S M U
1976 - 86 Mustangs
With a roster perceived to be unable to compete in the SWC, scholarship limitations due to NCAA sanctions, and an absence of a consistent winning tradition that would allow for enhanced recruiting, a number of established, “name” coaches such as Lou Holtz, Johnny Majors, and Darryl Rogers did not accept overtures to take the SMU job. Anxious to move from Division II Nevada Las Vegas to a position exactly like SMU, was their coach Ron Meyer, a former Purdue walk-on who then was an assistant there from ’65 to 1970. He worked for the Dallas Cowboys as a scout for two years and in 1973, became the head coach at UNLV, going undefeated in 1974 during the regular season and losing only in the Grantland Rice Bowl Game Championships to Delaware to complete a 12-1 season. Hired in January, he and his staff recruited at a frenzied pace and brought in a number of out-of-state stars including receiver Emanuel Tolbert from Arkansas. They also introduced a new uniform that was highlighted by a white helmet, utilizing it for the first time since 1961. The white shell featured a red galloping mustang outlined in dark royal blue on each side, a one-inch red center stripe with dark royal blue flanking stripes, and a red face mask that augmented the helmet trim beautifully. Behind Co-captain and linebacker Jim Duggan, who had been New York State High School Heavyweight Wrestling Champion and who later gained fame as pro wrestling’s “Hacksaw” Duggan, the team struggled to a 3-8 record, punctuated by a 35-31 upset victory in the finale against Arkansas. Fullback David Bostick who had played well under Coach Smith, finished his college athletic career on the baseball team but did not complete his senior football season quitting mid-way through the year after being moved to linebacker and having a falling out with Meyer. None of the Mustangs made the All Conference team though quarterback Ricky Wesson played well and tried out at defensive back with the Chiefs in ’77 and Arthur Whittington finished behind only Tony Dorsett of Pitt in All Purpose yardage per game. He was also one of the nation’s better return men.
1977 marked what Meyer referred to as his “first real recruiting class” and a lot of talent was captured. SMU’s ability improved but it was a very inconsistent 4-7 season. Home attendance too was inconsistent, attracting over 40,000 against Ohio State and less than 7000 against Rice. The inconsistency showed as the Ponies scored twenty points in the final thirty-nine seconds to defeat Houston and got pounded by Texas Tech 45-7 and by Arkansas 41-7 in the final two games. They were out rushed 360 to 17 yards in a loss to Ohio State but were unstoppable against TCU in a 45-21 victory and All Conference linebacker Mark Putman “Putt” Choate had a 100 yard interception return against Tulane. Frosh quarterback Mike Ford threw for 2064 yards and was the real deal giving Tolbert an All SWC season at wingback with 64 receptions. Tailback Arthur Whittington finished his college career with a school record 1649 return yards and then played with the Raiders for four seasons, the Bills for one, and with the USFL Oakland Invaders from ’83 through 1985, also returning kicks and as a running back. Meyer pushed a “Mustang Mania” theme to the city entering the 1978 season, and it was working. He even dressed his Mustangs in white jerseys for all away and home games, allowing the hometown fans to view the different colored uniforms of SMU’s opponents, reminiscent of what the NFL had done in the mid-1960’s. All SWC quarterback Ford continued to develop and was the country’s leader in total yardage and number two passer in ’78, throwing 224 completions for 3007 yards. With All Conference tight end Elton Garrett and Consensus All American receiver Tolbert on the other end of sixty-two of those passes for almost 1041 yards, the attack picked up, was exciting, and attendance literally doubled to almost 52,000 per game. The SMU start was quick, going out 3-1-1 with a close 26-21 loss to Penn State and a 35-all contest against Ohio State with the team featuring twenty-four freshmen on the travel squad. The defense was led by three All Conference performers and it gave linebacker Choate his second All SWC honor. Choate proved to be one of the most popular of Mustangs, the all time tackles leader with 649, 253 of those as a senior. He later broke his leg in the Falcons camp, signed with the Oilers for ’80, and then had a fine pro career in the USFL where he was one of only three players to start every league game from 1983 to ’85. He came back to the NFL in 1987 with the Packers. Conference long jump champion, Safety DK Perry who led the SWC in both kickoff and punt returns, and cornerback David Hill rounded out the All Conference contingency and it appeared as if the Ponies were going to challenge for the crown. They came apart to finish at 4-6-1 but had established a much stronger fan base and talent pool. Entering 1979, the decision was finalized to play every home game at the Cowboys’ Texas Stadium and off the field news came with the successful recruitment of Charles Waggoner, Eric Dickerson and Craig James. Unfortunately, the season imploded during the second game of the season against TCU when Mike Ford’s knee injury removed him for the season. The injury list grew exponentially and ranged from “nagging and limiting” as they affected big tackle Harvey Armstrong to “devastating” as per the career ending neck damage suffered by running back Waggoner against Texas Tech. Though most fans forget, the three running backs, Waggoner, who set the SMU single game rushing record for a freshman, as well as Dickerson and James were considered to be the original “Pony Express” backfield and carries were shared by all three until Waggoner’s injury. With Ford out at quarterback, Jim Bob Taylor stepped in and the necessary switch to a run-first offense left Tolbert out in the cold though he later got to ply his trade as a slotback in the CFL for eleven seasons. With frosh nose guard and international level shot putter Michael Carter also injured, the defense was spotty despite excellent play from linebacker Anthony Dickerson who played 1980 to ’84 with the Cowboys and ’85 with Buffalo. Though the 5-6 mark was Meyer’s best to date, it fell well below the expectations of the staff that knew the type of talent they had brought onto campus.
