Finances on the Gridiron

Finances on the Gridiron

By Ray Small

Before twenty-four hour sports coverage, before the Red River Shootout, and certainly before “The Year of the Bear,” there was a letter written by L. Theo Bellmont in 1914 from his office as athletic director of the University of Texas at Austin. The letter was sent to a variety of schools in the South in an attempt coordinate an athletic conference that resembled the conferences of the more established schools in the Middle West. It was not out of a spirit of competition with the schools of the wintery North that prompted Theo Bellmont to write this historic letter; it was rather out of a desire for a fair and agreed upon set of rules and regulations in support of the spirit of athletics. Theo Bellmont wrote that the conference should be formed with the objective of  “combatting the evils of professionalism and elimination of the ‘Tramp Athlete’” (Ratliff, 1957).  This statement, though laced with noble and lofty hopes for what and who collegiate athletes are, is an appeal to the spirit of athletics, specifically how it relates to the economy surrounding collegiate athletics.  Theo Bellmont wrote this letter to schools in the South because collegiate athletes needed to be organized, and needed economic parameters to contribute to the fairness of the game. Although there were several benefits to the organization of the conference, the main impetus was a need for economic transparency in how athletics were regulated. In short, the formation of the Southwest Conference stemmed from an economic necessity to regulate how finances were applied to collegiate athletics. For the next eighty-two years the Southwest Conference would attempt to enforce these economic parameters.

Baylor University happened to be on the invite list for the Southwest Conference when Theo Bellmont dreamt of the union. Baylor was no less in need of regulation, and in the 1920s Baylor University found itself as much involved in the financial game of athletics as the other non-Christian institutions with whom it shared conference membership.

 In The Beginning: The First Five Years of the Southwest Conference

After the foundational Bellmont letter was written the schools met in Dallas to discuss the specifically how the conference would be organized. The schools included were Arkansas, Baylor, University of Texas at Austin, Texas A&M, Oklahoma A&M, Southwestern, Oklahoma University, and Rice. They agreed to form the conference, and began the arduous an exhaustive task of creating a system of rules and guidelines that benefited each school in the conference equally, and did not assign unfair advantage to any school regardless of means. The over-arching goal of these meetings was always to make collegiate athletics a “sport for sport’s sake” (Ratcliff, 1957).

BJ Pittman played linebacker, fullback, halfback, and on occasion quarterback for Baylor University football between 1920-1923. www.deleonhistory.com

The fall of 1915 was the inaugural football season for Baylor and the Southwest Conference. Baylor stumbled forward into a Championship victory over Oklahoma University. That title was quickly forfeited because 1915 marked the first Southwest Conference season where a transfer rule applied to collegiate athletes, and Baylor’s quarterback, Thomas E. Stonerod, had transferred to Baylor the year before from Carnegie Tech in Pennsylvania (Henry & Bishop, 1996). Previous to the formation of the Southwest Conference, athletes could drift from school to school, enroll in classes, and immediately play for the football team (Trantham, 1922).  The abolition of this ease of transfer was not primarily motivated by a desire to rob athletes of the freedom to move around to suit their own interests. Rather, the rule against the transfer student playing immediately was in the economic interest of the sport, as well as the curricular interest of the athlete. On the economic end, this practice created the mercenary athlete. An institution with the funds to coax a great athlete to their school inevitably succeeded in the endeavor. The consequence of this, in addition to doing violence to the spirit of competition, is that the schools with funds had the better sports teams, and the schools with the better sports teams had increased enrollments and alumni gifts. While the transfer rule did not end the existence of how collegiate athletes are recruited financially; it was instituted to end the “professional” collegiate athlete. The transfer rule added a cost to the athlete and the institution by charging the transfer athlete a year of eligibility. The curricular end of the immediately eligible transfer student is that a student could be enrolled in an institution for merits outside of academics. Enrollment under any grounds other than academic undermines the validity of the institution as a place of learning, and therefore would undermine the faculty and their curriculum. Admission for the sake of the athletic program further focused the athlete on their athletic prowess, and not on their academic development. Baylor claimed that it was an innocent victim of their quarterback’s negligent communication, but willingly forfeited their championship title (Bishop & Henry, 1996).

Economics of Responsibility:

The narrative of the Southwest Conference was to cleanup the professionalism involved in collegiate sports in these southern institutions, and to band together to create fairly played and organized match-ups each season. In order to fulfill this mission many new regulations needed to be discussed. The man that Baylor sent to the conference meetings as institutional ambassador was Dr. Henry Trantham. Dr. Trantham served as conference president 1917-1920, and was well respected in the conference leadership committee. Trantham, together with his colleagues in the Southwest conference formed the principles that would guide the ideals of the conference for the next 82 years. These principles were economic, academic, and more than anything riddled with integrity.

