DALLAS — Almost 30 years ago, SMU was one of the biggest victims of the first modern wave of conference realignment.
When the Southwest Conference disbanded in 1995, Texas, Oklahoma, Texas Tech and Baylor joined the Big Eight to form the Big 12. SMU and a cast of others that included TCU ended up in the WAC. The program that went 41-5-1 in the “Pony Express” days of the early 1980s before the NCAA delivered the “Death Penalty” was left in the wilderness.
On Friday, SMU completed the long road back, joining the ACC alongside Stanford and Cal to cap the most recent round of conference realignment, which again involved Texas and again may kill a conference.
This time, the Mustangs ended up in a so-called “power” conference. This time, it was a celebration.
“We’re finally back where we belong,” SMU board chair David B. Miller announced to a crowd of hundreds that gathered inside SMU’s indoor practice facility to celebrate the news. The event ended with athletic director Rick Hart popping a champagne bottle of confetti.
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SMU was willing to do whatever it took to get a power conference invitation. That included taking the unprecedented step of forgoing nine years of Tier 1 media rights revenue from the ACC out of the 13 years left in the league’s contract with ESPN, per sources familiar with the decision. Never before has a school given up so much to join the club. But that’s not how SMU leaders look at it.
“You can’t give away what you didn’t have,” said one SMU official.
It doesn’t mean SMU will get nothing. There are other conference distributions, such as College Football Playoff revenues, NCAA Tournament units, other media rights and more. SMU earned about $8-9 million annually in total distribution from the American Athletic Conference. Even without Tier 1 media rights money, the Mustangs will earn at least that same amount annually in the ACC. And that doesn’t take into account increased ticket sales when Florida State and Clemson football and Duke and North Carolina basketball come to town.
To help make up for the deficit relative to other ACC schools, SMU’s boosters could spend upwards of $100 million or more in total over the coming years.
“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,” said Paul B. Loyd Jr., the former offshore drilling CEO who played football at SMU and whose name now adorns the indoor practice field and all-sports center.
“If you look at the investment compared to what you get back, it’s pretty simple (for SMU) from a business point of view. The money makes sense.”
It’s a major level-up for a school that spent gobs of money to show it belonged again. It spent tens of millions on the indoor practice facility where Friday’s event was held. It’s in the process of building a $100 million end zone facility. Other sports have terrific facilities. The Mustangs lap most of the Group of 5 in the name, image and likeness market.
“You think about where our school has come from in the last three or four decades,” head coach Rhett Lashlee said. “There are so many fans, alumni, board members, supporters that have longed for this day for decades.”
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SMU officials began talking with the ACC in 2021 as the school tried to find a spot in conference realignment. SMU fits much of the ACC profile as a private school with strong academics and wealthy boosters. But it hadn’t had the breakthrough sports moment on a national stage like UCF and Cincinnati had.
Discussions with the Pac-12 this year were so deep that commissioner George Kliavkoff visited SMU in the spring for a basketball game, trying to hide from the public eye before he was spotted by reporters. But the Pac-12 refused to expand until it finished its media rights deal. That media rights proposal was delayed so long that Colorado jumped to the Big 12 before it was presented, and then the league crumbled when the eventual Apple proposal wasn’t good enough. Elsewhere, there was little to no interest from Big 12 schools in adding a well-funded program in Dallas.
It wasn’t clear in recent weeks whether the ACC would get the votes to add Stanford, Cal and SMU. The financial model with the three forgoing so much revenue was enough to flip NC State, but Florida State, Clemson and North Carolina still voted against it.
Hart grew up in ACC country and is a North Carolina graduate. He knew how the votes played out.
“I’ve said two things today I’ve not said before and not sure I will again: Go Blue Devils and Go State,” he said, referring to Duke and NC State.
Both Lashlee and Miller said SMU was now in a “top-three” conference with the ACC, a not-so-subtle shot at the Big 12. The line by Miller was emphasized a second time and drew cheers from the crowd.
It’s been a long road back.
“It’s one thing if you’ve never been where we’re going, but when SMU has been on that stage and at the top of collegiate athletics, it’s harder to understand not being in this position,” Lashlee said. “There’s a lot of validation that we’re back in a position where we can be on that stage and compete at that level.
“We feel like we belong, and we just haven’t been able to for a while.”
(Photo courtesy of Chris Vannini)