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. 

Author: Lucy Green