Texas is the home to many of America’s most famous clubs such as WOGA, Texas Dreams, and World Champions Centre. It is also the location of the Karolyi Ranch which up until recently, was the national training center for USAG. Iconic gymnasts such as Simone Biles, Kim Zmeskal, Ragan Smith, Mary Lou Retton, Dominique Moceanu, and Nastia Liukin have openly celebrated their links to the state. It would be accurate to say that Texas is the seat of power for the American Olympic program in women’s gymnastics.
Yet when it comes to the college level, the opposite is true. Texas is something of an NCAA gymnastics wasteland. The entire state has only one gymnastics program, a school that isn’t even in Division I. All the major Texas schools have completely avoided the sport. With 12 schools in FBS, Texas has more schools in the highest division of the NCAA than any other state. There are five Texas schools designated as “P5” which is the label given to the richest and wealthiest schools, again more than any other state. In total, there are 23 Division I schools in Texas. Not one of them has a gymnastics program, and gymnastics fans have frequently asked why.
There are two reasons for this. The first reason has to do with the history of Texas college football. The second reason is behavioral differences between the athletic programs of Texas schools and the rest of the nation.
Gymnastics fans will recognize the name of the Big 12 Conference due to it being the home of the Oklahoma Sooners. With four P5 schools from Texas, the Big 12 is the go to conference for the major Texas schools. On paper there is no major difference between the Big 12 and the other major conferences. But historically, there is one crucial difference.
All the other major NCAA conferences can trace their history to the 1890s-1910s. They were either founded in that era or emerged as a breakaway faction of schools from a conference founded in that era. The same can not be said for the Big 12. The Big 12 was founded in 1996, as a merger between a group of schools known as the Big Eight and four members of another conference called the SWC.
The Big Eight was comprised of schools from Oklahoma and states North of Oklahoma. The SWC was comprised of nine schools, all but one of them (Arkansas) were located in Texas. Prior to 1996, the Big Eight and SWC had virtually no history with each other. Only the University of Texas and the University of Oklahoma had any historical relationship. And this is where the connection to gymnastics begins.
College gymnastics is not a national sport. Its distribution of programs at the highest level heavily correlates to conference affiliation and thus geography. College gymnastics programs prop each other up as having more programs in a single conference generates more fan interest, lowers travel costs, and encourages athletic directors to adopt the sport. It is essentially a hub model.
The Big Eight had something of a gymnastics hub. Half of its members had women’s gymnastics programs. Their programs all empowered each other. The SWC in contrast which was completely isolated from the Big Eight prior to 1996, didn’t develop a comparable gymnastics hub. All the major Texas schools were in just a single conference and essentially kept to themselves. Limiting the spread of outside ideas and thus outside sports.
In what would become the ultimate example of how having a hub influences college gymnastics, Arkansas left the SWC in 1992 and joined the SEC. Arkansas had left a conference with no gymnastics presence and had joined the SEC which has a storied women’s gymnastics history. It took only a decade for Arkansas to develop a women’s gymnastics program of its own. The textbook example of the most important ingredient to a school having a gymnastics program is being surrounded by gymnastics schools in its conference.
The hub model of women’s gymnastics was to the detriment of establishing a strong gymnastics presence in the state of Texas. The major Texas schools didn’t have any affiliation with NCAA schools that had successful gymnastics programs until 1996. But by then it was too late. By 1996 gymnastics had already been cut en masse by NCAA schools and the window of opportunity to spread the sport to new schools, specifically schools in Texas, had passed.
In a period from 2010-2012 disaster struck the Big 12. The marriage between four Texas schools and the Big Eight would prove to be untenable and tensions led to one third of the schools leaving the conference. Among them, Missouri and Nebraska which had gymnastics programs. With its Olympics sports in crisis from the defections, the Big 12 was forced to accept affiliate members to replaces its losses. Most notably, Denver in women’s gymnastics.
It would be sacrilegious for me to not talk about the decline of the SWC. The SWC is nostalgia for college football fans. Its existence and downfall being viewed in the same way gymnastics fans view the downfall of Romania. It is one of the most compelling college sports stories ever told and something that documentaries and books have covered in-depth.
