The River Dividing College Gymnastics

In NCAA sports the term “Red River” is a popular name for the rivalry between the University of Oklahoma and the University of Texas. Predictably, the name itself comes from an actual river marking much of the border between the state of Texas and the state of Oklahoma.

What this particular river has connecting it to college gymnastics is it acts as a wall dividing two distinct regions of women’s NCAA gymnastics. On the North side of the river is a collection of schools that were the trailblazers of women’s college gymnastics. The region where the sport achieved massive success and one of the pioneering regions in the development of college gymnastics.

South of the Red River is Texas, the American state which infamously has no major schools sponsoring women’s gymnastics. The region of the United States where women’s college gymnastics suffered its greatest failure in getting universities to adopt the sport. Texas is the barren wasteland of college gymnastics. Its inability to attract large scale investment at the collegiate level is especially tendentious in contrast to the exact same region being the powerhouse region of the women’s Olympic program.

The Big Eight schools in the North (Red) and the SWC schools in the South (Blue)

The Red River is what divides two regions of the United States where the development of college gymnastics panned out in two very different ways. If the Red River serves as a dividing wall within a gymnastics context, it is because it was once the border between two of the most historic conferences in NCAA history that each went defunct in 1996.

To the North of the Red River was the Big Eight conference that depending on how you interpret its own history, was founded in either 1907 or 1928 and lasted until 1996. In the South was the Southwestern Conference (SWC) which existed from 1914-1996. Whereas the two historic names are remembered primarily because of football, they are important in a gymnastics context because most women’s programs were established in the heyday of both conferences’ existence.

Women’s college gymnastics was adopted en masse in the late 1960s to late 1970s. The sport was then widely dropped en masse from the 1980s and into the early 1990s. For the Big Eight and SWC which were around until 1996, knowing what the NCAA conferences looked like in the early 1990s is important to understanding the development of the sport in these critical years.

The 1977-1978 University of Kansas women’s gymnastics team

The Big Eight had a women’s gymnastics championships as early as 1975, a full eight years before the NCAA incorporated a National Championships of its own. Participation rates within the Big Eight were so strong that 7 of 8 schools had an active women’s program at some point in time. Four of those programs continue to this day, most notably the reigning National Champions at the University of Oklahoma.

The Big Eight Conference spanned six states and its members included Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Kansas, Kansas State, Missouri, Nebraska, Colorado, and Iowa State. Kansas State is the only school that I could not find documentation of a women’s college gymnastics program ever existing. Nebraska was the dominant power in women’s gymnastics winning 54% of all conference titles, while Kansas was the only school participating in the sport that never won a conference title.

Unlike every NCAA conference that has been considered one of the great football powers, the Big Eight was the only major conference that had no private schools within its ranks.

The 1975 Iowa State women’s gymnastics team which won the very first Big Eight Championships. (From left to right), Peg Mickle, Shelly Miller, Pam LeGrand, Barb Armstrong, Nancy Larenger, Anne Saxe, Margie Hu­delson, Jean Drei:lelbeis, Vickie Kirk, Elaine Beckwith, Cathy Nebbeling, Pat McHenry, and Mary Hartrmn

To the South was the SWC which had an arrangement that was unique amongst the major NCAA football conferences. That being, all but one of its members came from the same state (Texas). This unusual two-state footprint was not by design. The SWC was founded as an attempt to secure a five-state footprint featuring Texas, Texas A&M, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, LSU, and Ole Miss (University of Mississippi).

It was always the plan for the SWC to be centered around the major public schools of Texas, but the major public schools of neighboring states were supposed to complete the rest of the conference. Unfortunately for the SWC, it was only able to secure the longterm membership of Arkansas amongst the non-Texas candidates.

Instead, the SWC looked inwards to find its remaining members, with no remaining public schools available, the SWC resorted to a quartet of private schools (Rice, TCU, SMU and Baylor) to fill out the rest of its ranks. The SWC which was planned as a 5-state conference with a 7:0 ratio between public and private schools ended up becoming a 2-state conference with a 3:4 ratio between public and private.

The 1977 Iowa State yearbook celebrating its 2nd Big Eight title in women’s gymnastics.

The ratio between public and private schools is important because it correlates with gymnastics participation rates. Public schools tend to have larger enrollment figures and thus the ability to fund a larger number of athletic programs. They also have greater leeway in funding sports with a high operating cost such as football and gymnastics. If you want a strong gymnastics conference, having a conference comprised almost entirely of public schools is a prerequisite for that to happen.

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. In 2019 just 11% of its Division I programs were private schools. Well below the overall Division I threshold of 35%. The Big Eight was dominated by public schools and gymnastics thrived in that environment. The SWC with its strong emphasis on private schools did not.

For the first 30 years of its history the heavy dependency on private schools was a disadvantage for the SWC, but one that could be overcome. That all changed during World War II when college enrollment skyrocketed and the upwards trend would only become more extreme in each of the next three decades from the 1950s to 1970s. All this growth disproportionally favored public schools.

Nebraska’s website highlighting past seasons. In 1980 they had five opponents at the Big Eight Championships. Three of these schools would later discontinue women’s gymnastics.

For private schools, a manageable disadvantage had become fatal. It was in this era that the University of Denver a private school with no relation to either the Big Eight or SWC, but gymnastics fans are familiar with lost its football program due to financial constraints. At the same time the SWC added two rising public schools (Texas Tech and Houston) to help strengthen itself.

