SMU football awaiting a renaissance
Published: Thursday, December 6, 2007
Updated: Tuesday, November 20, 2012 17:11
Fresh from finishing the construction, thousands of people poured into the new Gerald J. Ford stadium back in 2000. As fans walked into the new $53.8 million stadium and All-Sports Center, there was excitement in the air. A new era for Mustang football was beginning. That season of possibilities began with a win against Kansas.
"I had no idea we would win that game, but we beat the hell out of Kansas," Marshall Terry, former E.A. Lilly Professor of English, said. "It was a very exciting comeback."
It's been 10 years since Gerald J. Ford gave his $20 million donation to SMU to build the current 32,000-seat football stadium bearing his name. At the announcement of the donation, Ford and several other prominent SMU alumni had high hopes for the Mustangs.
Ray L. Hunt, a Dallas civic and international business leader, and his wife Nancy donated $5 million for the project. So did Dallas-based sports entrepreneur Lamar Hunt and his wife Norma. Sherrill and Jo Ann Pettus, of Graham, Texas, also donated $3 million for the completion of the new stadium and the All-Sports Center. Their ultimate goal was to bring football back to the Hilltop and create an increased interest in the program.
With the record of 1-11 overall and 0-8 in the Conference USA standings, it doesn't look as though the stadium has lived up to its promise of changing the SMU football program.
The Mustangs came into this season with high hopes and a new marketing campaign, "Pony Up." According to Brad Sutton, assistant athletic director for media relations, SMU Athletics was able to reach its season ticket sales goals with the increased marketing. Even with high season ticket sales, the stadium still looks rather empty on game days and there is not much fan support.
"I think that we would have to admit that as the season wore on we had fewer people attending the games, and that probably was to due with our lack of success on the field," Sutton said.
At the beginning of the season the Dallas Morning News reported 21,317 people in attendance. They reported the attendance consisted mostly of Texas Tech fans. At the last game of the season against University of Central Florida, only 10,271 people were at Gerald J. Ford Stadium.
"Clearly all of us involved are disappointed that we haven't been successful, but we are not disillusioned," Ford said. "We still have the hopes of a successful team."
Ford, although disappointed, said the stadium and related facilities, like the All-Sports Center and Altshuler Learning Enhancement Center, have given SMU a better chance to be successful.
Ford graduated from SMU with a Bachelor of Arts and Juris Doctor degrees and is a member of the SMU Board of Trustees. He was chairman of the athletics committee when the initial push for a new stadium developed. Ford said that there was a lot happening when he took over: the old Southwest Conference was breaking up, SMU was still affected by the death penalty, the program had just changed athletic directors and they were in the process of hiring a new coach.
"I came to believe it would be very difficult to develop a program with the facilities we had," Ford said.
That is when he became the lead donor for the stadium and was convinced that new facilities would be the best thing for the program.
"The facilities give us a better chance to be successful," Ford said. "The top kids want to play in a stadium that is top notch and practice in facilities that are comparable to other universities."
SMU senior and football player Andrew Galloway agrees with Ford. He sees the facilities as a means for recruiting.
"[SMU Athletic Director] Orsini always talks about wanting all our programs to be Top 25," said Galloway. "Our facilities are definitely there and that is one way to recruit."
Terry, who was a faculty member when the stadium was being built, remembers the building with a somewhat bittersweet perspective. Terry felt that some of the faculty, at the time, weren't too happy about spending so much money toward what they saw as a failing athletic program.
"I, as well as others, have kind of seen football as the antagonist sometimes," Terry said. "I mean Ownby Stadium was built before the SMU library."
In his eyes, there is a somewhat unspoken rivalry between athletics and academics and their importance to the university. Terry said that the money raised for football affects the university's budget and the education philosophy.
"I think that quarterback Justin Willis was quoted as saying, after the team learned Bennett was fired, that he sees now that football really is a business, which is a sad reality" said Terry.
Terry said that he doesn't believe the students really care much about football.
"The excitement is about the Boulevard now," Terry said. "We've made it into an adverb."
He said that SMU should continue concentrating on remaining a university with one of the top graduation rates and not loosen the requirements for athletes. Terry feels that if requirements are loosened then the program is back where it started. Lowering standards is why SMU was given the death penalty in the first place, Terry said.
Galloway agrees and believes that in moving forward SMU should look for a coach that understands the universities academic standards.
"We have some pretty lofty goals for academics and there is a real dedication there. Graduating our athletes is really important here at SMU," said Galloway. "So I think a new coach that understands how that ties in is crucial."
All parties involved want to see renewed success for the team and have high hopes for the future. Ford said that other universities' athletic programs are going through the same thing. It isn't unique to SMU. At the end of the day, it is all about enhancing the college experience of the students, Ford said. Sutton agrees. He said that the students are what separate pro sports from college sports and wants to do everything possible to fire up students' interest.