Texas and Oklahoma's Move to the SEC is a Major Blow to the NCAARoundup
tags: Texas, college athletics, NCAA, football
Andrew McGregor is a professor of history at the Mountain View Campus of Dallas College. He is currently working on a book about Bud Wilkinson and Oklahoma football.
Last week, the University of Oklahoma (OU) and the University of Texas announced their decision to leave the Big XII Conference for the Southeastern Conference (SEC) in 2025. The move caught many observers of college sports off guard. But, it is just the most recent example of a century-long assault waged by programs like OU against the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s role as the central authority in college athletics. In fact, it highlights the emergence of a new era in which conferences rival the NCAA in power and the amateur model is no longer the status quo.
Traditionally, athletic conference membership served to regulate eligibility rules and facilitate scheduling among regional institutions. For established big-time football powers, such as Notre Dame, whose program began in the 1880s, conference membership was not necessary. As a latecomer to the sport in the 1890s, however, the University of Oklahoma did not have the luxury of independence.
Athletic conference membership provided a way for OU to attain respectability and belonging among those it viewed as peer institutions and to combat images of it as a backward territorial college in a sparsely populated frontier state. The Sooners became a charter member of Southwest Conference in 1915, joining the University of Arkansas, Baylor University, Texas, Texas A&M, Southwestern University and Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State). They left for the Missouri Valley five years later, enticed by its more formalized structure for year-round minor sports, and the fact that its members then ranked higher in football prestige and attendance than those in the Southwest Conference.
Oklahoma’s football tradition and rise to being a football powerhouse began in the late-1940s. Coach Bud Wilkinson built the first OU dynasty and won the school’s first three national championships while compiling 31- and 47-game winning streaks. The latter streak spread over five seasons and remains the longest in the history of big-time college football.
As Wilkinson put OU on the national map, an antagonistic relationship developed between Oklahoma and the NCAA. By that time, the NCAA had transformed itself into an organization that didn’t just facilitate national discussions and create rules for college sports, but one that also regulated conduct such as recruiting and awarding scholarships. “Home Rule” by individual schools and athletic conferences had not adequately created a level playing field and punished offenders, so the NCAA stepped in. As colleges adjusted to this new paradigm, Oklahoma became one of the first programs put on probation for recruiting violations in the mid-1950s.