The announcement, decades in the making, took only moments to deliver:
Texas Tech had officially become a member of the Southwest Conference. It was no longer just another school.
As of May 12, 1956, Tech was a real player — athletically and academically.
“A dream had become a reality,” recalled C.R. “Choc” Hutcheson, a longtime Lubbock resident who was in the oil royalty business at the time. “It was a time of great excitement and expectation in moving forward and upward.”
The hope of joining the SWC had been on the school’s radar since 1927, but Tech’s hopes were dashed that year as well as in 1929 and 1931. Following the third rejection, Tech waited more than 20 years before again seeking membership in 1952. Likewise, that application was rebuffed, rankling the Red Raider faithful.
“I remember emotions ran rather high on those rejections,” Hutcheson said. “I know at one time a number of people cut up credit cards from stores in Dallas because they felt the SMU people had not been backing Tech’s effort. They tried to apply economic influence, and sometimes economics does exert pressure.”
Indeed, Raider fans destroyed their Neiman-Marcus cards and mailed them to the Dallas-based department store. According to the book “Red Raider Handbook,” the legend, which has never been disputed, influenced Neiman-Marcus store chief Stanley Marcus to have SMU swing its vote to Tech’s side.
“I think it was as much politics as anything else that weighed on it heavily,” said Rex Fuller, a former two-term Tech Board of Regents member. “There had been some feeling that we didn’t belong in the club. I think that had as much to do with it as anything, but we were continuing to grow and become a larger school.”
SWC representatives made their decision in Fayetteville, Ark., and Howard Grubbs, the league’s executive secretary issued the formal announcement at 10:32 a.m. in the Blue Room of the Student Union Building.
“By unanimous vote, Texas Tech was invited to appoint a committee to work with a committee of the Southwest Athletic Conference for the express purpose of working out details under which Texas Tech may become a member of the Southwest Conference.”
The result was absolute euphoria. Spontaneous celebrations erupted before a more formal gathering was organized downtown that featured Tech President E.N. Jones speaking to the assembled throng.
“There was a huge crowd celebrating on campus,” said Tech athletic director Gerald Myers, who was a Red Raider sophomore basketball player at the time. “It was exciting to be part of a program that was going into the Southwest Conference. If you grew up in Texas, that was basically all you heard about if you were involved in athletics.”
The decision ushered in a new SWC member for the first time since Texas Christian entered in 1922 and brought down the curtain on the Raiders’ long affiliation with the Border Conference.
“The Border Conference had been a good conference,” Myers said. “It served Tech well, and Tech probably had been the dominant team in the conference. This was a chance to move to the highest level of intercollegiate sports not only in Texas, but in the nation. It was exciting for all of us.”
Myers said : “When Tech was admitted to the SWC, it just put Tech into the highest levels of universities as far as college athletics are concerned,” Myers said. “But it not only affected athletics. It affected the entire university as far as academics, research, students. It was a great time in Tech’s history to move to a higher level.”
In fact, inclusion in the SWC might be the most significant moment in Tech athletic history. The announcement merited virtually an entire front page from The Avalanche-Journal, including a headline blaring the news: Red Raiders In!
“There was excitement throughout the town,” said longtime Red Raider fan Jack Strong Sr. “Getting into the Southwest Conference meant a lot to us, and it was important as far as getting to where we are now. It is one of the most important things ever to happen to Tech athletics.”
Texas Tech President E.N. Jones addresses a crowd gathered in downtown Lubbock in 1956 about Tech finally becoming a member of the Southwest Conference.
That perspective was shared by others who have watched the university grow.
“It moved us into another category and took us where we could compete at a national level, which is where we should be,” Fuller said.
“I would say it was the largest single step Tech ever took,” agreed Hutcheson. “I think Tech had done a good job of getting established in a different way as far as familiarity with (former football coach) Pete Cawthon getting publicity for Tech. In the 1940s, it was virtually impossible to move forward because of the war years, but in the 1950s, the whole country was moving in an upward direction.”
Myers, who has been affiliated with the university for most of the past 50 years, also credits Cawthon, the fiery and flamboyant football coach for generating early visibility for the school. Also, he said DeWitt Weaver, athletic director at the time, and Polk Robison, longtime former basketball coach, were equally influential in Tech’s ascension into the SWC. In fact, an A-J editorial that appeared May 13 indicated it was “the result of almost three decades of constant effort on the part of many people.”
“It was more, though, than any one person,” he said. “There was a lot of influence out here in West Texas that developed support for Tech to join the Southwest Conference. Coach Robison should get a lot of credit for Tech being a school that other SWC schools looked at as being a desirable member of the conference. Our programs were strong and had appeal in terms of making it an eight-team conference.”
The Raiders began competing in the league during the 1956-57 school year. Because of the complexities of football scheduling, though, Tech did not begin SWC play in that sport until the 1960 campaign.
“People in this area considered the Southwest Conference the big leagues,” Hutcheson said. “It provided the opportunity to establish traditional rivalries. Tech had moved up in the athletic world, and I don’t think people at that time realized what a substantial jump that would be.”
Indeed, the Raiders remained part of the SWC until the league’s demise following the 1995-96 school year. Tech and three other league members — Texas, Texas A&M and Baylor — moved to the newly formed Big 12, a jump many say would not have been possible had it not been for the events of May 1956.
“There is no way we would have gotten the national recognition that we did without being part of the SWC,” Fuller said. “It was a big change for the university. We went from being regionally recognized to nationally recognized.”
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