Now the SWC had improved itself to a 5:4 ratio and public schools now represented a majority of the conference. But once again the conference had failed to expand beyond its 2-state footprint.

Eventually the SWC’s problems became too much and the conference crumbled. The main culprit in the dissolution of the conference was the small private schools could not produce enough gate revenue at football games to maintain financial parity with the rest of the conference. As the lone non-Texas school within the 9-team conference, Arkansas was the first to defect, joining the SEC in 1992.

Ragan Smith whose career spans both the South (Olympic level) and North (Collegiate level) sides of the Red River

Arkansas left a conference with no substantial history in women’s gymnastics and joined a conference with such a gymnastics tradition going back to the 1970s. Eventually Arkansas created a women’s program of its own.

For the eight remaining Texas schools their prospects were dire, but fortunately for them, the Big Eight was in an equally precarious situation. While the SWC had strong television markets but weak gate revenue, the Big Eight was in the opposite predicament suffering from weak television markets while enjoying strong gate revenue. The SWC and Big Eight were the two weakest conferences in the power structure and in danger of collapse. But they had geographical proximity, and could resolve each other’s weaknesses.

Numerous scenarios were discussed as to how to merge two of the oldest and most iconic conferences in a deal that would be unprecedented in NCAA history. But because Texas politicians wielded financial power over Texas and Texas A&M on the academic side, while television executives had financial power on the athletic side, outsiders were able to dictate terms that didn’t make sense to the longterm stability of the proposed new conference.

University of Kansas gymnast in the 1970s

Instead of adding all eight SWC schools, only Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, and Baylor were added to create a new 12 team conference. The newly created Big 12 which was branded as an entirely new conference and not an expansion of the old Big Eight would become a case study of everything not to do when trying to realign conferences.

The Big 12 made every conceivable mistake in both the way it conducted the realignment process and then the way it managed new members once they had joined. Before the merger the Big Eight and SWC had virtually no common history with each other. With the exception of the rivalry between Oklahoma and Texas, it was unusual for Big Eight and SWC schools to schedule games with each other. The “Red River Rivalry” was all that connected two otherwise completely separate factions.

What started out as an alliance created out of necessity and a business deal that felt more like a shotgun marriage, panned out exactly as one would expect. After 15 years the Big 12 began experiencing the same defections it had sought to avoid in the 1990s. From 2010-2022 the Big Ten, Pac-12, and SEC have recruited away 50% of the original Big 12 membership. Within the next few years Oklahoma and Texas are contractually obligated to join the SEC. Strangely enough, what the SWC envisioned of a conference featuring Texas, Texas A&M, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Arkansas, LSU, and Ole Miss will nearly come true. It will just come 110 years late, without Oklahoma State, and in a conference not named for the Southwest but the Southeast.

The 1973-1974 Iowa State women’s gymnastics team. The program had 15 gymnasts.

The SWC was responsible for discouraging the development of gymnastics in the region, and its lasting legacy still discourages Texas schools to this day from adopting the sport. Texas schools including the largest and wealthiest programs such as Texas and Texas A&M modeled their athletic departments to closely align with their small private school rivals. This meant having a smaller number of teams in their overall athletic department which decreases the likelihood of sponsoring gymnastics.

That trend to continues to this day. Of the 65 P5 schools in the NCAA, roughly half of them (32) have women’s gymnastics programs. Those 32 schools average 22.7 varsity sports per school. The 12 Texas schools in the highest level of college football average only 16.8 varsity sports per school. But now that Texas is committed to joining the SEC while Texas A&M joined a decade ago, the time is more appropriate than ever for one (or both) schools to fulfill the Arkansas precedent.

As for the Big Eight, it is a defunct conference that has a surprising amount of gymnastics history to it which the Big 12 inherited. As to why some Big 12 programs don’t have gymnastics, the answer is often influenced by their previous conference history and whether or not they are a former Big Eight school. To this day the Red River and whether a school is to the North or South of it has a correlation as to whether or not a major NCAA athletic department sponsors women’s gymnastics. The Red River is the wall where the development of gymnastics couldn’t seem to cross. Coincidently, it divided two groupings of schools, one where the development was exceptionally strong and the other where college gymnastics was strangely absent.

Kansas, Colorado, and Oklahoma with reverse initials in their logos

Four of the former-Big Eight schools have a women’s gymnastics program that survived into the modern era, but they are now divided amongst three different conferences. One quirky legacy to the Big Eight that will always serve as a reminder to the historic conference that once was, NCAA sports fans might often be confused as to why all the schools in the middle of the country have reversed initials for seemingly no apparent reason.

The University of Texas is “UT” but the University of Oklahoma is “OU.” The same is true for University of Missouri (MU) which is now in the SEC, the University of Nebraska (NU) which is now in the Big Ten, the University of Kansas (KU) which is now in the Big 12, and University of Colorado (CU) which resides in the Pac-12.

It’s an old Big Eight tradition.

3 thoughts on “The River Dividing College Gymnastics

    1. It wasn’t Kansas, but Kansas State that had no mention of a gymnastics program.
      Kansas State only had a gymnastics team for one year and it was collapsed after its first year.

      Like

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