The SMU Mustangs are 4-0 for the first time in 35 years, and we have no idea who to talk to about it. They are the only team in this conference where we can’t think of a single media member or blogger or podcaster who covers them. I think the prevailing opinion of SMU athletics is that it’s a hopeless operation with no fan support. That’s not really fair, though. Take a look at their athletic history and it will make USF look like a sporting dynasty.
Do you know how long it’s been since SMU football had a nine-win season without Sherwood Blount’s help? It was all the way back in 1948, when the Mustangs won the Cotton Bowl and Doak Walker won the Heisman. There are very few living SMU alums who even remember those days. We all know what happened in the 1980s, but unlike some fans who remain defiant when the NCAA vacates their team’s accomplishments, the SMU community felt a lot of shame and anger when the death penalty was handed down. I think people who were around then look back on the greatest stretch of football in their history with mixed emotions at best. Even today, the school is unsure how to reckon with the Pony Express era. They’re reluctant to bring former players back to campus, and you won’t find banners or statues of those years around Ford Stadium. What you end up with is a virtual lifetime of losing, interrupted only by a couple of pretty good years under June Jones, and an era no one really wants to celebrate.
Men’s basketball is a similar story. Hiring Larry Brown was a coup, but it was never going to be a long-term solution, and the air has pretty much gone out of the balloon now. Before that, the last time they reached the NCAA Tournament was 1993, which ended up being a fluke. The last time they made consecutive NCAA appearances was 1984 and 1985, led by head coach (gulp) Dave Bliss. The only long-term success SMU basketball has ever had was in the 1950s and 1960s, when Doc Hayes led them to eight Southwest Conference titles and a Final Four in 1956. It’s been mostly crumbs since then. In fact, the most famous basketball game ever played at Moody Coliseum, their home arena, didn’t involve the Mustangs at all -- it was a Dallas Mavericks playoff game.
Here’s where I would bring up baseball or softball, but SMU hasn’t had a varsity baseball team since 1980, and they’ve never had a softball team. With all the recruitable talent around the area, they’d probably get good really fast if they wanted to form teams. Even Dallas Baptist has an NCAA Tournament-caliber baseball team, and I barely know where that school is. But there’s no indication that SMU wants to add either sport.
That’s why it isn’t fair to make fun of SMU’s fan support. It is not a big school (only around 6,500 undergrads at last count), but its students and alums are proud and loyal. No one settles for SMU because they couldn’t get in to Texas or Oklahoma. You go there because you want to go there. And the students and alumni who care about sports have suffered through almost constant losing, misery, and indifference. Unless you were a women’s basketball fan in the 90s, what joy has SMU athletics ever given to any fan under the age of 50? I’ve lived in the DFW area for 17 years and only on two occasions have I noticed any buzz about SMU athletics, locally or nationally. One was for “Pony Excess,” which doesn’t count. The other was when Larry Brown was coaching the basketball team. A newly renovated Moody Colliseum was selling out, everyone was using their tickets, the students showed up, Troy Aikman and George W. Bush were sitting courtside... for a hot minute, they were a truly big deal. Give the university and the city of Dallas a reason to show up, even if it’s only to climb on board a bandwagon, and they’ll do it.
Despite the last three decades of pain, there’s always been a football culture at SMU. The scene on Bishop Boulevard before games is really cool, with rows of tailgating tents, satellite TVs, catered food from all over town, and plenty of friendly people who are happy to share a beer and a story with you. The problem has always been getting people away from “boulevarding” and into the stadium. If it turns out the Mustangs are a real contender for the conference title, and if Sonny Dykes and the athletic department have the know-how to finally build a sustainable program, my hunch is that Dallas will decide to get behind SMU football. And we’ll see that the team does have fans... fans who have been waiting a long, long time for the sun to shine again.