Ron Meyer, the Southern Methodist football coach, was relaxing aboard a private jet returning him to Dallas from a recruiting trip to New Orleans, and he was explaining how dead certain he is that SMU will soon reign as the best college football team in the land. "You may have forgotten," he said to a listener who obviously had, "that SMU was the national champion in 1935. And when you have that kind of embers, they are there to be rekindled."
Heretofore, that sort of talk would be considered wishful, if not whimsical, thinking. After all, how could SMU—a private school with a mere 5,481 undergraduates—win big in big-time football? Can't happen. Make that couldn't.
In 1973, the NCAA decreed that, beginning the next academic year, its Division I schools could award only 30 new football scholarships for any one year, and that as of the 1978 season a maximum of 95 scholarships could be in effect at any one time. What prompted the rule was the way open and unlimited recruiting had tended to perpetuate success. The big teams with plenty of money could gobble up all the best athletes because all the best athletes wanted to play for the big teams. As a result the bigs would sign a load of good players not only to assure depth but also to make sure they didn't play for anybody else. Pittsburgh is a classic example. In 1973, the final year of open recruiting, it took in a freshman class of 75 players—including Tony Dorsett—and parlayed that boxcar number into a national title in 1976.
Naturally, most of the traditionally powerful schools screamed at the new rule, saying it penalized them for working hard and recruiting the best players. At the same time most fans ignored what seemed to be yet another boring backroom squabble in the business of football. But privately, coaches—again, those at the large football-oriented schools—confessed their true fears: it might give a lot of other schools a chance to get good players and start winning, too.
These fears—and hopes—have been confirmed. Thus far this has been a gloriously unpredictable year in college football. No longer is it only the same old boys winning, laughing and telling jokes; no longer is it only the same old boys losing, moping and saying, "Shut up and deal." It has shorted the computers, confounded the odds people and electrified fans.
"Yes, sir," chortles Meyer, "the new rule means places like SMU can dust off their great heritage, which has been lying around like unshined copper—all green and cruddy—and polish it up." Even at Houston, which routinely had around 100 players on scholarship, Coach Bill Yeoman was hailing the change last week as his squad prepared to meet the Mustangs. "It's the salvation of college football," he said.
There are examples of the new balance everywhere, and next year should be even more dramatic. In the Big Ten both Michigan and Ohio State—those hoary superpowers—have been beaten in conference play. And the Buckeyes also were beaten by Penn State and tied by, yup, SMU. Michigan has lost to Michigan State. Which means that Purdue, 27-16 victor over Ohio State, is leading the Big Ten. Purdue!
In the Pac-10, things they are a-changing, too. Three of the nation's top seven passers are in the conference, no great surprise there. What is a shock is that not one of them plays for USC or UCLA; Steve Dils is at Stanford, Jack Thompson at Washington State and Rich Campbell at California. Before the 30-95 rules, these players might have been showing their brilliant passing ability only in practice at one of the perennial powers.
Among independents there are signs of the 30-95 blues at Notre Dame and Pitt. And Penn State had all it could handle while beating Temple, Rutgers and, wouldn't you know it, SMU.
But nowhere are things more colossally scrambled than in the Southwest Conference. As the season moved along, Texas A&M appeared to be the best team, and people were looking forward to its Nov. 18 game with Arkansas. Whoops. Two weeks ago Houston swamped the sixth-ranked Aggies 33-0; last Saturday winless Baylor (0-5) stuck A&M again, 18-0. And another football heritage, the Aggie joke, was dusted off. Undefeated Arkansas went to Austin Saturday with its best team in years to face a Texas team that had been blitzed by Oklahoma. Whoops. This weekend the Longhorns play—wouldn't you know it—SMU.
From all this SMU stands out as a particular example of the new equilibrium. For SMU is precisely the kind of school the members of the NCAA had in mind when they decided to curb the gluttony of the traditional powers. Football had been so generally down at SMU that it took a real fan to remember what those initials stood for when the scores were given on the radio. Last year only 6,918 showed up in the 72,032-seat Cotton Bowl to see the Mustangs play Rice. But last Saturday 64,871 appeared in the same stadium—the most at a regular-season Mustang home game since 1965—to watch them play Houston for the Southwest Conference lead. O.K., so it was Band Day, so a lot of folks got in on $2 tickets, so it was exciting and disappointing as Houston broke open the game in the second half to win 42-28. Nevertheless, SMU's new athletic director, Russ Potts, is an unabashed promoter. And he has something to promote. He has helped create Mustang Mania and considers it a dictum from on high that he get bumper stickers expressing SMU fervor on every car in Dallas. There's even a song to hype the Mania:
We're the SMU Mustang men
We're gonna win some games, but we won't say when
Our greatest heights are yet to be known
We've got all the coaches worried—even our own
Potts is well equipped to cope with setbacks such as last Saturday's loss. When he was the promotion man at the University of Maryland he created a Return to Glory campaign for the Terps; they went 2-9 that year. But Potts is realistic. He says, "Winning is the roof on the house." At the moment SMU still has some leaks.
And then there is Meyer, a free spirit in his third year as coach, who says it's impossible to misquote him because he is so talkative. He says, "I open my big mouth so much I have to get up early to work hard and back it all up."
