DALLAS (AP) — SMU athletic director Rick Hart shot a small batch of red and blue confetti from a fake champagne bottle before machines showered the stage with plenty more.
The scene celebrating the university’s acceptance into the Atlantic Coast Conference on Friday was quite the contrast to the somber, and eerily silent, setting of 36 years ago, when SMU received what is still the only so-called death penalty over NCAA recruiting violations.
The Mustangs have wandered in the wilderness of college athletics for nearly three decades since the breakup of the Southwest Conference, seven years after the shutdown of the SMU football program.
Hart was told by several people the ACC celebration was the biggest moment since that dark day in February 1987.
“I can empathize,” Hart said. “I’ve been here long enough, 11 years, and I have enough relationships with people who lived that and who were a part of it, that moment’s not lost on me. I hope I have a lot of moments in my career going forward that feel really special. But I don’t know that this will be matched.”
Hart shared the stage with SMU President R. Gerald Turner and Board of Trustees Chair David Miller. The trio had been working for two years to find a path to a so-called Power Five conference.
The move, which becomes official on July 1, 2024, will end an 11-year run in the American Athletic Conference. After being in the SWC from 1918-95, SMU spent nine football seasons in the Western Athletic Conference and eight in Conference USA before joining the AAC.
The latest change is a subtle one on paper — just one letter, to the ACC — but substantial in so many other ways.
“We’re finally back where we belong,” Miller told several hundred supporters in the football team’s indoor practice facility, an upgrade the Mustangs believe played a role in their move out of the Group of Five.
A $100 million project under construction in the south end zone of Ford Stadium played an even bigger role, Turner said as he acknowledged the donor whose name will be on the building. Garry Weber was in the first row of chairs set up in the middle of the shortened football field that has “SMU” painted in both end zones.
“As several of the conference commissioners said to us,” Miller told the crowd, “‘You already do everything like a Power Five school.’”
The Pac-12 is now on the brink of extinction with Stanford and California joining SMU in the move to the ACC, which had some resistance from current members.
North Carolina and Florida State voted against the move, meaning the conference had one more vote than necessary to approve the additions. North Carolina State voted for it.
“I’m a graduate of North Carolina, and I’ve said two things today that I’ve not said before and not sure I will again,” Hart said. “I said, ‘Go (Duke) Blue Devils and go (N.C.) State.’”
SMU will forgo all media rights in the ACC for nine years, a person with knowledge of the deal told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the school was not making its strategy public. The Dallas school gets about $9 million annually from the American Athletic.
Hart declined to comment directly on the issue of media rights, and Turner said there were other revenue streams the Mustangs wouldn’t get without the move.
“I don’t think it’s as simple as people want to make it out to be,” Hart said. “We’re not going to take a step back, resource-wise, even from a conference perspective. So this is all positive. It’s all plus. It’s an investment.”
Turner came to SMU in 1995, the final year of SWC football, when the Mustangs were still reeling from the death penalty and didn’t have an on-campus stadium. It’s a full-circle moment for the 77-year-old.
“I think it’s a very healing moment,” Turner said. “There’s still a lot of resentment about that as well as hurt feelings. This is sort of like a new beginning. It’s a fresh start. It’s an affirmation that the university’s athletic programs have come back.”