Founded in 1914, the SWC made a critical mistake that would come back to haunt it decades later. The SWC had approached five public, out of state schools for membership, Arkansas, LSU, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and Ole Miss. It managed to secure the longterm membership of only one of those schools (Arkansas). Without out of state public schools to fill its ranks, the SWC turned inwards. It had already gobbled up all the major public schools within the borders of Texas, but there weren’t anywhere close to enough of them to create a conference. So it turned to private schools to fill the rest of its ranks. For a time that model worked, and then came World War II.
When World War II ended millions of American soldiers returned home and took advantage of the G.I Bill which gave them government benefits, among them financial assistance for college. College enrollment skyrocketed, but the rise in student enrollment disproportionately favored public schools.
But the rise in enrollment in the immediate aftermath of World War II would only be a tiny blimp of what would come next. Those soldiers not only enrolled in college as soon as they returned home, they started having kids resulting in the massive “Baby Boomers” generation. Two decades later college enrollment skyrocketed as a massive generation was not only of college age, but was defying social norms that had once discouraged women, minorities, and the poor from enrollment. Again student enrollment skyrocketed disproportionately in favor of public schools.
The fall of the Berlin Wall was the beginning of the end for Eastern Europe’s status as the seat of power for the Olympic sports. In much the same way, the World War II was the beginning of the end for private schools being NCAA powers. Many of them survived such as Notre Dame and USC, but the bulk of them lost their status as premier college sports programs as they found themselves outclassed and outgunned by public schools who had grown exponentially in size.
For a conference like the SWC which strongly relied on private schools, it was in trouble. Within a few decades the small private schools of the SWC found themselves struggling to bridge the gap between them and their public school rivals who had grown in size and power. So they turned to alternative methods to keep up.
The wide scale and uncontrollable cheating within the SWC was legendary. The eight Texas schools all had fierce rivalries with each other. The small private SWC schools wanted to stick it to the big public SWC schools and resorted to any means necessary to make it happen. The big schools not wanting the embarrassment of losing to a small school, fought fire with fire by cheating themselves.
The college football rivalries were so intense that they spilled over into women’s gymnastics. The 1979 World Championships marked the first time the World Championships were held outside of Europe. The city chosen was Fort Worth, located in Texas. One competition report from those World Championships describes spectators trying to teach the Romanian gymnasts the hand gestures and chants of their respective SWC schools. In football mad Texas, if Nadia Comaneci was to make a “Horns Up” with her fingers, it would have been further bragging rights that the University of Texas was superior to all the other SWC schools. Meltia Ruhn and Emilia Eberle were reported to have “shrugged with massive indifference.”
The NCAA found itself throwing every punishment it had in the book at various SWC schools. When it ran out of punishments, the NCAA had to specifically create new punishments just to account for the SWC. At one point, it was easier to list the SWC programs that weren’t under NCAA sanctions than the ones that were.
In the end the cheating and resulting NCAA sanctions became too much. Star recruits avoided the conference as if it were a plague, TV executives got frustrated with NCAA sanctions impacting the television schedule, and the SWC broke apart.
The reason I took the time to tell this story is because the fundamental problem the SWC had was that there were too many private schools in the conference. In the modern era of NCAA private schools struggle with high resource sports such as football. Only 12% of schools in the highest level of college football are private. For comparison 35% of all Division I schools are private. Women’s gymnastics has the same problem with 11% of its Division I programs being private schools. Well below the overall Division I threshold of 35%.
Texas has the most P5 schools of any state. In second place is a tie between North Carolina and California. The two states have a combined eight P5 schools. Four are private, four are public. Only one of those private schools has a women’s gymnastics program. In contrast all four public P5 schools have such a program. While Texas has a large number of schools, a third of its FBS schools are private which are highly unlikely to have a gymnastics program. The abundance of private FBS schools in Texas exaggerates the number of schools in the state where establishing such a program is viable. But that only explains why the private schools don’t have gymnastics programs. Part II will cover why the public schools haven’t adopted the sport either.