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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
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.