Decades in making, SMU back among college football's elite

Photo Courtesy of SMU Athletics

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DALLAS – SMU President R. Gerald Turner arrived at the Hilltop in June 1995, months before the final season of the Southwest Conference. On Friday in the Bill Armstrong Fieldhouse, Turner, athletic director Rick Hart, and board chair David B. Miller addressed a room full of deep-pocketed Mustangs who felt put out to pasture for four decades with a simple message: “We’re finally back where we belong.” 

The news that the Atlantic Coast Conference voted 12-3 to extend official invitations to SMU, Stanford, and Cal arrived in the wee hours of Friday morning. SMU head coach Rhett Lashlee spent the night before distracted by his twins’ seventh-grade football game. By the time homework was done, he was ready for bed. Besides, he had a Week 1 game against La Tech on the brain. 

Hart wasn’t so lucky. Even the SMU brass wasn’t sure if the three prospective members had the votes. If it was a lock, the deal would’ve been done earlier in the summer. It took a reported flip by North Carolina State to ensure the victory. North Carolina, Hart’s alma mater, voted no alongside Clemson and Florida State, according to reports. 

“What makes you think I went to bed last night? It was a restless night,” he admitted on Friday afternoon. “I didn’t know what to think. There was speculation about what might happen – about who might do what. I think it was as cloudy as it’s ever been. I didn’t have a great sense of what was going to occur this morning.”  

The road back to national football relevance was a long journey. The 1984 team went 10-2 and capped off a four-year run where the Mustangs went 41-5 with two top-10 finishes and one trip to the Cotton Bowl. NCAA violations led to the infamous "Death Penalty" that eliminated the 1987 and 1988 seasons altogether. The Mustangs returned to the football field in 1989, and in the final seven seasons of the SWC the team only won 13 total games. SMU only posted one winning record from 1987 to 2008.

On a ride back from the Cotton Bowl with Lamar Hunt during his first years on the job, Turner convinced the mega donor to lead the cause for an on-campus football stadium as the first step to returning SMU football to relevance. The charge fell $20 million short until Gerald Ford stepped in.

With games back on campus, SMU went about upgrading facilities and establishing consistency on the football field. The program jumped from the WAC to Conference USA and into the American by 2013. The Mustangs won 10 games in 2019 for the first time since 1984 and have posted four straight winning records for the first time since, you guessed it, the Death Penalty was handed out.

So, excuse the higher ups from soaking in the moment.

“Here we are today, a member of one of the top three – remember what I said – top three athletic conferences in the country,” Miller said. “An absolute football conference that’s won three national championships in the last decade. And without a doubt the premier basketball league, claiming seven of the last 15 NCAA Tournament championships. I firmly believe that the conference just got a lot stronger with the addition of the SMU Mustangs and Dallas, Texas.” 

SMU is forgoing nearly a decade of media rights revenue in exchange for the invite, but the Ponies aren’t hurting for money.

SMU possesses some of the best NIL collectives in the country. There is a 100-million dollar end zone complex under construction and the football team might be favored in 10 of the 12 regular season matchups. The Mustangs believe the added revenue through ticket sales, merchandise, and other revenue streams outweigh the lost media rights deal. And as Hart pointed out, you can’t forgo what you don’t have.

“We have to be creative and innovative on how we leverage this,” he said. “We have assets that we have that no one else can correct. With SMU, the institution, Dallas, Texas, and then the generosity of our alumni. Now that we can couple those with Atlantic Coast Conference, that’s going to be pretty positive.” 

The future of college football changed forever thanks to conference realignment and the expansion to a 12-team playoff. Not to mention the transfer portal and NIL. SMU won this round of musical chairs by securing a spot in one of the four best conferences remaining. The Mustangs are now back in the mix, and the infractions that caused decades of misery are no longer illegal. 

Dallas-Fort Worth was left out of major college football when the SWC dissolved when TCU and SMU were left out of the Big 12 merger. The Horned Frogs worked their way into the Big 12 under the guidance of Gary Patterson and reached the national championship last year under former SMU head coach Sonny Dykes. They even paused the Iron Skillet rivalry with SMU after 2025 to play more home games.

But don’t believe the rivalry is dead. In fact, SMU’s move into the Big Four puts the Mustangs on as close to even footing as the two programs have been on in nearly four decades. And even if the football teams won’t play on the field, the metroplex became a lot more interesting on the recruiting trail now that the ACC has a footprint in DFW.

“We’ve always said we’re the only Division I school in Dallas, and we are, but there was always that, ‘Well, yeah, but you’re not in a Power Five conference.' Now, that’s gone,” Lashlee said. “Now, not only are we Power Five, we’re in one of the three best conferences in the country. We’re the only team in Dallas. And we’re the only team in the Metroplex that’s going to start in a top three conference next year. I think that’s going to help us in recruiting.”

But following arguably the biggest celebration in program history, SMU had a game to play the very next day. Would the Mustangs succumb to a season-opening loss with the off-field circus engulfing the boulevard? No chance. SMU cruised to a 38-14 win over Louisiana Tech.

“I didn’t over-address it with them,” Lashlee said. “I told them about it Friday morning when the news had happened, but I said, 'Hey that’s great. That’s the future, but the present, in 24 hours, we’ve got a game.'

“I thought they did a really nice job of focusing and being present. We know what that means for the future, but the present was today and this season.”

As Lashlee said, the future is exciting, but after the game, one wasn't able to tell that the Mustangs would soon be leaving the AAC in the rearview mirror.

“Obviously it’s very exciting news and very exciting for us to hear,” quarterback Preston Stone said. “But at the same time, it’s not at the forefront of our minds. Our main priority, main focus, is trying to do everything we can to bring this university the first championship it’s had in 40 years. We’re in the AAC right now so that’s where our heads are at right now."


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