Can a new football stadium put SMU back in the saddle?
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The death penalty may be a hot issue this election year, but when the topic comes up on the campus of Southern Methodist University, more often than not it evokes February 25, 1987: the day football died. Thirteen years ago the NCAA sentenced the Dallas school to the death penalty—the only time in college football that a university has been banned from playing—crippling the storied program that produced Doak Walker in the late forties and the famed Pony Express in the early eighties. The decade following the Mustangs’ return to the field in 1989 has been notable only for its lack of notability: They’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name.
On September 2, however, SMU will unveil Gerald J. Ford Stadium, part of a $56.8 million complex built on the site of the old facility, Ownby Stadium. While big-time football may have left SMU, big money obviously never did. The university hopes that the largest athletic investment in its history will serve to unite the student body and restore a sense of identity lost during a decade of fumbling around in a post-sanction concussion. At stake for SMU, though, is much more than proving that its boosters can donate in a legal manner. The question is, Can a shiny new home wipe the slate clean?
Of course, no one really knows. However, the excitement surrounding the season opener against the Kansas Jayhawks is a feeling that Mustang fans have not had for a long time (check out the countdown to the game—measured to the tenth of a second—at www.smu.edu). That energy is entirely attributable to the stadium, and the 32,000-seat arena is indeed a beaut. Resolutely built in the Collegiate Georgian style of the rest of the campus, its horseshoe-shape and the redbrick arches of the facade conjure the classic associations of college football: breezy fall afternoons, the band playing after a score, Keith Jackson in the booth.
Recruiting was and always will be difficult for a school of 10,000 students, like SMU, as it must compete against bigger, better-known universities, like Texas A&M and the University of Texas. But after the Mustangs posted mediocre records throughout the seventies, head coach Ron Meyer brought the team to national prominence in 1981 with the explosive attack of option quarterback Lance McIlhenny and running backs Craig James and Eric Dickerson. The offense, known as the Pony Express, went 10-1 that year and set the table for an undefeated 1982 campaign under new head coach Bobby Collins. After a Cotton Bowl win over Dan Marino and the University of Pittsburgh, the Mustangs finished the season ranked number two in the nation.
Even during those heady days, though, the pall of NCAA investigations into recruiting violations hovered over the campus. The offenses came in the form of cash payments to players, cars, rent-free apartments, and more from overzealous boosters or assistant coaches. In 1981 the NCAA found 29 instances of wrongdoing and put the Mustangs on notice with a two-year probation. In 1985 another investigation brought more sanctions: the loss of 45 scholarships over two years, a one-year television ban, and a two-year bowl ban. Incomprehensibly, the violations arrogantly continued, so in 1987 the NCAA dropped its Fat Man on SMU: no football for an entire year.
Only the 1987 season was officially killed, but the devastation has been long-term. The Mustangs canceled their 1988 season and have been moribund on the field ever since, posting a record of 33-85-3 with only one (barely) winning season. “During the death penalty, this apathy set in,” says Jim Johnston, the president of Frost Bank in Dallas and one of SMU’s most active boosters. “People found out they didn’t have to go to football games every Saturday.”
Though 1-10 seasons are hard enough to endure, the Mustangs lost more than just games. During the time that SMU was at its lowest, the landscape of college football was changing, as conferences were becoming more exclusive to attract precious television dollars. When the Southwest Conference atomized in 1995, SMU found itself searching for a new home. As UT, Texas A&M, Baylor, and Texas Tech joined the powerful Big 12, SMU shared a cab with Rice and Texas Christian University over to the Western Athletic Conference (WAC) to battle such far-flung misfits as Nevada, Fresno State, and Hawaii in late-night time slots on ESPN. More humiliation came last year after it was rumored that both SMU and TCU—close rivals for 85 years—were leaving the WAC for the more streamlined Conference USA. But when the invitations came, only TCU got the bid. “We weren’t so upset about not going to Conference USA; it was just the pain of rejection,” says Johnston. To top it all off, more recruiting violations were discovered last year. Though they were attributed to a single assistant coach, who was fired, the specter of foul play took a significant toll on the recruiting class.