The academic principles adopted by the Southwest Conference in the late teens and early 1920s were put in place to reinforce the idea that athletes were students first (Trantham, 1922a). In 1922 the conference formed the “summer make-up rule” wherein students who had failed in two thirds of their classes in the spring term could make up their failed work in the summer term and be eligible to compete in the fall-term (Trantham, 1922a). This rule appears to be a concession of academic integrity where students had leeway to fail in their classes for one term per year. However, the ineligibility placed on them for that summer term rendered the athlete out of shape, and out of practice for the fall season, and therefore did a great disservice to the athletic organization. Additionally, the two thirds rule added a once absent academic necessity to collegiate athletes. In short, the job a collegiate athlete was their academic success before their athletic success.

Henry Trantham is buried in Waco, TX after serving at Baylor until 1951.

The ultimate goals the conference set out to achieve were the inclusion of economic principles at their schools. Previous to the Southwest conference the rules surrounding recruiting, scholarships, payments, and gifts were very loosely regulated. The conference immediately took to putting in clear and enforceable rules surrounding these issues. In 1922, the first five economic rules of the Southwest conference were voted upon and put on paper.

  1.   No proselytizing of athletes by correspondence or trips.
  2. No inducements shall be offered any athlete by any athletic authority, or with their sanction.
  3. No athlete shall receive any reimbursement except for work actually done, and for this the rate of pay shall be the average for all students of the institution engaged in similar work.
  4. No scholarships shall be granted for athletic ability solely.
  5. Training table may be maintained provided that students who eat there bear the entire expense (Trantham, 1922b)

These rules were instated in order to protect the integrity of the institutions involved. All of these schools in the Southwest conference saw the benefits of a well-run and fairly organized athletic league, and in 1922 the beginning parameters took the conference a step forward in achieving this goal.

Cost of the Conference:

In addition to added regulations on the economy of recruiting and maintaining athletes, the conference was an economic investment for the schools involved. The finances of the conference started and progressed very slowly, and it was not long until the conference was financially in “the red.” In 1918, three years after the conference was formed, the conference made $180.30 and spent $192.38, putting the conference in a deficit of twelve dollars. E.C. Gallagher of Oklahoma A&M stated “the Southwest Conference owes me $12.08” (Ratliff, 1957). In 1922 the conference charged annual dues of $10.00 for each member, and an entrance fee of $7.50 per institution.  The annual fee allowed the institution a vote at committee meetings, and if dues were consistently tardy, the school risked suspension from participation in events, and automatic forfeits of games. In addition to the annual dues, any expenses incurred by the conference over and above the amount paid in dues were the equal responsibly of the seven institutions to pay (Southwest Conference, 1929).

By 1925 the conference was safely in the black, and by 1928 they became emboldened to raise the annual dues from $10.00 to $50.00 (Ratcliff, 1957). Although the conference did charge a fee, it was an organization for and by the institutions involved. The president of the Southwest Conference throughout most of the 1920s was a man named Dr. Daniel Pennick who worked for the University of Texas, and was chiefly concerned with the elimination of economic evils perpetrated by conference institutions. His stated goal was to “enforce regulations, which were well nigh universal in the United States, so rigorously and so honestly that all semblance of commercialism will gradually but surely disappear” (Ratcliff, 1957).  In deference to its membership, the Southwest Conference charged a modest amount to institutions in order to regulate the very profitable athletic programs that each institution touted.

Athletics vs. Academics

Prior to the 1920s, the sport of football did not dominate the hearts and spirits of Baylor Alumnae. However, after the formation of the Southwest Conference the football program at Baylor exploded with wild popularity among Alumnae and Waco locals. So much did football achieve popularity and a source of income for schools that some institutions on Southwest Conference debated eliminating non-income producing athletics altogether (Ratcliff, 1957). It was not until 1925 that Baylor collected its first audit report thanks to the exhausted work of a local accountant named A.C. Upleger. At the time of the audit the entire academic entity of Baylor University; this includes the law school, the fine arts school, and the physical education department; created a surplus of  $31,552. The athletic program, which was organizationally only a decade old, and already on a separate budgeting system from academics, created a surplus of $23,658 (Baylor University Audit Report, 1925). By May 31st 1929, the audit report succeeded in breaking down the income generated by each sport, and found that in the Fall Quarter, i.e. the quarter that encompasses the football season, that the athletic program earned a net profit of $24,381 and the College of Arts and Science, i.e. the most significant portion of the Baylor’s academic umbrella, earned only $17, 193 (Baylor University Audit Report, March 31st 1929). By the end of November in 1929, the audit report shows that the 1929 football season earned Baylor $39,422 in net profit (Baylor University Audit Report, November 30th 1929). In four short years it became markedly clear that the income generation of football versus academics had become untraditionally lopsided.

Baylor’s Cotton Palace football stadium is where the football team practiced and played in the 1920s. (Courtesy of the Baylor University Archives).

