Published on DMagazine.com
Any other year and Bishop Boulevard would be a wall of SMU football fans awaiting kickoff. It’s the school’s 100th homecoming celebration. The college football polls have SMU ranked 16th. They’ll play the 9th-ranked team, the University of Cincinnati. On this late afternoon, at the end of October, they’re two of the last nine undefeated teams in college football’s top level. It has been decades since SMU has played a homecoming game that mattered. Any other year and this place would have been full of life.
Beginning at Mockingbird Lane—past the short, curved brick wall that bears the university’s name, past the dozens of thick Southern live oak trees that stretch north to Dallas Hall—Bishop Boulevard would have been closed. Large tents would have been there to match the large crowds dressed in red, white, and blue. Music and laughter and grill smoke would hang in the air. Past and present students and former players would have celebrated SMU football’s resurgence. It has been decades since the team mattered.
SMU football—the program synonymous with death—is breathing again. This comes after over 30 years in which it had more head coaches (eight) than winning seasons (six). In that time, SMU won three or fewer games in a season 14 times. They even considered playing in a lower division; they’ve been so poor, they contemplated demoting themselves.
But last season, for the first time since Ronald Reagan was president, the team won 10 games. For the first time in decades, polls ranked the Mustangs among the top 25 college football teams in the nation. The team is back to playing important, nationally televised games, like this one, under the lights in a dark Texas night, against Cincinnati. And yet, since the pandemic has made this a strange and deadly time, there’s hardly anyone here, in person, to bear witness to SMU’s revival.
There’s no crowd tailgating, which would have grown louder as kickoff approached. No SMU Mustang Band playing while marching down the middle of the street. No cheerleaders trailing behind them. There are no mirror image coeds drinking and laughing. No young children of alumni, playing catch beneath the shade of so many trees and atop lush green grass.
Instead of cheerleaders animating the crowd, they walk without drawing attention, together, across campus on their way to the Gerald J. Ford Stadium a few hours before kickoff. Instead of the band playing while marching through a gauntlet of admirers, they practice by Doak Walker Plaza, beside the stadium where workers check the temperature of the few people allowed entry. And instead of a pre-game celebration on Bishop Boulevard, where it would have all taken place, there’s a white sandwich board sign with red letters that read “No Tailgating.”
The only thing that remains the same is that Bishop Boulevard is closed. Always cautious of who they welcome, university workers and campus police—all hiding their faces—open the barricades only for those who have business being on the lonely campus during game day. Despite this being the most important game played here in the last 30-plus years, the campus, ranked among the most beautiful in the country, is abandoned.
On this late October afternoon, on a day that’s been cold, cloudy, and misty throughout, the only sign of warmth are the lights wrapped around the trees near Dallas Hall. They look like the Christmas decorations that, soon after Thanksgiving, brighten the cold fall and winter nights. They’re a reminder of what a subdued celebration it’ll all be. Of what a painful year it has been.
SMU football is breathing again, right as it feels like the rest of the country struggles to do the same.
The marches began soon after Minneapolis police officers killed George Floyd on May 25. Across the country, tens of thousands protested police violence, marched for Black lives, and so much more. And Dallas and North Texas, some 860 miles away from Minneapolis but well versed in deadly police violence, was no different. That was about two and a half months after Texas’ governor said, “COVID-19 poses an imminent threat of disaster.”
The pandemic closed entire cities and countries around the world. And again, Dallas and North Texas were no different. “We have to turn from selfishness to sacrifice,” Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins said as he ordered movie theaters, gyms, and bars closed. Restaurants could only offer takeout and delivery. He “strongly urged” organizations serving high-risk populations—Black and Latinos, the highest among all—to cancel their gatherings. At that point, March 16, Dallas County had 19 confirmed COVID-19 cases. On the day of George Floyd’s murder—a sorrowful Memorial Day—Dallas county reported 171 cases.
The marches continued.
On the night of June 1, Donald Trump called himself the “president of law and order” and referenced Dallas as he vowed to stop the country-wide protests. He even threatened to deploy the military to do so. That night, the Dallas Police Department shot pepper balls and smoke canisters at peaceful protestors. Hundreds were arrested after saying they were trapped on the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge and fired upon. A federal judge later banned the use of those crowd control weapons.
