DALLAS — In August 2022, Eric Dickerson and Craig James walked toward a blue Ford Shelby Mustang in a warehouse on the east side of downtown Dallas. They stopped, went back and walked in again. And again.
For several hours this afternoon, they starred in the filming of SMU’s 2022 football commercial, themed “Same Pony, New Express.” The commercial shoot wrapped at night near Reunion Tower, where Dickerson, James and their former teammate, quarterback Lance McIlhenny, were joined by head coach Rhett Lashlee and several players.
Sitting in the parking lot was a gold Pontiac Trans Am, the same kind of car Dickerson infamously received from a Texas A&M booster during his recruitment. The car was filmed but didn’t make it into the final cut, though SMU included it on a social media recruiting graphic last spring.
— SMU Football (@SMUFB) September 9, 2022
After years of disavowal of and disassociation with its most famous period of football in the 1980s, SMU had begun to embrace its past, both the warts and the wins. It wanted to remind people what SMU football was and could be again. Now, it feels it can.
Before the sun rose last Friday morning, James awoke to a text from Lashlee.
“We got it done.”
Thirty-five years after SMU football’s “Death Penalty” and 29 years after the Southwest Conference dissolved, SMU will be back in a top-tier conference when it joins the ACC next summer.
“We’re finally back where we belong,” said David B. Miller, SMU’s board chair and a major donor who played basketball at the school (and whose name is on the court).
SMU won’t take any Tier 1 media rights revenue from the ACC for nine years, according to sources familiar with the arrangement. The school will still receive other distributions like College Football Playoff and NCAA Tournament money, but it’s an unprecedented sacrifice.
To make up for the vast difference with other ACC schools, SMU’s boosters plan to contribute well north of $150 million over that period, they say. They don’t plan to be a doormat. In taking this deal, no school has ever bet on itself this much. But ambition and money have never been in short supply on the Hilltop.
It was SMU’s booster culture and connection with the university that brought about the Death Penalty. In a full-circle moment, it’s a new booster culture and alignment with the university that brought the program back to this moment. The school that dominated “NIL” long before it was legal has plans to do it again.
“They need to get to a major conference,” Dickerson told The Athletic last year. “This goes way back to when I played. Texas, Texas A&M — those schools were jealous of us because we were a smaller school kicking their ass.”
SMU football is the home of Doak Walker, the 1948 Heisman Trophy winner. The school claims three national championships, two of those during a 41-5-1 run from 1981-84 when Dickerson, James and McIlhenny formed the Pony Express backfield. That small private school was beating the big state schools. It was also funneling money to a lot of players.
Every college football fan knows about the 1987 Death Penalty, the shutdown of SMU football over two seasons for repeatedly violating NCAA rules with inducements to players in the 1970s and ’80s, a practice that was widespread throughout the SWC. It was the basis for one of the most popular ESPN 30 for 30 documentaries, “Pony Excess.” The school as a whole was “brought to its knees” by the scandal, Miller said, as SMU’s president and 90 percent of its trustees resigned.
But the demise of the SWC in the mid-1990s as the school struggled to rebuild was just as gutting in the long-term.
“It was another death,” said Thaddeus Matula, the SMU alumnus who directed the 30 for 30 documentary. “You knew SMU football was never going to compete for a national championship again.”
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Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech and Baylor went off to the new Big 12 and left SMU behind. Current SMU president R. Gerald Turner took the job in the final year of the SWC. The conference was all he’d known his entire life, and it just disappeared.
“I felt like I came in on a wake,” he said. “I’ve talked to some friends who are presidents at Pac-12 schools. I told Washington State president Kirk Schultz, ‘I’ve lived through what you’re going to live through. It’s not fun.’”
SMU joined the bloated 18-team WAC, then Conference USA. Then it watched rival TCU win a Rose Bowl and earn a Big 12 invitation. By the time SMU joined the Big East in 2013, the conference had been reformed into the American Athletic Conference and lost its BCS status.
“It felt like purgatory,” Matula said of those two decades.
