Mac Engel

SMU is undefeated but its goal is to join TCU as a Power 5 conference team

SMU students know the Death Penalty only by name, and the president of the private school in Dallas estimates what shattered the school’s football program was not that infamous sanction but rather the same thing that once afflicted TCU.

“When I first got here in 1995, the commitment from the board of regents was to recover from the Death Penalty,” SMU President R. Gerald Turner said in a recent interview. “But that was compounded by the fact that we changed conferences when we were left out of the Big 12. That’s what really got us.”

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Other than not having a power football team in the 1980s, TCU and SMU are analogous. Both received harsh NCAA penalties in the ‘80s, and were left out when the Big 8 and Southwest Conference merged in 1995 to form the Big 12.

It took TCU 15 years, give or take, lots of wins, lots of millions, and the luck of a 1,000 lifetimes to earn the invite back into the conference that dumped it. SMU has needed even more time, and, if it can take anything from TCU’s plan, is to recognize that this season is not an arrival.

For the first time since the NCAA took the unprecedented measure and gave the SMU football program “The Death Penalty” in 1987 for countless violations the team itself is relevant for the right reasons. The university features a football program that is a point of sale.

The Mustangs are 6-0, and ranked No. 19 in the nation. This is the first year they have been ranked since 1986.

On Saturday, SMU will host No 25 Temple (coaches’ poll) at Gerald Ford Stadium in Dallas; it’s the first time in that stadium both teams will be ranked.

Turner himself admits that his university does not need this from its football team to sell his school to prospective students or donors. That this sort of success “is gravy,” he said.

“I’ve often said you don’t have to be 10-2 or 12-0,” Turner said, “but you can’t be 0-12 or 2-10; then it becomes a detriment. It is important that every part of your university to be viewed in a positive way.”

To propel its brand, TCU needed football more than SMU.

SMU has always maintained a reputation on the fringe of the college’s holy grail: The U.S. News World and Report Top 50. Football is not going to change that.

What a football team can do is enhance the brand and generate “free” positive advertising and marketing. That is the element that TCU capitalized on, and has eluded from SMU for decades.


In 2008, I served as an adjunct professor in TCU’s school of journalism and taught a night course. On a Thursday night, TCU hosted BYU in an important MWC game.

I offered the students the chance to skip the class to attend the game on what was a perfect fall evening with no penalty; those types of evenings make the college experience.

All 13 students opted to take that night’s class instead of going to the game. In fairness, I am just that compelling of a teacher, so don’t blame the students.

Three years ago, I taught another class at TCU and asked the 12 students if their decision to attend the school was influenced by football team. Every hand was raised.

This fall, I teach a class at SMU and asked the 20 students if their decision to attend the school was based on the football team. The answer is zero.

That is the impact of a winning football team, and every single administrator wants it.

“In Texas you need to be competitive in athletics and in football,” Turner said. “Look at Rice; its academics are above all of us but they believe there is a real role in intercollegiate athletics. We feel the same way.”


Under first year coach Sonny Dykes, whose father, Spike, was the long time coach at Texas Tech, SMU is relevant in a way that it has not been since it came back from the two year break in football in 1989.

There was a bump when the school buried June Jones in cash in 2009, and the team did make four straight bowl appearances. That success did not generate the type of attention the team has this year.

Looking at their schedule, the Mustangs could go undefeated and be that adorable “little” non-P5 team that is left out of the playoffs that spurs discussion about expanding the field from four to eight.

Turner’s ultimate goal for his athletic department, and specifically his football program, was the same as TCU’s was 15 years ago. The hope is for somehow either SMU, or its conference, to be a part of the Power 5.

“The disparity is enough you have to aspire, and if you believe the P5s they don’t plan to expand,” Turner said. “That is why the American (Athletic Conferences) pushes it to be the P6. There is no reason not to have it be the P6.”

The only reason not to extend an invite is, of course, cash. Those who run the Power 5 have no interest to share their money.

In looking at the future of college athletics, specifically football, there is a better chance of the P5 shedding teams rather than expanding.

But if TCU had embraced that sort of defeated thinking, it would not be member of the Big 12. It would have been content succeeding in Conference USA, or the Mountain West.

For the first time in a generation SMU is enjoying the type of positive energy and publicity a school craves from its football team.

For a new generation on The Hilltop, The Death Penalty is dead, and the goal is no longer recovery.

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This story was originally published October 16, 2019 7:00 AM.

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