The pandemic left many struggling. Dallas and North Texas were no different. At food bank distribution centers, people formed lines hours before the giveaways began. The demands were greater than what workers had ever seen. In late June, a Tarrant County food bank organized another distribution center in Arlington. The long lines to eat formed in the shadows of more than $2.5 billion worth of stadiums. Taxpayers funded a substantial part of those buildings.
As the pandemic extended long past President Trump’s unrealistic projections that it would get better by Easter—past his argument the positive cases would decrease if only we’d stop testing, past his claim the virus would just disappear, past his fantasy that there would be a vaccine by the presidential election—those stadiums in Arlington were the type Texas politicians wanted fans to fill once sports began.
Not entirely full. That would have been reckless. But, as some argued, full enough to offer distract, even if just for a few hours, from everything happening. Distraction from how the federal and state governments mishandled the pandemic. And it wasn’t just the professionals, but also college sports, specifically football.
From high school to college and up to the professionals, football in Texas is akin to a civic religion. That’s why SMU has always played football.
Upon its opening in 1915, SMU sought to associate itself with high standards. For the school colors, the university president chose Harvard Crimson and Yale Blue. They chose a Georgian architectural design inspired by the University of Virginia, which had been designed by Thomas Jefferson to emulate Rome’s Pantheon and link American democracy to its symbolic forefathers. SMU’s Dallas Hall—the first building constructed on campus—bears more than a passing resemblance to The Rotunda at the University of Virginia.
As expected from any self-respecting Texas college, SMU played football as soon as it opened. Football was so important that the university had a stadium—complete with training facilities, locker rooms, showers, and even an emergency hospital—before the campus had a library. So important, that seven years after SMU played its first down, the NCAA—the “organization dedicated to the well-being and lifelong success of college athletes”—accused the team of paying amateur players and, according to the New York Times, banned the team for the season. The following year, in 1923, helped by their early adoption of the forward pass, SMU returned and finished the season undefeated.
SMU’s football program claims it has won three national championships. Those claims are disputable. Still, SMU’s first claimed national title came in 1935. The team lost one game that year.
In the late 1940s, SMU football was great again. Doak Walker won the Heisman. He was a hero in less complicated times who “drank milk, had a steady girlfriend, and went to church on Sunday,” according to a D Magazine profile from 1977. Life even featured Walker on its cover.
In the 1950s, the football team was mediocre. SMU was an also-ran in what’s become the almost-mythical Southwest Conference—described by Texas Monthly as “a social institution, as definitive of Texas life as the oil well or the open range.”
Its break from mediocrity came in the late 1960s. Thanks to Jerry LeVias—the Southwestern Conference’s first Black scholarship football player—running and catching the ball, SMU won more games than they lost. LeVias described his years at SMU as a nightmare, experiencing racism and physical and emotional abuse from students and teammates. Soon, SMU football returned to mediocrity. The university fell into a cyclical history of great spurts followed by decades of average play on its best of years. SMU football didn’t return to prominence until the early 1980s.
From 1981 to 1984, SMU lost just five games. Three of those came to their Southwest Conference rival, Texas, by a total of 11 points. During this four-year span, no other team in major college football had a better record than SMU. In 1981 and 1982, SMU football claimed its second and third national championships. Again, those claims are disputable.
In 1985, SMU began its season as the second-ranked team in the country. The Mustangs won the first two games before things unraveled. After being the winningest team at the decade’s start, in 1985 and 1986, SMU returned to mediocrity. By 1987, SMU didn’t field a football team. The same thing happened in 1988.
The NCAA banned SMU for the 1987 season after the team illegally paid amateur players. Several authorities at SMU knew of the yearly $400,000 slush fund, including the former Texas governor, Bill Clements, who served as the university’s chairman for the board of governors. He and several others knew wealthy SMU boosters were paying top football recruits to play at the university.