With a stockpile of talent, there was a feeling that 1980 could be a true breakthrough season for the Mustangs and in many ways it was. Opening with four victories was exciting but many fans had a “here we go again” let down with consecutive losses to Baylor and Houston even though the final scores were close. Facing off against Texas, Meyer pulled quarterback Ford and changed to freshman Lance McIlhenny and placed his reliance on Dickerson, James, and fullback Charles Drayton, The Pony Express Backfield. The plan delivered as SMU chose a national television stage to upset number two Texas and roll through the remainder of the schedule other than a 14-0 misstep against Texas Tech in the next to last game of the season. The offensive line featured two All Conference bulldozers in center Lance Pederson and tackle Lee Spivey who allowed Dickerson to run for 928 yards and James 896. The quarterback duo tallied 951 passing yards from Ford and 303 from McIlhenny with Anthony Smith catching twenty-five to lead the squad. The Holiday Bowl against BYU was the reward and again proved to be a great national stage for the Ponies despite a 46-45 loss in what BYU fans still refer to as “The Miracle Bowl,” a game in which SMU led 45-25 with four minutes remaining over the 11-1 Cougars who boasted perhaps the most explosive offense in the nation. All of the elements that make football so exciting, onside kicks, blocked punts, and Hail Mary passes combined to see BYU score twenty-one points in the last 2 minutes and 33 seconds to defeat SMU despite the 225 yards that James and another 110 that Dickerson pounded the ground for. Emerging nose guard Michael Carter was bowl game Defensive MVP, and throughout the season, linebacker Byron Hunt, who went on to a productive eight year career with the Giants, and Gary Moten were reliable defenders. All SWC honorees defensive tackle Harvey Armstrong and cornerback John Simmons who was also an All American, made for a balanced squad, even with the explosive offense. Simmons played well for the Bengals for six seasons before finishing his career with a year in Green Bay. The 8-4 record found the Mustangs ranked at number twenty, their best finish since 1968.
The Pony Express, upset win over Texas, the nail biting bowl game with BYU, and their number twenty national ranking put SMU onto the upper level of the college football landscape. Unfortunately, it also caught the eye of the NCAA and on November 3, 1980, an investigation was started that culminated in the June 10, 1981 announcement that SMU would be placed on two years of probation for violations that included illegal benefits to players and recruits. As per the probation that resulted from the actions of previous head coach Dave Smith, the violations included players being paid for complimentary game tickets, travel and meal money, and other inducements to recruits, some of whom became part of the SMU program and others that did not. With a bowl game ban, the team focused upon playing as “big” as possible for the entire ’81 season. The Mustangs did in fact play big, delivering wins in every game except their October 24, 9-7 loss to number two ranked Texas, and none of their victories was a close contest. Again the offensive line made for great overall production with center Gordon McAdams and guard Perry Hartnett All Conference choices. Hartnett was with the Bears for two seasons, played with the USFL Chicago franchise, and returned to the NFL as a Packer for the ’87 season. All SWC quarterback McIlhenny remained at the controls, and tailback Dickerson rushed for 1428 yards and a record setting nineteen touchdowns, complemented by James 1147 yards and eight TD’s. Both were All Conference and Dickerson was named as both All American and the SWC Player Of The Year. As it was in ’80, the defense did not allow the offense to overshadow them, despite the Ponies firepower that put up an average of 33.2 points and 391.5 yards per game. Defensive tackle Harvey Armstrong who divided his 1982 through ’90 pro career between the Eagles and Colts, linebackers Eric Ferguson and Gary Moten, and defensive backs James Mobley and Wes Hopkins, the latter the recipient of four interceptions against Houston all made the All SWC team. Kicker Eddie Garcia gained recognition and two years with the Packers.
