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Texas Tech and Arizona State Share Similar Desert Roots, History

Can you revive something that never was?

Once upon a time, there were two rural, desert schools who played college football in the same conference – the Border Conference (the first conference Texas Tech ever joined) – for 25 years between 1932 and 1956. When examining where the two schools are today, it’s impossible to properly do so without considering how they got here.

The first was a school in Tempe, Arizona. Founded in 1885, 27 years before Arizona would even become a state, Arizona State University was first established as the Territorial Normal School. Its purpose was to prepare its students to become teachers in Arizona. A suburb of Phoenix, Tempe’s population was below 10,000 until the 1960 U.S. Census (the first census conducted after the Border Conference dissolved). Even the population of neighboring Phoenix – now the country’s 6th largest city – didn’t top 110,000 until the 1960 U.S. Census.

The second school was in Lubbock, Texas, founded in 1923 after West Texans threatened to secede from the rest of the state if the Texas legislature didn’t open a public school for their region. Isolated geographically from the rest of the state’s population centers, Lubbock’s population was barely 4,000 when Texas Technological College opened its doors. Similar to Tempe’s teacher school, Texas Tech had a narrow focus of agriculture, engineering, liberal arts, and home economics in the beginning.

During the Border Conference era from 1932 when Texas Tech joined to 1956 when they left, the United States and the world as a whole was a very different place. A less globalized society, the chasm between urban population centers and far less populated desert-like rural areas was greater than their geographical distance could accurately convey.

From early on in their histories, Arizona State and Texas Tech shared a lot in common. As their Border Conference membership would suggest, they shared a culture of the Southwestern United States that bordered Mexico, a region distinct from the rest of America. They shared the tribulations of the Dust Bowl in the 1930’s, and both college towns still experience dust storms today. They share a tradition of throwing tortillas. They share a blue collar history, becoming major universities without a lot of the luxuries afforded to many of their predecessors. They share a present reality that can cast doubt on the plausibility of their path from the past. Did those two schools – one in a desert territory 27 years from statehood and the other in the forgotten, barren land of West Texas – really come all the way from that to where they are today?

If you’ve read this far, you’re probably wondering when this is going to relate to football. The answer is right now, and I thank you for your patience.

Another thing Arizona State and Texas Tech have in common is their success in the Border Conference. Texas Tech won more conference titles than any other team in conference history with nine. Arizona State had the second most before the conference dissolved with seven (though in fairness to Texas Tech, one of those was before the Red Raiders joined the conference, and three more were after they left for the Southwest Conference). The other six schools that competed in the conference throughout time combined for 11 titles compared to Texas Tech’s and Arizona State’s combined 16. No other individual school won more than three conference titles. The Border Conference winner would usually receive an invite to the Sun Bowl in El Paso, another desert border town.

So it must have been quite the showdown in the Border Conference every year when perennial favorites Arizona State and Texas Tech faced off, right? Well, the two never actually played each other. They spent two and a half decades co-dominating a conference, but never once met on the football field.

There doesn’t appear to be a good reason why two schools with a similar history and similar gridiron prowess in the same athletic conference never played each other. Clearly the conference didn’t play a full round robin, as most teams finished the season with just four or five conference games on their record.

Was it the distance between Lubbock and Tempe that discouraged scheduling a matchup? That’s doubtful because Texas Tech played the University of Arizona 17 times in the Border Conference era. Arizona’s campus in Tucson is only 100 miles closer to Lubbock than Arizona State’s in Tempe, so the distance serving as the reason for not playing seems unlikely.

With Texas Tech’s victory over Arizona State in the 2013 Holiday Bowl, with the two schools set to face off this season and next, and with whispers that the Big 12 could be interested in adding Arizona and Arizona State when the Pac-12 grant of rights is close to expiration, I sure wish Texas Tech had more of a tangible gridiron history with Arizona State. I wish I could say that this Saturday’s showdown with the Sun Devils in Death Valley is a revival of some past rivalry. Instead, it feels like a great rivalry that never was.

Even though the two teams never played in their Border Conference days, maybe it could still be a revival. In addition to sharing a similar history, the two are not dissimilar today. Lubbock has grown to almost 300,000 residents, and Texas Tech now offers 150 majors to nearly 40,000 students. Tempe has 160,000 people, and Arizona State is a flagship with the highest student enrollment in the country.

And both are still pretty good at college football. Arizona State found a home in the Pac-10 (now Pac-12) conference while Texas Tech left the Border Conference for the Southwest Conference, which later merged with the Big Eight to form the Big 12. Texas Tech has appeared in 37 bowl games to Arizona State’s 29.

In many ways, Arizona State is more of a natural rival – in terms of geography, academics, history, football prowess, culture, etc. – than many of Texas Tech’s Big 12 foes. The only thing missing is an actual past on the football field, save two matchups in 1999 and 2013, split evenly by the schools. The Sun Devils and Red Raiders have such similar pasts, paths, and ultimate destinations, it’s hard not to consider them a rival of sorts.

Though I was a toddler when the Southwest Conference disbanded, I enjoyed it when Tech played Arkansas the last two seasons (especially the 2015 matchup that Texas Tech won). It was fun to play an old foe, to see the old Double T logo on Tech’s throwback uniforms, and to imagine what it would be like if we played Arkansas every year again.

I will very much look forward to playing Arizona State these next two seasons, and hope that somehow we will begin to play them more often. I wouldn’t mind a 1950’s Border Conference throwback uniform in honor of the matchup, either. After 25 years of living in the same neighborhood as Arizona State but never saying “hello”, we have a lot of catching up to do, and it starts in their backyard on Saturday.