When June Jones took SMU to four consecutive bowls from 2009 to 2012, the school’s first since 1984, it was a sign of life. In response to some success, the university began to mobilize around athletics. Finally, the scars of the Death Penalty started to fade.
“It’s been a growing feeling for the past decade or so,” said Miller, who has been the board chair for 15 years. “There’s no question that over that time, increasingly, the leadership of the university, the faculty have embraced the premise that athletic success is important. It impacts the brand. It impacts the way the university is perceived. You can have both.”
SMU began to invest more in athletics. It upgraded its facilities, in large part thanks to deep-pocketed supporters who wanted to get back. People like Miller, a former oil and gas CEO who has donated more than $100 million to the school, and Paul B. Loyd Jr., a former football captain and offshore drilling CEO who has donated tens of millions as well. The school’s all-sports office and a school housing building are named after Loyd. SMU opened an indoor practice field in 2019 at the cost of tens of millions of dollars, named after benefactors Bill and Liz Armstrong, who also made money in the energy sector.
“We’re a small school, we don’t have that many alumni, but we’ve had some successful alumni like me that attribute a lot of it to the education they got here, and we want to give back,” Loyd said.
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Sonny Dykes embraced DFW and the state of Texas as head coach and brought SMU back to the AP top 20 in 2019 for the first time since 1986. When Dykes left for the TCU job across town and infuriated SMU fans in late 2021, NIL donations skyrocketed. Three weeks after Dykes left, businessman and former football player Gary Weber donated $50 million toward a $100 million end zone facility that will be completed next year. The Armstrongs donated $15 million to it as well.
“The decision makers tell us our facilities are already at a Power 5 level,” Miller said.
It all came at the perfect time. The chain reaction started by Texas and Oklahoma’s departure for the SEC opened doors. One of those closed when the Big 12 took Houston, Cincinnati, UCF and BYU. SMU also talked to the ACC. When USC and UCLA announced their move to the Big Ten in summer 2022, SMU became a top Pac-12 target.
Pac-12 talks were so deep that commissioner George Kliavkoff visited SMU on Feb. 8 and took in a basketball game. It seemed only a matter of time before SMU and San Diego State would get their invites. But the Pac-12’s media rights negotiation dragged on, and the Apple TV-heavy deal wasn’t enough, as Pac-12 schools scattered for the Big Ten and Big 12.
Athletic director Rick Hart always had his eyes on the ACC. Hart is a North Carolina graduate with deep ties to the conference; his father Dave Hart Jr. was Florida State’s AD for 12 years. Before the Pac-12 blew up, the ACC and SMU had spent more than a year in deep discussions.
“I always hoped I’d be an athletic director in the ACC one day,” Hart said. “To do it at SMU, in my wildest dreams, it hadn’t entered my mind.”
But to join the ACC, alongside Pac-12 remnants Stanford and Cal, at least one mind would need to be flipped. Clemson, Florida State, North Carolina and NC State opposed the additions in an informal straw poll of ACC members in early August.
SMU’s pitch from Turner, Miller and Hart focused on its media market (No. 5), its academics (No. 72 per U.S. News), its recent football success, its money and its willingness to forgo a lot of it. The lobbying continued for the next few weeks, reportedly featuring George W. Bush, whose presidential library is on the campus and who attends some SMU sporting events.
“They had a strong sales pitch,” ACC commissioner Jim Phillips said. “They were really well organized and strong in their beliefs about SMU. It was done professionally.”
SMU, Cal and Stanford upped their offers. SMU, once forgoing media rights revenues for five years, went to seven and then nine. The extra millions that would come into the rest of the conference were meant to change minds. Dallas could be used as a hub for some sports and a layover for travel — SMU is four miles from Love Field airport. Stanford and Cal strongly supported their inclusion, Phillips said.
Eventually, finally, NC State flipped, and SMU officials got the call from Phillips a little after 6 a.m. CT on Friday morning. Miller got a call from former President Bush, who called it one of the finest days in the school’s history.
“It’s almost like it’s unreal,” said McIlhenny.