It seems that Meyer was destined to go to Dallas. When he was young he named his dog after Doak Walker, SMU's 1948 Heisman winner. Later he toyed briefly with the idea of naming his first son Doak. But he admits that while 30-95 has given SMU a chance to achieve greatness, it's not there yet. "We're like London in 1941," says Meyer. "Nothing but a little pride, a little discipline and a little talent to hold off the blitz. And we know when we attack, it's going to take rowboats to get us back home." Reminded that SMU doesn't have an ocean, he snaps, "Hell, we've got Turtle Creek."
Now that a school can sign only 30 players, each player is important. One superfind can mean everything. Witness Purdue Quarterback Mark Herrmann or Iowa State's Dexter Green or North Carolina State's Ted Brown. Or Mike Ford, SMU's 6'3", 230-pound quarterback from Mesquite, Texas. "Ford," acknowledges Meyers, "is a pretty good vehicle for us." The caption of a cartoon in a Dallas paper said, "This is one treacherous dude. When you least expect it, he'll plant one right between yer headlights."
Last year, as a freshman, Ford planted 153 of 301 passes for 2,064 yards and 11 touchdowns. In six games this year he has connected on 136 of 226 for 1,812 yards and 12 touchdowns to rank second in the nation. In the 35-35 tie with Ohio State he completed 36. Says Mike, "I like for myself to be counted on to be the difference."
Everybody knew he would be, which made his acquisition by Meyer a bit difficult. Particularly when Ford had grown up—longing to play for the University of Texas. Argued Meyer, "It's easy to go to Texas. It takes guts to come here." Around this time Fred Akers had just quit at Wyoming to take over at Texas, and he, too, made a beeline for Mesquite. But Akers didn't realize how much Mike's mother Molly wanted her son at SMU. While Akers talked to young Mike in the living room, the Fords' phone was kept off the hook in the kitchen nearby so that SMU Coaches Larry Kennan and Meyer on the other end could hear. "They just kept telling me to be calm," recalls Molly, "but really they were the ones who were so nervous."
What if Texas had gotten Molly's son? Ford, the pickup-driving country boy who has lifted the Mustangs back to prominence, seems to think he would be spending a lot of time on the bench. "I'm not a good passer now," he says, "but I expect to be soon." And what if SMU lands a premier running back to go with Ford next year, balancing out the presently one-sided attack? Before 30-95, the perennial powers would have been sure to get all or most of the good backs, leaving SMU to suit up the culls. No more.
But what may happen next year was of little help last Saturday against Houston, which looked extraordinarily good. In 1976, the first year the Cougars were eligible for the SWC football championship, they won and went to the Cotton Bowl. This year the players wear shirts under their pads that say, THINK COTTON. Yeoman, boss at Houston for 17 years, has a sign on his desk: EXPECT A MIRACLE TODAY. It will not take much of a miracle for Houston to win the SWC again this year.
The key to the Cougars' attack is also a quarterback, Danny Davis. He is a fifth-year senior who has missed two seasons—1975 and 1977—because of injuries. Yet Davis says, "I just wish I could have come here earlier and could stay longer." So does Yeoman, who thought enough of his star to redshirt several other key players when Davis was redshirted after separating a shoulder at the start of last season. Yeoman calls his crafty veer quarterback a "riverboat gambler who'll palm a card or two on you if you don't watch him."
Both quarterbacks lived up to their advance billing in the Cotton Bowl last Saturday but both also proved to be human as well. Ford, whose arm was banged hard in practice on Wednesday, completed 21 of 42 passes for 357 yards and two touchdowns, including a sparkling 77-yarder to Emanuel Tolbert to tie the score at 14-14 in the second quarter. Perfect? Nope. Ford also threw five interceptions (he had thrown only seven in the first five games of the season) and fumbled a snap from center. Says Meyer, "Great football teams don't live by the pass. And when you do, you also die by it."
As for Davis, he, too, threw two touchdown passes, and he ran for a third, but it was not his best day, either. Early in the third quarter he was forced to leave the game with cramps in his toes, left calf and right hand. His understudy, Delrick Brown, proved more than equal to the challenge as he passed for a touchdown and ran the ball in for another.
The key play probably was the first one from scrimmage; it set the tone for the afternoon. Ford threw from his own 20 directly into the hands of Houston Safety Tommy Ebner. Four plays later Davis went 10 yards for the first TD. Still SMU hung tough and looked as if it would have a 14-14 standoff at halftime. But with no time showing, Davis scrambled around in a hully-gully play and finally passed crossfield to Terald Clark for a nine-yard touchdown. Aggrieved by Ford's two first-half interceptions, a fan yelled at him as he walked up the ramp to the dressing room, "Hey, Mike, that's why you lose." Ford put a lot of ice on his sore arm.
Meyer tried to rally his players: "Let's set our jaw and really compete. You are so close to being a fine football team." SMU did rally to tie the score in the third period on a 34-yard interception return by Cornerback David Hill. But with Emmett King and Randy Love rushing for 161 and 121 yards, Houston struck for two more touchdowns. And then came the killer. Rushing Ford, Cougar Tackle Leonard Mitchell saw the football, leaped, grabbed it one-handed and lumbered 30 yards for a TD. Afterward, Ford gave his view of the interception, "When he went up, he looked like he was eight or nine feet tall."
SMU now is 3-2-1, Houston 5-1 overall and 3-0 in the Southwest Conference. "We knew there would be days like this when we got into this deal," said Meyer as he walked out of the Cotton Bowl. "Shoot, we could be 0-6." "Or," suggested a bystander, "6-0." Meyer managed a laugh as he went off to do some more rekindling.