In April, the SMU football Twitter account sent out a graphic featuring its new coaching staff with text that read “All roads lead to Dallas”. At the bottom was an image of a gold Pontiac Trans-Am.
For those uninitiated in college football lore, Hall of Famer Eric Dickerson reportedly received a gold Trans-Am from Texas A&M to sign up for before moving to SMU ahead of his freshman season in 1979. Less a decade later, 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 backtracking, SMU heads straight to its colorful history and shows other Five Eyes programs thriving in a world with NIL and the transfer portal doesn’t just have to be limited to the biggest fish.
“We kind of looked at it because everything in college is moving closer to an NFL model in terms of roster management,” SMU freshman coach Rhett Lashlee told CBS Sports. “You build your team in high school and by recruiting like you do through the draft for the long haul, but you also round out your team through free agency, just like you do now through the transfer portal. We want to be excellent in both, and I think every year it gives you the opportunity to build the best team you can.”
In some ways, SMU has already unwittingly prepared for this future. The Mustangs rose to prominence behind 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 cornerback Brandon Stephens in 2021.
Few programs used brand development like SMU during this period. The university has set up billboards around Dallas-Fort Worth with players representing their hometowns. SMU created Dallas jerseys and built relationships with the mayor’s office.
The program also offers to connect players with internships and job opportunities, often sharing connections on social accounts as a marketing tool. Several NIL initiatives, which have signed deals with players and promised individual business advice, have also sprung up. SMU luminaries from Dickerson to businessman Paul Loyd have been implicated.
“One of SMU’s greatest assets is the success and connectivity of SMU alumni, Dallas, and in combination the support of SMU student-athletes,” Loyd said in a statement. statement to the Dallas Morning News announcing the PonyUp NIL initiative. “Companies stepping up for NIL SMUs is another signal that SMU football is building momentum and ready to take another big step.”
For SMU, these results came quickly. Fifteen transfers have joined the Mustangs, including 11 from Power Five institutions. Running back Camar Wheaton was a five-star rookie who picked Alabama just a recruiting cycle ago. Now he’s heading to SMU. Three Texas Longhorns make 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 Five teams and are No. 16 overall in the nation, according to 247Sports. The group is strong enough to edge out big transfer classes from Arizona State, Florida and Oregon, among others.
“We’re all adjusting to college football,” Lashlee said. “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 achieve that.”
Of course, it helps that Mustangs are selling successfully for the first time in decades. Former coach Sonny Dykes led the program to a 25-10 record the past three years before taking the job at rival TCU. Lashlee, a former Dykes offensive coordinator, returned to the top of the hill after a two-year stint as OC in Miami. Simply put, he was hired to keep the train moving.
SMU isn’t the only Five Eyes program embracing the new world of college football. UCF leveraged the relationships coach Gus Malzahn and his team had to pull in a top-20 transfer class. Former quarterback McKenzie Milton also led one of NIL’s many efforts to help marquee athletes. The Knights also notably featured QR codes on jerseys during their spring game with links to social media accounts to help with brand building. Rival USF and Buffalo also have strong transfer classes in major metros.
Not every Five Five program has the resources or the situation to quickly pivot to NIL or the transfer portal, but SMU hopes betting big on the future will pay off in the long run. Lashlee still hasn’t 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 are more than 130 Division I [FBS] schools and everyone has a little different niche and way of attacking and recruiting to be successful.
“What works here may not work elsewhere, and what works elsewhere may not work here. Obviously that’s something we think works well for us here.”