SMU's Hail Mary to play big-time football again

The Mustangs once came undone due to booster money. Forty years later, can it come back because of it?

The wild spending of aggressive, wealthy SMU football boosters once killed the program — via an NCAA “death penalty.” That was the 1980s, when local businessmen kept buying talented recruits.

Now the businessmen are back — a new generation, at least — trying to save the program before a final churn of conference realignment leaves the prideful Mustangs behind forever.

Give SMU backers this much: four decades ago, they never blinked at the price of a running back and they sure aren’t blinking now at the far steeper cost of conference realignment. This time it could cost $200 million.

SMU, which is currently a member of the American Athletic Conference (AAC), is so desperate to get into a so-called Power Five league that it is willing to join the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) for free (or close to it).

In a proposal that will likely be voted on Tuesday, SMU could receive an ACC membership offer that calls for the Dallas-based school to receive no media rights revenue for seven to nine years, sources told Yahoo Sports’ Ross Dellenger. After that, the school would start to collect TV revenue from the conference at a rate that would gradually increase.

In an era when everyone is jumping leagues to get more money, SMU is willing to get no money because its monied alums are willing to cover the loss. Money is, literally, not an issue.

How big is the loss? In 2023, the ACC’s 14 current members are expected to receive about $36 million in media rights money, most of it from ESPN. That falls far behind the Big Ten and SEC, which are both in the mid-to-upper $50 million range, but it’s still a lot.

SMU has shrewdly figured out its place in the world and its value to the ACC. The conference’s deal with ESPN runs through 2036. If the ACC adds any members, ESPN must pay the league an additional $24 million per year per expansion team.

If SMU was going to get an equal share, then that would be a non-starter, since every school would receive less from ESPN.

However, by adding SMU for free, the other schools would have $24 million to split among themselves. The ACC is also expected to bring in Cal and Stanford at a cut rate (maybe 30%), meaning that ESPN will pay the league $72 million more per year, but the current members will get about $55 million of that.

The ACC doesn’t want to expand, but has almost no other option if it wants to appease Florida State and Clemson, which are concerned about their revenue shares falling further and further behind their competition in the SEC and Big Ten. Cal and Stanford certainly don’t want to travel all the way to the East Coast, but after the Pac-12 imploded, this is likely their best deal.

An SMU fan wears a T-shirt commemorating
An SMU fan wears a T-shirt commemorating "The Last Game." SMU football received the NCAA's death penalty for the 1987 season. The program did not play in 1988, either. (Phil Huber /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images) (Phil Huber via Getty Images)

For SMU, this is a positive and a chance to be opportunistic. A pay-to-play move to the ACC puts the Mustangs back in a high-major football conference, at least for the time being. And while the move might not make any dollars for the Mustangs right away, it actually makes plenty of sense.

Consider that Big Ten member Michigan State is in the midst of building a new $78 million football facility. If that’s the cost of a building, then Power Five membership without any TV revenue — SMU was getting around $8-9 million a year from the American — doesn’t seem so outlandish.

The businessmen are going to have to cover the bill during the play-for-free years, which will include the premium upgrades of joining a Power Five conference (coaches salaries, infrastructure), plus the TV revenue void.

But this is probably SMU’s last chance to be a player in big-time football again.

The NCAA death penalty caused the program to shut down for the 1987 and 1988 seasons. It's never recovered.

When the old Southwest Conference broke up in 1996, SMU wasn’t invited to the new Big 12 and was left in the limbo of mid-major football.

It then had to watch as Metroplex rival TCU rode coach Gary Patterson and their own small cadre of ridiculously wealthy boosters to secure a spot in the Big 12 in 2011. In January, the Horned Frogs played in the national championship game.

One thing a rich guy from Dallas can’t stomach is a rich guy from Fort Worth getting his way, so it’s not a surprise the SMU boosters are willing to do whatever it takes. They already went big on an NIL deal that assured each player about $36,000 a year in base deals, with plenty more for stars.

Expect SMU to spend millions more. It’s all checkbooks on deck now. There is no time to waste. If in five years, SMU is a national player again, and somehow, some way, it survives the next round of realignment, then it will be worth it.

The program once came undone due to booster money. Nearly forty years later, can it come back because of it?