The other sports that Baylor competed in almost comprehensively represented a loss for the institution. In the spring quarter of 1929 the Baylor athletic program reported a net loss of $5,790, and in the winter quarter of the same year Baylor reported a net loss of $3,916 from the athletic program (Baylor University Audit Report, November 30th 1929). The earnings from athletics were the sum of game tickets and student athletic tax; the earnings do not include any gifts donated specifically to the athletic program. It was clear that the 1920s represented a significant economic and cultural shift in attention of football versus academics.

Ethical Battles

Frank Bridges was the champion head coach for Baylor in the early 1920s. He was hired by Samuel Palmer Brooks in 1920, and is an integral part of Baylor Football in this era. In his five-year tenure at Baylor he led the Bears to two Southwest Conference championship victories, one in 1922 and the second in 1924. He resigned as head coach in 1925, and S.P. Brooks is quoted saying that his resignation came after Bridges made “a certain public statement, and was chided for it” (Brooks, 1927). Brooks’ main ethical battle with Baylor’s athletics in this era involved Coach Bridges’ salary.

President C. Cottingham of Louisiana College, a small Baptist institution, reported to a local newspaper that his colleagues in Baptist higher education, and specifically Samuel Palmer Brooks, should be spear-heading the ethical victories of collegiate athletics. Cottingham went on to claim that instead of being at the ethical helm, his colleagues were more often the gravest perpetrators of unethical behavior in relation to their athletic programs. He specifically accused President Brooks of allowing direct gifts from Alumnae and Waco locals to be given to Coach Bridges as an under the table means of payment to a successful coach. Brooks responds with indignation; “I cannot imagine how more errors could get into the same number of words” (Brooks, 1927). He expounded on his philosophy of payment of coaches by saying that he believes that a coach should be paid commensurate with the funds that the coach’s success produces. In the case of Coach Bridges he was hired with a salary of $3000 per year, and after three years and a Southwest conference championship he received an increased salary to $7500 per year. He was the head coach of every sport, and brought considerable prestige to the athletic program. Brooks himself is quoted in response to the benefits of athletic success “Consequently (to athletic success), sympathy for Alma Maters and many gifts for the erection of buildings, for endowments, etc. resulted” (Brooks, March 1st 1927).

Brooks’ model for payment risked ethical deviance from the regulations of the Southwest Conference, however there is inherently no violation. The opinion of C. Cottingham was that Brooks’ model applied pressure on head coaches to perform for their salary. He believed that leads to the cover up of scandal, and the indifference to the “spirit of the game” that the Southwest Conference was created to uphold. It is no surprise that years after his resignation as President of the Southwest Conference that Dr. Penick states “Let us admit frankly that we do not have amateurism in any real sense” (Ratcliff, 1957).

Conclusion:

Since it’s inception in 1914, the Southwest Conference strove to create an athletic culture in the South where institutions competed for the sake of pride and integrity. It is clear in the 1920s that the popularity of the football programs in the Southwest Conference made it a struggle for institutions to live up to the formalized ideals of the Southwest Conference. The popularity brought pressure onto the coaches and athletes, and that pressure sometimes led to ethical breakdowns. Ethical breakdowns in turn, put the integrity of the sport in jeopardy, and therefore put a major goal of the Conference in jeopardy. The more success an institution experienced athletically, the more they were able to achieve as an institution as a whole. This brought athletics to the top of the priority list for institutions and threatened their academic focus. Nevertheless, the success of these athletic programs also generated school spirit, and the Southwest Conference played an integral role in the betterment of athletics programs. With an organized schedule and regional competition, the integrity of athletics improved greatly. Although the economic intent of the Southwest Conference was never perfected, it was not for lack of effort nor was completely bereft of success.

 References

Ratcliff, H. (1957) The Power and the Glory. Lubbock, TX: Texas Tech Press.

Brooks, S.P. (1927 January 27). {Letter to C. Cottingham}. Samuel Palmer Brooks (Box   #88, Folder #428). The Texas Collection, Baylor University, Waco, TX.

Trantham, H. (1922a). {Minutes of Southwest Conference Committee Meeting}. Henry Trantham papers (Box #11, Folder #1). The Texas Collection, Baylor University, Waco, TX.

Trantham, H. (1922b). {Southwest Athletic Conference Reports}. Henry Trantham papers (Box #11, Folder #3). The Texas Collection, Baylor University, Waco, TX.

Southwest Conference (1929-1930). Constitution and By-laws. (Box #11,Folder #4). The Texas Collection, Baylor University, Waco, TX.

Bishop, M. & Henry, R. (1996).  Bears handbook: stories, stats, and stuff about Baylor    football.  Wichita, Kansas: Wichita Eagle and Beacon Publishers.

Upleger, A.C. (1925). Baylor University Audit Report. The Texas Collection, Baylor Univeristy,            Waco, TX.

Upleger, A.C. (May 31st 1929). Baylor University Audit Report. The Texas Collection, Baylor   University, Waco, TX.

Upleger, A.C. (November 30th 1929) Baylor University Audit Report. The Texas Collection. Baylor University, Waco, TX.

 

 

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