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Why SMU thinks ACC move is the first step to a return to glory

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Why SMU thinks ACC move is the first step to a return to glory

DALLAS — Early Friday morning, SMU received a phone call decades in the making, a lifeline from the ACC offering them a return to the upper echelons of college football.

It was a proud day for the Mustangs, with an afternoon celebration in the school’s indoor practice facility. Confetti fell from the sky. The pep band played “Great Balls of Fire” as boosters mingled, shared hugs and high-fives nearly 40 years after becoming one of the most vilified college football programs in college football history.

“We’re finally back where we belong,” said David Miller, the chairman of SMU’s board of trustees, receiving a standing ovation.

The NCAA’s 1987 “death penalty” for repeated recruiting violations wrecked the football program, as the strings holding together the Southwest Conference started to fray. After football returned to SMU in 1989, the Mustangs won just 13 games over the final seven years of the SWC. In 1995, when the new Big 12 merged four teams from the SWC — Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech and Baylor — with the Big 8, SMU was left to start over again. And again (in the WAC) and again (in Conference USA) and again (in the Big East, which didn’t materialize and turned into the American).

A proud program that finished in the top 10 three times between 1981 and 1984, including a No. 2 finish in 1982, hasn’t finished a single season in the AP rankings since then.

And yet, the Mustangs willed themselves into the ACC. Despite its modest enrollment (7,056 undergrads in fall 2022), a decades-long lack of high-level football success, and a frustrating lack of fan support, SMU’s athletics ambition is still bigger’n Dallas, as the Texas saying goes.

They did it by making the ACC a deal it couldn’t resist: They’d join the conference without taking any money from the league’s television deal for up to nine years, according to sources. But why? And how?

“I’m gonna leave some mystery around all that. I don’t think it’s as simple as people want to make it out to be,” athletic director Rick Hart said Friday of the revenue concessions. “You can’t forgo something you don’t have. We’re not going to take a step back resource-wise, even from a conference perspective. So this is all positive. … We’ve got an underdog mentality. We’ve got a chip on our shoulder. We’ve had to do more with less for a long time.”

Cal and Stanford, joining along with SMU, will each receive a 30% share of ACC payouts. The three schools’ withholdings will create an annual allotment of revenue between $50 million and $60 million. Some will be divided proportionally among the 14 full-time members plus Notre Dame (a league member in everything but football), and there will also be money set aside for performance incentives. Officials said there is also conference distribution of other leaguewide splits such as College Football Playoff or NCAA tournament revenue. In short, the Mustangs believe that there is money to be had if they win.

And they think they will. SMU’s Boulevard Collective is one of the most generous NIL programs in the country, reportedly paying all football and men’s basketball athletes $36,000 a year, according to On3. Gerald J. Ford Stadium is currently undergoing a $100 million expansion, part of a $300 million investment in new athletic facilities in the past decade.

“You already do everything like a Power 5 school,” Miller said he was told in realignment discussions.

So school officials believe there’s no risk in taking a big swing. The Mustangs have been left behind for 30 years. They knew this was a last shot before conferences continued to unravel. With a possible superconference era on the horizon, the Mustangs are locked into a conference that has 13 years left on its television contract and will have a chance to get up to speed before whatever happens next.

The challenge is that they’ll come in as one of the smaller athletic departments in the country. SMU will become just the fifth Power 5 school — joining new conference-mate Syracuse, along with Wisconsin, Iowa State and Colorado — not to field a baseball program. It will join Miami and Wake Forest as ACC schools without softball. SMU’s stadium seats 32,000, just 500 more than Wake Forest’s Truist Field, the smallest venue in the league, but has the capability to expand to 45,000.

The ACC as a whole wouldn’t mind if SMU becomes another small private school that is a football doormat. The league will get the money, and its College Football Playoff contenders have one more team to beat. It’s on SMU to prove them wrong.

The school’s NIL program likely benefits from SMU’s former reputation as the original NIL school. Now it’s all wide open.

Hence, Miller told ESPN that he thinks the Mustangs have a lot to sell with a program on the rise.

“I don’t think it would be a stretch to say that there’s some people out there that weren’t excited about the notion that SMU was going to be uplifted back to Power 5 status,” Miller said, hinting at a few Texas universities. “Think about what it’s going to do for our recruiting. We already recruit extremely well. The only thing that anybody could ever use against us in a recruiting battle is the fact that we’re not Power 5.”

Paul Loyd Jr., one of the Mustangs’ biggest football benefactors — the Paul B. Loyd Jr. All Sports Center is SMU athletics’ office hub — was a member of SMU’s 1966 SWC championship team and a team captain in ’67, and thinks their new status will help them become more competitive.

“I feel pretty good about us getting up to speed pretty fast. It’s really a lot easier to build a team now than it used to be,” he said. “Obviously we’ve gotten some really good players. You look at the players starting for us now, a lot of them weren’t here a year ago. You have the more established football powers like Clemson and Florida State that we have to compete with, but other than that, I think it’s a pretty wide open contest. Everybody’s gonna believe they have a good shot at it.”

He noted that it will make it easier to retain coaches as well. The Mustangs’ two previous coaches, Chad Morris and Sonny Dykes, both were lured away by Power 5 jobs.

Realignment has been a difficult road for many teams. Only TCU and Utah have won consistently since moving up the ladder.

