Our Back Pages: Baylor Debate's Proud History

Baylor debaters have brought back hundreds of trophies over the years. (Photos courtesy of the Texas Collection at Baylor)

By Randy Fiedler

Almost from the time when Baylor University began classroom instruction in May 1846, Baylor students have honed their abilities to reason, research and defend ideas and policies through meeting their peers in formal debates.

In the University’s early days in Independence from 1845-1886, and during the first four decades of its residence in Waco beginning in 1886, the student literary societies  ––  the Philomathesians, the Erisophians and others   ––  dominated much of student extracurricular life. In the absence of intercollegiate athletics or other modern entertainments, debates held each month within the societies, or debates held between students representing rival literary societies, became some of the most popular events on campus.

Even for students who were not members of a literary society, meanwhile, the Baylor curriculum in the early days included a number of courses that contained elements involved in public speaking — including oratory, elocution, rhetoric and logic.

Intercollegiate Contests

Baylor’s first intercollegiate debate took place in 1893, when a large portion of the student body took a special train from Waco to Austin to watch Baylor meet the University of Texas in competition. Baylor’s team in this historic debate included Pat Neff, the best debater from the Philomathesian Society (and a future Texas governor and Baylor president), and Tom Connally, the best Erisophian Society debater (and a future U.S. Senator from Texas).
The Baylor-Texas debate moved to Waco in 1894 and continued as an annual event for many years.

On Nov. 28, 1905, the Baylor Oratorical Association was organized to coordinate local and intercollegiate contests. Four years later, Baylor’s debate program expanded its scope by holding its first out-of-state debate contest with the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. 

Beginning in 1921, Baylor debaters adopted a vigorous touring program that saw them drive across the country each year to debate their peers at other schools. During one five-week period in the spring of 1929, three Baylor debaters and their coach, Dr. Luther Courtney, traveled 7,000 miles to compete against students in universities in California, Oregon, Colorado, Arizona, Wyoming and Montana.

Prior to 1929, when Baylor competed with another university in debate, the students took part in a single contest, many times held in front of the student body at the hosting school. But that year, Baylor began the tradition of taking part in debate tournaments featuring numerous rounds of debate, when Philip Teeling and Frank Guittard took part in — and won — the regional Pi Kappa Delta Tournament.

Success in the Capp Era

Dr. Glenn R. Capp arrived at Baylor in 1934 and became the University’s longest-tenured debate program director, serving until 1981. Both Baylor’s debate squad — the Glenn R. Capp Debate Forum — and the college tournament Baylor hosts — the Glenn R. Capp Debate Tournament — are named in his honor. The debate program also gained a true national reputation under his leadership.

Baylor’s first national debate champions were female. On April 3, 1936, the team of Mary Helen Neely and Helen Harris won the women’s division of the Pi Kappa Delta national forensic tournament in Houston, beating out teams from 120 colleges in 35 states and Puerto Rico. Meanwhile, Baylor debaters Paul Geren and J.W. Bruner took second place in the men’s division.  

Baylor played a significant role during this time assisting debate programs on the high school level. In 1935, Baylor began the first university-sponsored tournament for high schools, and two years later, Baylor initiated the first university-sponsored summer workshop in the South for high school debaters and their directors.

National Champs

Since 1947, the national championship has been determined by the National Debate Tournament put on by the American Forensic Association. The first Baylor team to win the AFA’s national tournament was that of David Kent and Jay Hurst in April 1975. Since then, two more Baylor debate teams have won the national championship — Lyn Robbins and Griffin Vincent in 1987 and Martin Loeber and Daniel Plants in 1989. Baylor debaters have appeared in the NDT Final Four nine times, and in 2001, Baylor hosted the national tournament on the Waco campus.

The roster of former Baylor debaters who went on to achieve prominence in their careers is a long and distinguished one. It includes three Texas governors — Pat Neff, Price Daniel and Ann Richards — and four Baylor presidents — Samuel Palmer Brooks, Pat Neff, William R. White and Abner V. McCall. The list of former debaters also includes U.S. Senator Tom Connally and U.S. Representative W.R. Poage, as well as many prominent attorneys, ministers, government officials and university presidents over the years.

Baylor's debate team in 1963
Baylor's debate team in 1963
Baylor debaters from the 1970s and 1980s, when the University won three national championships.
Baylor debaters from the 1970s and 1980s, when the University won three national championships.
Baylor debaters from the 1970s and 1980s, when the University won three national championships.
Baylor debaters from the 1970s and 1980s, when the University won three national championships.
Baylor's 1953 debate team contained future Texas Governor Ann Richards (far left on front row).
Baylor's 1953 debate team contained future Texas Governor Ann Richards (far left on front row).
Dr. Glenn R. Capp's leadership from 1934 to 1981 brought Baylor debate to national prominence.
Dr. Glenn R. Capp's leadership from 1934 to 1981 brought Baylor debate to national prominence.
Baylor debaters have brought back hundreds of trophies over the years.
Baylor debaters have brought back hundreds of trophies over the years.