DALLAS (AP) – For former SMU star Craig James, one night best typifies the passion and tradition of the Southwest Conference.

The unbeaten Mustangs took national championship hopes into their last conference game of 1982 against an 8-1 Arkansas team coached by Lou Holtz. The game drew 65,000 fans to Texas Stadium – more than the Dallas Cowboys did for any game that season – and many were wearing Razorbacks colors.

“It was very intense,” James said of the 17-17 tie, the only blemish on SMU’s 11-0-1 season. “My brother was walking out of the tunnel and his shirt was all ripped up. I asked him what happened and he said, I got in a fight with some Arkansas fans.”‘

No conference game since has meant so much for SMU. The same is true for TCU, Houston and Rice, which were also left on the fringes of big-time football after the SWC’s 81st and final season a decade ago. The conference dissolved when Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech and Baylor jumped to the Big 12.

Since then, the SWC’s Forgotten Four have fallen from a stable, elite league into the vast midsection of Division I-A football, missing out on millions of dollars in bowl and television revenue while playing before smaller crowds in ever-changing conferences against faraway foes.

But all four have new hope this season.

TCU, by far the most successful, is now in the Mountain West Conference. The Horned Frogs think their third conference in five years moves them closer to the high end of I-A and the lucrative Bowl Championship Series.

Houston, Rice and SMU have been reunited in the latest incarnation of Conference USA, hoping a strong national presence and renewed regional rivalries can boost attendance, TV coverage and recruiting.

Still, none of the schools has fully recovered from the SWC breakup, which came amid a 1990s realignment frenzy that preceded formation of the BCS.

The biggest hit has been financial. It’s tough to say exactly how much money the schools have lost since being snubbed by the Big 12 and other major conferences. School officials declined to release football income figures, but losses are easily in the millions.

“You’re talking about money at the gate, television money, bowl money,” Houston athletic director Dave Maggard said. “You’re talking millions of dollars annually.”

The most obvious difference is income from the BCS, the system designed to line up the best teams from the biggest conferences for the highest-paying bowls. Last year, for example, the Big 12 was guaranteed more than $14 million to split between its members. C-USA and the Mountain West were each guaranteed about $1 million.

The breakup hasn’t hurt as much on the field. Each of the castoffs except SMU has benefited from no longer being fodder for Texas and Texas A&M.

TCU, which just left C-USA, had just one co-championship and five winning seasons in the SWC’s final 30 years. Now the Frogs have played in a bowl six of the past seven years.

Some even credit the SWC’s fall for the school’s rise. Former athletic director Eric Hyman recalled a prominent TCU official praising the breakup as the only way for the private Fort Worth school to build its program.

“I looked at him like he had three eyes,” said Hyman, now South Carolina’s AD. “Ultimately though, if you look at the program now, he was right on target.”

The Frogs jumped to a 10-0 start in 2003, rose to No. 6 in the BCS rankings and sparked a national debate about whether a smaller-conference team should play in a BCS bowl. They ended up losing their 11th game, and new MWC rival Utah went on to become the first BCS buster in 2004.

That gives new AD Danny Morrison reason to believe TCU picked the right league. The BCS plans to re-evaluate automatic berths starting in 2008, and Morrison says the Mountain West could be a logical choice.

“All I’m saying is the conference is well-positioned to have an opportunity to move into that select company at some point,” he said.

The timetable is shorter for Houston.

“Our goal is to be right back as a national program – today,” Maggard said.

It might sound too optimistic, but consider Houston’s history. The Cougars were the last to join the SWC, arriving in 1976 and promptly winning a share of the title and the Cotton Bowl. After the SWC folded, Houston tied for first in C-USA’s first season and went to the Liberty Bowl.

It’s been up and down since for the Cougars, who were last in the national spotlight when Andre Ware and David Klingler were racking up ridiculous passing statistics in the late 1980s and early 90s.

Houston is in the same C-USA division with Rice, SMU, Texas-El Paso, Tulane and Tulsa.

Rice coach Ken Hatfield, who won two SWC titles as Arkansas’ coach, said regional rivalries will draw fans and recruits.

“Texas players naturally get fired up to play other Texas players,” he said. “The Boises, the Fresnos, Hawaii – they didn’t even know where Texas is.”

The Owls had three winning years in nine WAC seasons, a major improvement over their 28 straight losing seasons in the SWC’s later years.

SMU was a power of the early Southwest Conference and won league titles in the 1980s with James and Eric Dickerson. But the Mustangs were hit with the only death penalty ever handed out by the NCAA in 1987, and the end of the SWC made a bad situation even worse.

The Mustangs have had one winning record since 87, and they lost a school-worst 15 straight games from 2002-03.

Coach Phil Bennett, an SWC player and coach who is 6-29 at SMU, said the breakup was more of a concern when he was hired than the death penalty. It’s a view shared by others.

“The death penalty is something you can overcome in a couple years,” James said, “but you can’t overcome being left out of the Big 12.”

AP-ES-08-24-05 1536EDT


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