The Frogs’ ascent was painful to watch from Dallas. Just 40 miles away, TCU climbed from the same abyss, with Dennis Franchione turning the program around before Gary Patterson elevated it, claiming six top-10, finishes in a 10-year span including winning a Rose Bowl, one of the greatest achievements by a Group of 5 team in the sport’s history. Since they were called up to the Big 12 in 2012, TCU has made $500 million in donor-funded athletics facilities upgrades.

When Patterson and TCU decided to part ways, they lured Dykes, who guided TCU to a Fiesta Bowl win and an appearance in the College Football Playoff national championship game in Year 1.

SMU says its major projects were in the works before Dykes’ departure. But it surely galvanized Mustangs boosters, seeing a coach who embraced Dallas, brought D/FW players home via the transfer portal, and won 10 games for the first time in 40 years, only to lose him to their rivals. Coincidentally or not, alumnus Garry Weber’s $50 million donation for the new end zone project — the largest athletic gift in SMU’s history — was announced 21 days after Dykes left for TCU.

Now SMU will become the state’s sixth Power 5 program — there’s been a concerted effort to call it “the only D/FW school in a top-three conference,” which makes for extra spice in its century-old Iron Skillet rivalry with TCU — and the pressure will be on to capitalize in the same way.

SMU has long struggled to get fans to games, something that has plagued the school for decades since the Dallas Cowboys arrived and due to its small enrollment and alumni base and location in a major city with lots of competition.

“If we can’t ultimately fill our own stadium, we’re out of business,” SMU president Jim Zumberg said in 1978, after Rice-SMU drew 6,918 to the Cotton Bowl.

Zumberg hired Russ Potts as athletic director to fix lagging attendance. Potts’ strategy, called “Mustang Mania,” was to basically give tickets away. In 1979, Rice-SMU drew 60,217 at Texas Stadium.

“We discounted the discounts,” Brad Thomas, who ran the school’s promotions department, told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in 1982. “Then we’d discount the discounted discount tickets.”

Last year, including a record 35,569 fans for Dykes’ return with TCU, SMU’s average attendance was 24,971 — which would rank 13th in the current ACC, about 500 fans ahead of last-place Duke. On Saturday, the day after the ACC announcement, the Mustangs drew 21,490 for the season opener against Louisiana Tech.

But in the best of times, like when Eric Dickerson was setting SWC rushing records, No. 2 SMU vs. No. 9 Arkansas drew 65,000 to Texas Stadium.

For Loyd, that’s another reason to go big. He believes SMU needs to be back at the top of the football world to get Dallas fans re-energized, and believes when marquee teams like Clemson or Florida State come to town, it will attract more than just SMU fans. He compared trading games against Texas and Arkansas and A&M for East Carolina and Charlotte to Major League Baseball, playing the Yankees and Red Sox, then becoming a minor-league team.

“A Triple-A team might be great for Wichita Falls, but it isn’t for Dallas, Texas,” Loyd said. “I don’t think getting that back will be difficult. Now if we go out there and lose every game, it’s gonna be difficult. But I think we’re able to compete and win and be in the championship race every year.”

The Big 12 didn’t want the Ponies. The Pac-12 evaporated just as it started getting interested in the discussion. Now the Mustangs landed a dream spot in the ACC, Miller’s desired location. The 6-foot-8 former SMU basketball player who helped lead the Mustangs to a 1972 Southwest Conference championship will get to sit courtside at Moody Coliseum and watch Duke and North Carolina play on David B. Miller Court.

At the celebration Friday, the front rows were filled with several older boosters who had lived the entire cycle of despair and hope on the Hilltop. They’ve made it their mission to restore the Mustangs to the top before their time is up. Miller and his wife Carolyn have donated more than $100 million to SMU over the years, according to The Dallas Morning News, including a $50 million donation to the business school. This is a personal mission for many of them.

“There were a bunch of guys in that room that not only played football and basketball, but that won championships in the ’50s and ’60s and ’70s,” Miller said. “It’s a proud part of your personal history. Then we had to go through such a difficult time period where not only did we not really have success on the playing field or the basketball arena, but we were stuck at any level that we just didn’t feel like we belonged in.”

So the Mustangs did it by telling the ACC they didn’t need their money. But Loyd said this wasn’t the kind of Texas bravado you might expect from a Texas oilman (he and Miller both made their millions in the energy sector). Instead, he said, it was the opposite.

“We’re coming in as humble pie as one can get,” Loyd said. “We’re the beggars, not the choosers. … A lot of people did a lot of hard work, but this is a good stroke of luck for SMU and this would be the quintessential case of looking a gift horse in the mouth.”

Miller spent time flying all over the country to try to meet with his counterparts at other schools to sell the Mustangs. He admits SMU was slow to recover from the NCAA scandal, when the president and 90% of the board of trustees resigned, calling the university a “rudderless ship” that was “brought to its knees” by the humiliation.

“I think it’s a very healing moment,” Turner, SMU’s president who arrived in 1995 in the final year of the SWC, said of the ACC invitation. “There’s still a lot of resentment about that as well as hurt feelings. This is sort of like a new beginning. It’s a fresh start. It’s an affirmation that the university’s athletic programs have come back.”

Hart said at the celebration ceremony that the Mustangs have a lot of work to do. The stadium is still under construction. There will be a lot more money to raise, tickets to sell and a lot of infrastructure work to do. It’s time to Pony Up.

But Miller is confident that the glory days will return to Dallas again.

“The beast is about to emerge,” Miller said. “Just wait.”

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