Despite the inability to go to a bowl game, SMU football was back, ranked as the nation’s fifth best team, with a Southwest Conference Championship to its credit, and what appeared to be a very bright future. On January 15, 1982, Meyer left rather unexpectedly to take the head coaching job of the New England Patriots, ending his run at SMU with a 34-32-1 mark and 61-40-1 for his collegiate coaching career. His tenure with the Patriots was short-lived despite being the AFC Coach of The Year in his first season, losing a power struggle with ownership and lasting only ’82 through the middle of the ’84 season. He returned to the NFL as head coach of the Colts from 1986 through ’91, compiled a 54-50 composite record in the NFL and gave it yet another shot with the Las Vegas Posse of the CFL, where Meyer earned less notice for his won-loss record and more for having the Showgirls Cheerleading Squad loiter behind the BC Lions bench as a distracting tactic which may have been the inspiration for a similar scene in The Replacements movie of 2000. Meyer’s final head coaching attempt came with the Chicago Enforcers of the short-lived XFL in 2001 and he later became a television analyst.
Bobby Collins would be the Mustangs head coach for 1982 and he was introduced as the new head coach only three days after Meyer departed, leading many to believe that his appointment was pre-arranged. More known in his native south, he had a history of success, beginning as the quarterback of his Laurel, Mississippi high school team and then as a four year letter winner at quarterback and punter for Mississippi State, coincidentally under head coach Darrel Royal. He coached at MSU before making the rounds as an assistant at Colorado State, a return to Mississippi State for four seasons, and stints at George Washington University, Virginia Tech, and North Carolina. He was named as the head coach at Southern Mississippi in 1975 and put together a strong 48-30-2 record that included major upsets against Southeastern Conference powers and his teams played everyone tough. Many SMU players remained “Meyer Guys” but Collins’ diligent work during spring practice won over the squad. Though unlikely, even with the talent on board, the 1982 season topped the ’81 breakout year with an 11-0-1 record, a Cotton Bowl victory over powerful Pitt, a number two national ranking behind Penn State, and was sullied only by a season finale 17-17 tie with Arkansas. With a chance to win against the Razorbacks with a two point conversion attempt, the decision was made to kick for a tie in order to gain the conference championship and a Cotton Bowl berth. SMU had strong representation in the honors department with Dickerson a Consensus All American and All SWC. He was joined on the All Conference team by James, McIlhenny, and guard Joe Beard from the offense with linebacker Moten, and defensive backs Hopkins, Russell Carter, and Blaine Smith stepping up for the defense. Hopkins, who had gone from an injury which limited his college recruitment as a high school senior to a two-time All SWC selection, led the conference with six interceptions and then played with the Eagles from ’83 through 1993. Moten played a season with the Forty Niners and another with the Chiefs, separated by three years in the CFL.
SPOTLIGHT ON THE PONY EXPRESS:
The two most sought after high school football players in Texas following the 1978 season were Sealy’s Eric Dickerson and Spring Branch Stratford’s Jessie Craig James. Because both were the featured running backs and record setters on their state championship teams, the prediction probably would have been that they would not play at the same university. However, in the biggest recruiting coup in the conference, SMU got them both. Dickerson was the Parade Magazine High School Running Back Of The Year and gained 5862 career rushing yards for Sealy High School. James was a Wishbone terror at 6’1” and 210 pounds, athletic enough to be offered a contract by the New York Yankees upon his high school graduation from the Houston area school and holder of the state single season rushing mark of 2411 yards. When the SMU staff utilized them in an alternating manner, neither was pleased with the arrangement but the results were difficult to argue with. The Pony Express was born and dominated the rushing statistics in the Southwest Conference. James got off to a faster start, earning the SWC Newcomer Of The Year Award in ’79 but over time, they both settled into their roles and dominated the conference. Dickerson at 6’3”, 205 pounds of slashing speed, was perhaps more explosive and completed his Mustangs career with 4450 rushing yards on 790 attempts to break Earl Campbell’s marks, two All American seasons, and a third place finish in the 1982 Heisman vote. James proved to be more versatile, giving the duo a total of 8370 rush yards and seventy-four touchdowns, and on his own, adding the danger of his pass receiving skills and even taking over the punting duties after SMU’s regular punter was injured. James 3742 rushing yards are perhaps underappreciated when the Pony Express tandem’s college feats are talked about because Dickerson had the far more productive professional career. The second player picked in the pro draft, Dickerson served the Rams from ’83 and into the 1987 season when he was part of a three-way trade with the Colts and Bills. He had solidified his value as the NFL Rookie Of The Year and an All Pro season, rushing for 1808 yards and eighteen touchdowns on 390 carries, all rookie records. In 1984 He set a new NFL standard of 2105 rushing yards. Dickerson seemingly did something spectacular each season, with his ’85 playoff performance of 248 yards against the Cowboys becoming almost expected. Three games into the ’87 season, he became a Colt and remained with them through 1991. 1992 was spent with the Raiders and ’93 with the Falcons. James, having attended SMU because his girlfriend and future wife Marilyn had enrolled there and also because he wanted to be part of the “pioneering efforts” of building a winner at SMU under Ron Meyer, chose the Washington Federals of the USFL for his pro debut, again wishing to be a ground breaker with the new league. Injuries plagued him and the team disbanded after one season, allowing him to join the Patriots for 1984 where he remained through 1988. His stint included a Pro Bowl selection and 1227 rushing yards in ’86 but recurrent shoulder injuries ended his career prematurely. James became a sports commentator and made an unsuccessful bid for the United States Senate in 2012. No matter what Dickerson and James did after their time as The Pony Express, to Southern Methodist University fans, all else will pale when compared with the success and glory their efforts brought to the Mustangs program, and the contribution they made to the restoration of SMU football dominance.
