How SMU got back on the right side of conference realignment

How SMU got back on the right side of conference realignment

OU's opponent Saturday in Norman survived the death penalty and the Southwest Conference's demise. Last week the Mustangs found their way back to power-conference status.

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

| Sep 6, 2023, 11:51pm CDT

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

Sep 6, 2023, 11:51pm CDT

SMU plays at OU on Saturday night, and like the rest of this crazy transition season of college football, the Sooners-Mustangs showdown is a sayWHAT game. It’s an SEC-ACC preview.

In 2024, the Sooners are Southeastern Conference-bound. And Southern Methodist is Atlantic Coast Conference-bound.

We all know the particulars of how and why the Sooners are headed for Dixie. But how did SMU land in a league heretofore made up entirely of Eastern time zone schools, but soon to also include Stanford and California?

The Mustangs are betting on their boosters.

Time was, relying on the deep pockets of donors was nothing but trouble for SMU, the tony school located in the affluent Park Cities, surrounded by Dallas. ”Pony Exce$$” is what ESPN called the 30th and last of its 30 for 30 series of sports documentaries in 2010. SMU’s Pony Express era in the 1980s, led by dual tailbacks Eric Dickerson and Craig James, ended in a two-year shutdown of the program.

NCAA investigators found so many rule violations, the organization gave SMU a one-year banishment from competing. SMU felt forced to tack on another year, just to stabilize what would be a massive rebuild.

Then came the dissolution of the Southwest Conference, in 1996, and SMU was not asked to join the Big 12. The Mustangs have been on a three-decade odyssey to get back to what insiders call an autonomous conference.

And last week, it happened. The ACC invited SMU to join in 2024, but with a major concession. The Mustangs will receive no ACC media-rights money for nine years, an idea that apparently was hatched by SMU itself.

The Mustangs aren’t looking for power-conference money, they’re looking for power-conference pride.

SMU longs for the branding that goes with being in the ACC or Big 12 or Pac-12 (for one more year) or SEC or Big Ten. Conference association has become a bigger component than ever in collegiate athletics. Membership in a league accepted as a power conference produces a status that is unavailable to the schools outside its circle. You’re known by the company you keep.

It will cost SMU a bunch of money to be in a league with Duke and North Carolina, but athletic director Rick Hart figures it’s worth it.

“We have shown we can compete alongside those autonomy programs,” Hart said. “At the same time, there’s a very real perspective and belief that unless you’re in an autonomy conference, you’re somehow not quote ‘competing’ at the highest level.”

The newcomers to the Big 12 (Cincinnati, Central Florida and Houston were in the American Conference with SMU, before joining the Big 12 on July 1) have talked about how their recruiting has been enhanced not by success on the field, but by their new association with bigger brands.

American Conference commissioner Mike Aresco tried to lure Stanford and Cal to his conference. But the Cardinal and Golden Bears were worried as much about status as the finances. They agreed to take smaller shares of ACC media rights, though nothing like the sacrifice SMU is making.

“When we heard Stanford and Cal have no place to go, well, that’s not true,” Aresco said during a break in the College Football Playoff meetings last week in Irving, Texas. “They had a place to go. They weren’t orphans. It’s the idea there’s this desperation now because of the P5 branding.

“I understand the issue of money, it’s based on TV deals, but guys are willing to go for virtually nothing because they feel they need that branding. We’re seeing that play out now.”

That’s exactly how it played out at SMU. But Hart can lean on a school with a $2 billion endowment and alumni who helped make that cushion possible.

In these days when everyone is talking realignment, Hart drops the “re.”

“Alignment, that’s been the key,” said Hart. “From the time I got here (2012) to today, we’ve had great alignment. The president, the board, all the way, the university, the community, to take the steps we needed to take, the investments, to position ourselves to be relevant nationally. Then the realistic outlook that it’s going to take some time.”

Hart is a legacy athletic administrator, who followed both his father (Dave Hart Jr., Missouri) and grandfather (Dave Hart, Florida State and Tennessee) as major-college athletic directors.

Rick Hart works under iconic SMU president Gerald Turner, who has been on the job since 1995, when the Mustangs still were in the Southwest Conference.

Turner was an OU vice president from 1979-84, brought to Norman from Pepperdine by then-OU president Bill Banowsky. Hart was a Sooner associate athletic director under Joe Castiglione from 1999-2006.

Those OU-groomed administrators have done what good administrators do. Focus on school strengths, not weaknesses, and make themselves as attractive as possible.

SMU does not have a large fan base. The Mustangs drew an announced crowd of 21,490 last Saturday against Louisiana Tech, their first game since receiving the ACC invitation last week. And photos have spread across the interwebs of the attendance appearing to be far less than that.

Perhaps that’s why the Big 12, headquartered in SMU’s home Dallas County, showed little interest in adding the Mustangs during multiple rounds of realignment.

