Monday, June 27, 2022

More than 30 years after the death penalty, SMU is thriving in a new world of NIL and the transfer portal

In April, SMU football’s Twitter account sent out a graphic featuring its new coaching staff with text reading “All Roads Lead to Dallas.” At the bottom was the image of a gold Pontiac Trans-Am. 

For those uninitiated in college football lore, Hall of Famer Eric Dickerson allegedly received a gold Trans-Am from Texas A&M to commit before flipping to SMU ahead of his freshman season in 1979. Less than a decade later, the Mustangs received the infamous “death penalty” for paying players. 

More than 30 years later, the transfer portal, along with name, image and likeness legislation, has taken the sport by storm. Instead of backing away, SMU is steering right into its colorful history and showing other Group of Five programs that thriving in a world with NIL and the transfer portal doesn’t just have to be limited to the biggest fish. 

“We’ve kind of looked at it as everything in college is moving closer towards an NFL model in terms of roster management,” first-year SMU coach Rhett Lashlee told CBS Sports. “You build your team through high school and recruiting just like you do through the draft for the long haul, but you also supplement your team through free agency, just like now you do through the transfer portal. We want to be great at both, and I think every year it gives you an opportunity to build the best team you can.” 

In some ways, SMU has already been unwittingly preparing for this future. The Mustangs rose to prominence behind grad transfer quarterback Shane Buechele, winning 10 games in 2019 for the first time in 35 years. All four Mustangs taken in the last two NFL Drafts were transfers, including running back-turned-cornerback Brandon Stephens in 2021.

Few programs have used brand development quite like SMU over that stretch. The university put up billboards around Dallas-Fort Worth featuring players repping their hometowns. SMU created Dallas jerseys and built relationships with the mayor’s office. 

The program is also forward about connecting players with internships and job opportunities, often sharing the connections on social accounts as a marketing tool. Multiple NIL initiatives, which have signed agreements with players and pledged 1-on-1 business guidance, have also popped up. SMU luminaries, from Dickerson to businessman Paul Loyd, have been involved. 

“One of SMU’s biggest assets is the success and connectivity of SMU alums, of Dallas, and in combination the support for SMU student athletes,” Loyd said in a statement to the Dallas Morning News announcing the PonyUp NIL initiative. “Businesses stepping up for SMU NILs is yet another signal that SMU football is continuing the momentum and ready to take another huge step.” 

For SMU, those results have come quickly. Fifteen transfers have joined the Mustangs, with 11 coming from Power Five institutions. Running back Camar Wheaton was a five-star recruit who chose Alabama just one recruiting cycle ago. Now, he’s heading to SMU. Three Texas Longhorns are making the trip 200 miles north: wide receiver Kelvontay Dixon, defensive end David Abiara and safety Chris Adimora. 

In fact, the Mustangs boast the No. 1 transfer class among Group of Five teams and are No. 16 overall in the nation, according to 247Sports. The group is strong enough to edge big transfer classes at Arizona State, Florida and Oregon, among others.

“We’re all adjusting in college football,”said Lashlee. “We’ve just taken the position here that we want to compete at the highest level, we want to compete for championships and we’re going to do everything we can within the rules to do that.” 

Of course, it helps that the Mustangs have success to sell for the first time in decades. Former coach Sonny Dykes led the program to a 25-10 record over the last three years before taking the job at rival TCU. Lashlee, a former offensive coordinator, for Dykes, returned to the Hilltop after a two-year stretch as OC at Miami. Simply put, he was hired to keep the train chugging along. 

SMU is not the only Group of Five program to embrace the new college football world. UCF leveraged relationships that coach Gus Malzahn and his staff had to reel in a top-20 transfer class. Former quarterback McKenzie Milton also led one of several NIL efforts to help brand athletes. The Knights also notably featured QR codes on jerseys during their spring game with links to social media accounts to help brand building. Rival USF and Buffalo also have strong transfer classes in major metros. 

Not every Group of Five program has the resources or situation to quickly pivot towards NIL or the transfer portal, but SMU hopes that betting big on the future pays off long term. Lashlee still has not coached a game at SMU, after all, and what happens in the fall will set the tone. 

“We’ve got to go win for it to be a good, proven model,” Lashlee said. “There’s more than 130 Division I [FBS] schools and everyone’s got a little bit of a different niche and way they need to attack and recruit to be successful. 

“What works here may not work somewhere else, and what works somewhere else may not work here. This is obviously something we think fits us well here.” 

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