“I’ve said two things today I’ve not said before and not sure I will again: Go Blue Devils and Go State,” Hart said Friday, referring to the support from Duke and NC State.
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Hart emphasized that although SMU will forgo a good amount of ACC money, it will still get as much if not more conference distribution as it got from the AAC (around $8-9 million annually). As SMU officials put it, you can’t give up something you never had.
The boosters who have already donated hundreds of millions to the school have promised more. One familiar with their plans said that number could total upwards of $150 million to make up the difference with other ACC schools, but Miller said, “I think the number is substantially higher than that. You can do the math.”
That math makes for around a $25-30 million per year difference. Local entrepreneur Rogers Healy, another SMU supporter, said, “SMU has enough boosters to make up for that in a couple of hours.” It’s a key reason SMU was selected over other Group of 5 schools that would come in at a substantial financial disadvantage. SMU collectives say they provide $36,000 each to football and men’s basketball players, which laps the G5 competition. That also came up with commissioners, Miller said.
“All of us in the ACC wanted to know there was a commitment that they want to be really good,” Phillips said. “We felt really comfortable and confident that SMU has all of it lined up to get off to a fast start.”
While SMU’s university profile — a private school with good academics in a major city — matches much of the ACC’s membership, it will be the smallest school in the conference with around 7,000 undergraduates. Its 32,000-seat stadium will be the second-smallest in the league. It only offers 16 sports, without baseball or softball. Men’s basketball hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament since 2017. It doesn’t have fan support on the level of most Power 5 schools. SMU has embraced Dallas, but Dallas hasn’t fully embraced SMU.
The hope is a new conference will change that. SMU built this much as a Group of 5 school. SMU officials and boosters believe ACC membership will open the pockets of more alumni, those who hadn’t dreamed of SMU athletics being on the biggest stage. Healy, who has a background in real estate, believes it will transform Dallas if SMU wins. Miller said the school has a goal of becoming a top-50 national university. It’s raised $1 billion as part of a $1.5 billion capital campaign, and this news will only help that.
“Imagine what they’ll do when SMU is a top-10 team,” Healy said.
It all starts with football. By embracing Texas and DFW under Chad Morris, Dykes and now Lashlee, SMU has improved its talent in a major way. The Mustangs’ transfer class in 2023 ranked 13th nationally, according to 247Sports. SMU’s current 247Sports Team Talent Ranking is 34th nationally and would rank sixth in the ACC, ahead of programs like Pitt and NC State, though that’s impacted by the high school rating of the transfers.
SMU could already get itself in the door with most major transfer players, in part thanks to NIL. Now coaches expect doors to open to the top high school players, too. TCU won’t be the only power-conference program in Dallas-Fort Worth anymore. Lashlee and Miller have already said SMU is the only DFW school in a “top-three conference,” an unsubtle dig at TCU and the Big 12 that spurned them.
“If SMU were in the Big 12 right now, they would have a top-three recruiting class because of Dallas, the campus, the education,” James said. “I see no reason for us not to be going toe-to-toe with the top kids in Texas coming up. Not on the rebound, but on the first go-round.”
James remembers SMU at its peak, playing in front of packed crowds at Texas Stadium. SMU games were once the place to be in Dallas. But can a small private school still sustain in this day and age? Can you buy your way there? In the new world where boosters can legally fund players — in many cases with more money than players got in the 1980s — SMU feels like it has a better chance than most.
SMU fought its way back to this moment. The Death Penalty wasn’t meant to cripple the program for a generation. The collapse of the SWC was an even greater unforeseen hurdle. As college football consolidates at the top, this may have been SMU’s last chance to have a chance. The Mustangs’ time atop college football was taken away. They want to prove they can get it back.
Matula, the 30 for 30 director, was present at Friday’s ACC celebration. One of his first childhood memories was watching SMU football. The Death Penalty happened when he was 8 years old. He couldn’t understand it. All these years later, after this news, he’s dreaming like a kid again. He’s also joking that he needs to make a documentary sequel. The title this time?
(Top photo: John Rivera / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)