But SMU has robust major donors. Who needs to sell tickets when affluent boosters are on board? Hart’s athletic department has raised $250 million for infrastructure over the last 10 years.

 

Most ACC schools have athletic budgets ranging from $100 million to $150 million. SMU’s athletic budget appears to be about $68 million per year, though as a private school those figures are not subject to examination. The budget discrepancy isn’t going away, since ACC members are contracted to receive anywhere from $35 million to $40 million per year from its media-rights deal over that time. SMU will get squat.

But Hart is undeterred.

Compared to power-conference schools, SMU in the last decade has received anywhere from $10 million to $30 million less media money per year, “yet our facilities are on par with anybody in the country,” Hart said. “Our coaches are of the highest quality. The experience of our student-athletes is very similar to TCU or Texas Tech.”

Hart said television money is important, “but the strength and generosity of our alumni and donor base give us a competitive advantage.”

Hart has worked at SMU, OU, North Carolina, Tennessee-Chattanooga and East Carolina. Each has its own challenges and advantages.

“Dallas and SMU, no different,” Hart said. “It’s a great advantage to be in Dallas and the Metroplex. Those are advantages others can’t replicate.”

There are disadvantages, too. Dallas is a competitive marketplace, with five major league franchises, plus thousands of alums from schools all over the Southwest and beyond. If you’re looking for a team to support, sometimes you just migrate to a winner.

“It’s a tradeoff,” Hart said.

According to College Football News, SMU’s average attendance the previous five seasons ranks 82nd out of the 134 Division I-A programs. That puts SMU ahead of only Duke among power-conference programs. The Mustangs’ Gerald J. Ford Stadium has a capacity of 32,000.

But attendance that averages somewhere in the 20,000 range doesn’t put SMU too far out of touch with some of the ACC schools, like Duke, Wake Forest and Boston College.

And Hart has attempted to connect SMU with Dallas, even to the point of the Mustangs’ popular alternate uniforms that proclaim “Dallas” in script across the front of the jersey.

The boosters certainly still support SMU.

Under Hart, SMU has received 47 gifts of at least $1 million and 381 gifts of $100,000 or more. In the 2022 fiscal year, SMU athletics raised $73 million.

Just in the last three years, SMU has invested $125 million in football construction projects. And the Mustangs would seem to be in fine position to use name, image, likeness resources to lure and retain recruits. In other words, what created Pony Exce$$ no longer is against the rules.

Of course, the Mustangs need to win more consistently in football to make the ACC move a success. Staying in the American Conference would have produced an easier path to the upcoming 12-team College Football Playoff, since at least one conference champion per year will be granted a berth in the playoff. In the ACC, stalwarts like Florida State and Clemson figure to be in SMU’s way, even if the Mustangs improve.

For those of a certain age, SMU football had quite the glory. The Doak Walker days of the 1940s made the Mustangs a national name, then the Pony Express teams went 41-5-1 from 1981-84.

SMU still was digging out of the ruins of the death penalty when the Southwest Conference collapsed in 1994-95. That 1-2 punch — exile from competing, then exile from power-conference status — would seem to be a punishment from which there is no return.

After the death penalty, SMU churned through six coaches who departed with a losing record. The Mustangs wandered through three leagues — Western Athletic, Conference USA, now the American.

But Sonny Dykes went 30-18 in four years, before taking the TCU job in December 2021. Rhett Lashlee was hired and produced a 7-6 team in 2022.

“Since I’ve been here, the alignment has been steadfast,” Hart said. “The investments have been significant and generous. We certainly have a lot of momentum.”

Some schools have been left for dead by conference realignment. Doesn’t mean they die. Just means their old partners left them to fend for themselves, with scant provisions.

You’re seeing it now with Oregon State and Washington State out West. Saw it almost 30 years ago with the remnants of the SWC. Could have seen it with a variety Big 12 schools, both 12 and two years ago, had the conference not twice staged a resurrection.

But SMU becomes the third former member of the Southwest Conference to return to a power conference. TCU and Houston made it back to the Big 12. Now SMU to the ACC. Only Rice remains on the outside looking in.

The Mustangs are back in the cool-kids’ club. They are betting on themselves. 

 

 

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Berry Tramel is a 45-year veteran of Oklahoma journalism, having spent 13 years at the Norman Transcript and 32 years at The Oklahoman. He has been named Oklahoma Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sports Media Association. Born and raised in Norman, Tramel grew up reading four newspapers a day and began his career at age 17. His first assignment was the Lexington-Elmore City high school football game, and he’s enjoyed the journey ever since, having covered NBA Finals and Rose Bowls and everything in between. Tramel and his wife, Tricia, were married in 1980 and live in Norman near their daughter, son-in-law and three granddaughters. Tramel can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at [email protected].

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