When the so-called death penalty came, the director of enforcement said they did it to “eliminate a program … built on a legacy of wrongdoing, deceit, and rule violations.” Less than two months after the NCAA announced the penalty, SMU said it wouldn’t play football in 1988 either. Instead, the organization would take that time to further reconsider the future of its athletic programs, specifically the football team.
The death penalty has only been levied five times. And though other universities have broken rules—laws, really—far more serious than paying players, SMU remains the only major college football program banished for what amounted to two seasons. “In reality … this is a five- or six-year penalty,” the head of the NCAA Infractions Committee said soon after announcing their most severe punishment. “It will take at least that long for SMU to rebuild its program.” He was wrong. It took SMU much longer than that.
SMU has always played football, except for the years when banned.
The pandemic exposed structural cracks that were always there but, for some, easy to ignore. According to a 2018 Urban Institute study that looked at 274 U.S. cities, in terms of racial and economic inclusion, Dallas ranked last. Simply put, this is one of the most segregated cities in the country.
At SMU, many things about the place magnify the segregation. According to a 2017 study from Harvard’s Opportunity Insights, SMU is one of the 38 universities with more students from “top 1 percent of the income scale than from the entire bottom 60 percent.” The school is in University Park, which is 91 percent White. By comparison, Dallas is almost 42 percent Latino and just over 24 percent Black. In Dallas, the median value of a house is just under $170,000. In University Park, it’s $1.2 million. The Park Cities—University Park along with its neighboring Highland Park—are wealthier and more conservative than Dallas proper. Surrounded by a blue ocean, they’re an island of Harvard Crimson.
The marches continued from the last days of May through June and early July, when Texas’ governor required everyone wear masks, to the end of August, which saw the hottest day of the year—at 106 degrees—and into September, when the protests reached the Park Cities and SMU. A neighborhood militia waited for the marches. They claimed they wouldn’t be “out-gunned.”
The BLM at SMU organization arranged one of those marches. The march was in solidarity with Black lives and to challenge the university’s culture. Because of SMU’s demographics and where the school is located, Black students say there’s a “bubble” there, protecting privileged, White students.
Through #BlackAtSMU, past and present students have shared their experiences on social media. The hashtag, created in 2015, resurfaces occasionally, like it did during the summer.
Black students, who account for just 5 percent of the school’s fall 2020 enrollment, say that they’ve experienced racism and discrimination from students, professors, and campus police. That because they’re Black, they’re mistaken for athletes. That the faculty had little diversity and thus offered limited mentorship. That they wanted actions from SMU administration, more than just thoughts. More scholarships for Black students, more Black professors and administrators, more Black mental health professionals, more representation to help burst that segregated bubble.
On a rainy Saturday in early September, about a week after SMU’s Black Student Athlete Committee organized a Black Lives Matter protest, and a few days after Dallas County officials lowered the color-coded threat level of COVID-19 from red to orange—from “Stay Home Stay Safe” to “Extreme Caution”—hundreds of students marched around SMU’s campus. They marched around buildings named after wealthy donors. They marched around a football stadium that wouldn’t be full that season because of the pandemic.
SMU officials said they’d only allow 25 percent of the seating capacity inside the stadium. They banned tailgating and limited the student section. To further reduce the risk of spreading the virus, masks were mandatory for everyone older than 3. Hand sanitizer—which was almost impossible to find during the early phase of the pandemic, to the point that local distilleries turned their high-proof alcohol into it—would be throughout the stadium.
On that same day, hundreds of miles away in San Marcos, SMU football began its 2020 season. For the first time in decades, the team entered the season with high expectations. For the first time since Ronald Reagan was in office, an SMU player graced the cover of Dave Campbell’s Texas Football, the magazine considered “the bible of Texas football.” On the same day protesters marched on the campus and University Park, SMU football’s team won.
A few days after that march and that game, Dallas Police Chief U. Reneé Hall resigned. She was the department’s first Black woman chief. She resigned after lying about her department shooting tear gas at the peaceful protestors on the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge in the few days after the marches began. And so, right when it seemed SMU had put its football program in order—inside a lily-White city sheltered from many of the country’s problems—the city around it felt like it was in chaos.
At halftime of the most important game they’ve played in decades, SMU trailed Cincinnati 14-10. The scoreboard showed a recording of the SMU Mustang Band playing on the field.