With SMU supporters on top of the world, and a series of superb recruiting
classes reaching full maturity, the future seemed one that would find the
Ponies battling Texas for the SWC top spot perhaps on a regular basis for
many years to come. Unfortunately, this was not to be. After the 11-0-1
finish of 1982, Collins kept the team rolling and ’83 finished at 10-2 with
a regular season loss to Texas and a Sun Bowl slip against Alabama the only
missteps. 1984 found the squad ranked at number eight as they closed a 10-2
season with an Aloha Bowl victory over Notre Dame. The professional scouts
found that SMU was churning out prospects by the handful each season with
Reggie Dupard, Rod Jones, Michael Carter, Rickey Bolden, and others
attracting constant attention. SMU had finally placed themselves on par with
the best not only in the Southwest Conference, but in the entire nation.
Lance McIlhenny, who had the pleasure of his fullback/tight end brother
Lott’s company on the squad, completed his career after the ’83 season,
rated as the most successful quarterback in the history of SWC football,
with a sterling 34-5-1 record. SMU’s overall 1980 through ’84 mark of 45-5-1
under both Meyer and Collins was the best in the nation.The
NCAA however, had kept a watchful eye on the program since the Dave Smith
years of 1973 to ’75. An investigation landed the program on probation for
1984 and ’85 with bowl bans instituted for 1985 and ’86 and television
appearances eliminated for that latter season. These sanctions stemmed from
illegal payments from boosters and assistant coaches to prospects but it was
later determined that payments to those players still on the squad
continued. With the knowledge of the athletic department administration and
the Board Of Governors, it had been decided to “phase out” the payment plan
and rent-free accommodations to those receiving such benefits, rather than
put a halt to all illegal activities. On the field, the Mustangs struggled
through a 6-5 1985 season, in part due to the presence of NCAA investigators
and news media on campus, seeking further incriminating information. By
October of ’86, after intensification of these investigative efforts, the
’86 squad that had gotten off to a strong 5-1 start, came apart and again
finished at 6-5 as allegations were revealed about the very involved depth
of the scandal now engulfing the entire athletic administration. On
February 25, 1987, it was announced that the 1987 football season would be
suspended with cancellation of 1988’s home games, an extended period of
probation, a loss of fifty-five scholarships over a four year period,
limitation of coaching staff members and recruiting practices, and the
elimination of a number of specified boosters from all football program
activities. SMU voluntarily cancelled the 1988 season so that for a full two
seasons, there would be no football at SMU, essentially forcing them to
“start from scratch.” These devastating penalties proved to be so severe
that despite hiring the great Forrest Gregg as their post- “Death Penalty”
head coach, the program was crippled and SMU was unable to field a
competitive team for more than twenty years. Home games returned to the
on-campus Ownby Stadium which was seen as positive for the Mustang community
but the NCAA has yet to again invoke such severe penalties as meted out
against SMU due to the negative effects it produced. Although it was
determined that head coach Bobby Collins was not directly involved with or
had any knowledge of the payoff scheme, he too was fired during the “purge”
and never coached again. A number of head coaches came and went after Gregg,
all with minimal success but presently, under the direction of head coach
June Jones, the proud SMU Mustangs have been competitive and returned to
bowl game status.
If interested in any of these SMU helmets please click on the photos below.