A few years previously, though, the SMU faithful had begun to get serious about wrenching the program out of its torpor. People like Lamar Hunt, an SMU alumnus, a member of the pro football Hall of Fame, and the owner of the Kansas City Chiefs; Bob Folsom, a former mayor of Dallas; and Johnston all agreed that a new stadium could work wonders. Working with athletic director Jim Copeland, Hunt and Folsom co-chaired the fundraising campaign.
Things got off to a fast start. Gerald J. Ford, an SMU alum and the CEO of California Federal Bank, provided the first donation, an eye-popping $20 million. Lamar Hunt, oilman Ray Hunt, and Houston businessman Paul Loyd, Jr. (for whom the adjacent sports complex is named) contributed $5 million each, and businessman Sherrill Pettus threw in $3 million. By the time SMU even went public with the campaign, in June 1997, the school had amassed $33 million. The next $20 million took only two years to raise, and when all was said and done, the total sum included thirteen donations of seven figures or more.
“We knew the announcement of the facility would excite our alumni base,” says John Montgomery, SMU’s assistant athletic director for development, “but we didn’t know exactly how they would react. We found out that they were ready for it, hungry.” Montgomery, a bright-eyed man with a ruddy face and a fervent manner, coordinated much of the fundraising, and the vision he sold prospective donors celebrated the distant past. “I would talk to them about having the opportunity to recapture our athletics heritage, and you could see how much it would move them,” he says. In his pitch Montgomery painted the picture of game-day Saturday as being the opportunity for alumni to rekindle old friendships and share memories. “You start by selling the vision of a bricks and mortar, but the end product is selling game-day Saturday on campus. You’re really selling not football but the total university,” he says.
Still, the total university was skeptical. Some critics said that the school had no business pursuing Division I football in the first place. On October 6, 1999, the faculty senate passed a resolution saying that it was “dismayed at the enormous sums of money being spent on the University’s athletic program” and that “the athletic deficit is taking a disproportionate share of the university money that could otherwise be used for academic initiatives.”
University president R. Gerald Turner issued a swift reply. He assured the faculty that the stadium money was only a portion of the $400 million being sought by the university’s capital campaign, reminding them that the athletics program is of primary interest to some SMU donors, many of whom also give to academic programs “from time to time.” Now it seems that many professors are taking “a wait-and-see attitude,” says last year’s faculty senate president, Tom Fomby. “There’s a sense of anticipation here. We’re collecting data in this experiment, and in three or four years we’ll see what happens,” he says. “If they fill the seats and revenue is up, it will be a good thing.”
It appears that the seats will be filled. By mid-August about 9,400 season tickets had been sold, with projected sales to reach 12,000 by opening day. Last season the school sold just 2,400 season tickets. Just as important to SMU fans as filling the seats is where those seats are: on campus. In its heyday, the small school with the big program played its home games in much larger venues than the 23,784-seat Ownby Stadium. “When we played at the Cotton Bowl or Texas Stadium, it never felt like home,” says Johnston. “There’s nothing like the college festival atmosphere, having the stadium on campus and the whole school involved.”
Johnston is the chairman of a committee that for the past two years has been planning the events of opening day, which are solely directed at bringing together every segment of campus, from the academic departments to the athletic boosters. At least sixty tents, reserved by some of the schools’ colleges as well as other groups, will be set up on SMU’s bucolic Bishop Boulevard the morning before the game. There will be food, drink, and music, all on campus. This scene will be repeated before every home game.
Later in the day, the team will even take the field. Though the Mustangs have little hope of returning to national prominence anytime soon, a win against the Jayhawks would be a welcomed punctuation to all the stadium buildup. Yet football is really just the vessel for a different kind of healing going on at SMU. “This will be the biggest day of our lives as SMU supporters,” Johnston says of himself and his wife, who just happen to be missing a family wedding in California to attend. “We’re making a statement that this really is about student-athletes, it is about university life, and we’re making a commitment long-term to excellence and athletics.”