The replayed performance was from a sunny day, back when no one worried about being socially distant. The band members, shoulder to shoulder, moved forward and backward, some side to side, as they all played their instruments. When they stopped moving, they’d formed an “M” around the mustang logo in the middle of the field.
The public address announcer then drew the crowd’s attention back to the present. The homecoming court was introduced. They sat in the stadium corner seats, presumably no less than 6 feet apart. The young men wore suits, and the young women wore dresses. Both wore masks. They waved at the crowd, only their eyes visible. It was difficult to ignore that their special night looked compromised.
After halftime, things got worse for the football team. SMU only scored three more points. The Mustangs lost. The final score was 42–13. It was SMU’s first home loss in two years. They scored fewer points than in only Sonny Dykes’ third game as coach of the team.
The son of a legendary Texas football coach, both in high school and college, Dykes grew up watching SMU football in the 1980s, when they were great. “This is home and this is a program I grew up watching,” Dykes said at the December 2017 press conference announcing his hire. “This is a proud football program with a rich tradition.”
He has rebuilt the program, in part, through transfer players, many of whom were highly recruited from high schools in North Texas that left the way many did for the last 30 years: because SMU football has been beyond bad. In that time, only five other teams have lost more.
Making their irrelevancy that much more pronounced, SMU plays in North Texas, the capital of football. And as the program struggled to stay alive, the Dallas Cowboys—who long ago drew crowds smaller than those for SMU games—have become the world’s most valuable sports franchise. As SMU gasped for life, colleges from around the country built winning programs by recruiting the inordinate amount of high school football talent that comes from where SMU plays. As SMU struggled in its dark decades, their long-time rival TCU—just a 45-minute drive west in Fort Worth—even won a Rose Bowl.
But perhaps, with Dykes, that has changed. And even if they lost this important game—on a wet, dark, and cold day, reminiscent of the day the NCAA all but killed SMU football—there is optimism that the program is back on the right path. SMU is still ranked among the top 20 teams in the country. The organization just landed a four-star quarterback recruit from nearby Parish Episcopal who could have gone to schools like LSU. It has been a long road back from a place arrived at through self-inflicted wounds.
The world has changed since SMU football was last relevant. That change is likely for the worse, although these problems have always been there. They were just easier to ignore in the less complicated times when heroes drank milk. Some of these problems also come from self-inflicted wounds. And like with SMU’s football program, it’ll be a long road back.
The cold is coming. The pandemic isn’t leaving. Texas—where football is an expression of this place—has become the first state to pass 1 million COVID-19 cases. And as it has, Dallas’ color-coded threat level has gone from orange back to red. By Thanksgiving, public health experts fear up to 2,500 daily infections.
A few days after SMU lost its homecoming game, County Judge Clay Jenkins warned, again, of what could come. A voice of reason throughout this strange and deadly time, he warns that nothing will get better until we fix the problem.
Fix the problems that have always been there. Problems that, for some, have only been just unmasked, in this struggle to breathe. Foundational problems can’t get ignored.
From the floor, SMU football has been rebuilt. And through no fault of their own this time, there’s hardly anyone there to watch them. After losing to Cincinnati, they won two consecutive games. They’ll be favored to win the last three games of their season. If that happens, for the first time in more than three decades, players, risking their lives and health playing a brutal sport during a pandemic for no compensation, will win 10 games in consecutive seasons.
The last time SMU did that, in 1984, Dallas hosted the Republican National Convention. “We came together in a national crusade to make America great again,” Ronald Reagan said in his speech accepting his party’s presidential nomination. He said America was a melting pot and that the country’s light seemed eternal. That year, police shootings in Dallas disproportionately involved Black and Latino residents. As president, Reagan would go on to shepherd a “tough on crime” policy that put hundreds of thousands of Black men in prison. Some melting pot; the policies of the 80s are still affecting Black and Latino Americans today. And thirty-six years after Reagan’s speech, similar challenges remain locally. The city of Dallas remains deeply segregated and activists continue to advocate for police reform.
Meanwhile, SMU football might also be great again.