Controversy always surrounds a significant conference change, such as the potential for Pac-10 expansion to 16 teams by next week. The fear that the University of Arizona’s competitive edge will be lost if Texas and Oklahoma are in its division is tame, however, compared to the school’s conference developments historically. Arizona’s background of moving from one conference to the next ironically involved the Wildcats desiring to improve their competition level.
Here’s a rundown of each noteworthy development when Arizona was introduced to a new conference:
Into the Border Conference
Even before the Wildcats joined their first conference — the Border Conference in 1931 — controversy struck (and it had nothing to do with Arizona having to replace legendary coach J.F. “Pop” McKale, who resigned after the 1930 season to concentrate on athletic director duties). The UA administration threatened to not play traditional rival New Mexico in 1931 because the Lobos featured five Native American players who transferred from the Haskell Institute in Kansas with questionable transferable credits.
October 23, 1931, headline in the Albuquerque Journal regarding Arizona's objection to five Native American players with questionable transferrable credits on New Mexico's team heading into the first Border Conference season
According to the Albuquerque Journal, the UA argued that other conferences in the region would not allow the players to transfer to one of their schools. The three other Border Conference schools voted to allow the players to transfer to New Mexico. Those institutions included ASU (Arizona State Teachers-Tempe back then), NAU (Arizona State Teachers-Flagstaff), and New Mexico State (New Mexico A&M). Texas Tech joined the Border Conference a year later.
Arizona-New Mexico was as heated of a rivalry as Arizona vs. ASU at that time and the Wildcat administration refused to align with the other Border Conference schools on the matter. The situation was resolved when an arbitrary decision by the Pacific Coast Conference commissioner allowed the players to gain eligibility and compete despite questionable transferable credits.
The Border Conference would add Texas Mines (later Texas-El Paso), Hardin-Simmons and West Texas Teachers (now known as West Texas A&M) before disbanding in 1961. The end of the league came about largely because Arizona wanted out after larger schools such as New Mexico and Texas Tech left previously. New Mexico departed for the Skyline Conference in 1951 and Texas Tech exited to the Southwest Conference in 1956.
From the Border Conference to the WAC
Former UA football coach Jim LaRue, pictured here after his hire in 1959, found the going much more rough in the WAC after the UA left the Border Conference (Tucson Daily Citizen photo/June 6, 1959)
According to the Dec. 12, 1960, edition of the El Paso Herald-Post, Arizona actively sought to leave the Border Conference for an alliance with the Skyline Conference, which had nine schools including BYU, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico. “Arizona’s announcement of withdrawal came as a surprise although the school had shown dissatisfaction for sometime over its membership in the Border Conference,” the Herald-Post reported.