-91 Southwest Conference basketball season will be how to replace Arkansas next year. What started out as a football issue when the Razorbacks announced they would jump to the Southeastern Conference in 1992 has become an even bigger problem in basketball.

With Texas' football program back on its feet and Texas A&M;, Houston, Baylor and Texas Christian University flirting with the SWC football title this season, Arkansas' football departure doesn't seem so bad. Basketball is another story. Arkansas is a national power. Arkansas has network television appeal. Arkansas has drawing power to the SWC Post-Season Classic at Reunion Arena.

When the clock strikes midnight March 10, approximately 11,000 SWC Post-Season Classic tickets owned by Arkansas fans will become available. Hog snouts will be out of vogue at Reunion Arena, and those blue and green seats could be empty in March 1992. The loss of revenue and prestige could turn the SWC back into a sleepy basketball league.

It well could mean the end of the SWC.

Yes, Arkansas' departure is very much a basketball issue. When the SWC athletic directors and faculty representatives meet Dec. 6-7 in Dallas, they are expected to have expansion back on their agenda. If they don't, they may be sending postcards to Texas and Texas A&M; in a couple of years in another league. Spell it SEC.

A plan is being bounced around in SWC circles -- and it better bounce to the forefront quickly -- that could add two members right away and then two more teams eventually for a total of 12. It would enhance basketball without hurting football. If done correctly, it could even help football.

Here's how the plan would work. The SWC already has been in contact with two members of the dying Metro Conference -- Tulane and Louisville -- which is down to four members. Other SWC targets for full membership could be New Mexico, BYU, UTEP and-or Tulsa.

Louisville, which is a bona fide football school now, would go into one SWC division with Baylor, Houston, Texas A&M;, Texas and Texas Tech. This would be the so-called strong football division, and the winner would retain its affiliation with the Mobil Cotton Bowl. Tulane would go into a division with TCU, Southern Methodist University and Rice and perhaps New Mexico or Tulsa. It would be a junior football league and could have a minor bowl tie-up.

There could be even a 12th game, a title matchup between the strong and the weak football divisions, a la the SEC.

Teams in each division would play each other in football, accounting for five games on their schedule. They could have a one or two crossover games with the other division. The other four games for each team would come in alliances with the Big Eight and Big East, arrangements previously discussed for greater TV exposure.

In other words, Texas' football schedule could look like this: Houston, Texas Tech, Baylor, Louisville, Texas A&M;, Syracuse, Miami (Fla.), Oklahoma, Colorado and for breathers New Mexico and Tulane. Not bad, huh?

Because of the SWC's new revenue-sharing policies, the big schools, who get to keep their own gate receipts and a lion's share of television money, wouldn't be hurt in football by the lack of football drawing power by a New Mexico or a Tulane. In fact, they would have a division to dump SMU and Rice, never to have to play them again.

But here's the key: They would be helped by the drawing power and television appeal of Louisville or New Mexico in basketball. Arkansas' legions of fans hardly would be missed at Reunion Arena. They would more than be replaced by fans from Louisville and Albuquerque. And who knows? Memphis State, searching for a football home, might come aboard for both sports.

For basketball scheduling purposes, a team would play every VTC team in its division twice and those in the other division once for a total of 16 games. The top eight teams -- four in each division -- go to the Post-Season Classic.

This makes too much sense -- so it will never be done. Not in the SWC, which has a serious problem of dragging its feet. That's why the league is in its current predicament. True to form, SWC presidents declared a moratorium on expansion last fall.

It may be overturned when they meet in Dallas on Dec. 17. There is serious arm-twisting going on behind the scenes.

There will be arguments from the SWC presidents. They will say Tulane, hit with a basketball scandal in the mid-1980s, is still too close to its renegade past. They will question New Mexico's academics. They will wonder whether Louisville football coach Howard Schnellenberger isn't really a Jackie Sherrill with a mustache and a few extra pounds. In other words uncontrollable, that Howard.

They will wonder themselves out of existence.

The SWC has to hurry. Memphis State already is part of the Great Midwest basketball conference with such schools as Alabama-Birmingham, DePaul and Marquette. And with Louisville's rise in football, the Cardinals will be attractive to several leagues.

The thing the SWC can offer those schools and a few others is a better football life than they currently have. The thing the SWC gets in return is new life in basketball.

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