Just when you probably thought you’d seen conference realignment give us the craziest, most illogical dance partners imaginable, there’s word that Southern Methodist University may be headed for membership in the once august Pac-12 Conference.

You may be thinking that SMU joining a West Coast conference with Stanford, Oregon, and Washington makes no sense. SMU has called Dallas home for the last 112 years and was a proud member of the Southwest Conference for 78 years, right up until the conference’s 1996 demise.

What’s next? Rutgers joining the Big Ten? Central Florida in the Big 12? Whoops, Rutgers has been a member of the Big Ten since 2014, and Central Florida will join the Big 12 this summer. Welcome to the world of college sports realignment, where no idea is too ridiculous. 

So asking SMU student athletes to travel to competitions in Seattle or Palo Alto and then hustle back to Texas for an 8 a.m. psych class is the latest indication of the madness that has become normal. It seems the lives of the student athletes is almost never a consideration—but then again, perhaps academics have never been a priority in college sports, and we just keep finding new ways to demonstrate it.

These most recent disruptions come as the NCAA barrels toward a model in which fifty or sixty schools will compete in major Division I sports, and the 32 planned members (for now) of the Southeastern Conference and Big Ten will control pretty much everything. That means at least seventy other schools currently competing at that level would have to vie for a dozen or so slots in whatever groups survive this round of conferential drift. The losers in this game of musical chairs will be consigned to lesser status (and fewer dollars).

Just ask SMU. Pac-12 membership would end almost three decades of irrelevance for the Mustangs, dating back to when the Big 12 didn’t extend membership to the school after the breakup of the Southwest Conference. Over the past 27 years, SMU has spent time in the Western Athletic Conference, Conference USA, and the American Athletic Conference. None of them provided the school with the platform or finances to be relevant.

In theory, the Pac-12 would do that. But before you hit StubHub looking for SMU–Stanford tickets, there’s one teensy area of concern: There might not be a Pac-12 for SMU to join. Or, there might be a Pac-12 so diminished that it isn’t much better than SMU’s current home in the AAC.

According to recent reports, all that needs to happen now is for Pac-12 officials to convince a television network or streaming service that the Mustangs—and probably San Diego State—would help offset the loss of USC and UCLA to the Big Ten. Other rumored moves, however, could knock SMU’s plans off course. The Big Ten is said to have its eye on at least a couple more Pac-12 schools. Meanwhile, the Big 12 has reportedly kicked the tires on adding Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and Arizona State.

The Pac-12, in its more or less current construction, needs Apple TV or Amazon or another broadcaster to agree to pony up (we couldn’t resist) the cash to keep the conference in business before schools like Oregon and Washington join USC and UCLA in the Big Ten. SMU’s appeal to the Pac-12 is that it would allow the conference to expand its television footprint into the Central time zone and potentially deliver millions of viewers in Dallas, if not the entire state of Texas.

Has no one has had the heart to tell these Californians that the Longhorns, Aggies, and Sooners are the top draws, even in Dallas? Or that it may be difficult to work up much excitement for an SMU–Cal game when the Southeastern Conference, Big Ten, and Big 12 are playing on other channels?

That may not even be the point. The Pac-12 needs to maintain its membership at twelve teams—it’ll be down to ten after USC and UCLA leave. This is not because conferences feel any need for their names to make sense (the Big Ten currently has fourteen); it’s because more teams means more games and more television inventory, which could be worth millions more in rights fees. Also, as the Pac-12 fights to survive, it can’t hurt to plant a flag in Texas.

When I asked a Big 12 athletics director about this, he predicted that no streaming service—even Amazon or Apple—had the distribution numbers to appeal to the Pac-12 without overpaying for the rights. Chicken or egg? The streaming services could offer money but not viewers. However, the prestige of a Pac-12 partnership could help build a streamer’s subscription base. “What about bars and restaurants?” the AD asked. “Do you know a single one that has either of those streaming services?” 

Give Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff credit for working furiously to hold his conference together. SMU is arguably the most attractive addition the Pac-12 could make among the dozens of non–Power Five schools, and Kliavkoff’s pursuit of SMU, including his recent attendance at an SMU basketball game, was the worst-kept secret in Dallas.

SMU joining the Pac-12, even a diminished Pac-12, would prompt a big, happy parade up Hillcrest Avenue. Former Mustang greats Jerry Levias and Eric Dickerson would almost surely be there, and with them would flow nearly a century of what SMU football once meant, from Doak Walker to Don Meredith to Kyle Rote.

Financially, the move would be a no-brainer. SMU is earning around $7 million a year in media rights from the American Athletic Conference. Even a discounted Pac-12 rights package would likely pay four or five times that much. And a return to Power Five football might finally bring some closure to SMU after the NCAA used the “death penalty” to shut the program down over repeat violations in which football players were paid with cash and cars. (Imagine that? Athletes being compensated for the value they create?)

SMU was ordered not to play in 1987 and chose not to play in 1988, and the program never truly recovered.

Memories of that scandal were part of the reason SMU wasn’t invited to join the Big 12 when the Southwest Conference came undone. SMU made a pitch for Big 12 membership in 2016 and again last year when Texas and Oklahoma announced a jump to the SEC. Yet even with the Big 12 in survival mode, the conference’s four-school expansion—Houston, Brigham Young, Cincinnati, and Central Florida—managed to snub SMU.

Perhaps Pac-12 membership would compel fans to return to SMU football games. Despite an on-the-field renaissance under former head coach Sonny Dykes, who left for TCU (and the Big 12) after the 2021 season, SMU’s attendance numbers have sagged. Over the last five seasons, SMU has averaged less than 22,000 fans per game in announced attendance at the 32,000-seat Gerald J. Ford Stadium

The school has tried to gin up more enthusiasm for the program. One marketing campaign featured the gold Pontiac Trans Am that played an infamous role in the effort to recruit Dickerson in 1979, along with the slogan “All Roads Lead to Dallas.” SMU also added “Dallas” to the front of their jerseys to stoke hometown pride. The team even unveiled helmets with stripes similar to the ones the Dallas Cowboys wore during Meredith’s time as quarterback.


SMU is adding a $100 million end-zone expansion to its on-campus home stadium, and school officials could reasonably expect that home games against nationally recognized programs like Oregon and Washington will draw larger crowds than many of the Mustangs’ AAC opponents have.

But no matter what scheme SMU and the Pac-12 cook up, the realignment earthquakes will keep coming, and outside of the 32 schools committed to the Big Ten and SEC, no program—except, perhaps, Notre Dame—seems comfortable with the current lay of the land. Just last weekend, athletic directors at Florida State and Clemson questioned the financial footing of the Atlantic Coast Conference and raised the possibility of finding better deals with other conferences.

In that regard, SMU stands to benefit from conference realignment, no matter how absurd it becomes. For an athletic department and football program that has been stuck in a rut since the eighties, any move to a Power Five conference will deliver increases in revenue and prestige. Even if that conference is based in California.