Ron Meyer, the Southern Methodist football coach, was relaxing aboard a private jet returning him to Dallas from a recruiting trip to New Orleans, and he was explaining how dead certain he is that SMU will soon reign as the best college football team in the land. "You may have forgotten," he said to a listener who obviously had, "that SMU was the national champion in 1935. And when you have that kind of embers, they are there to be rekindled."
Heretofore, that sort of talk would be considered wishful, if not whimsical, thinking. After all, how could SMU—a private school with a mere 5,481 undergraduates—win big in big-time football? Can't happen. Make that couldn't.
In 1973, the NCAA decreed that, beginning the next academic year, its Division I schools could award only 30 new football scholarships for any one year, and that as of the 1978 season a maximum of 95 scholarships could be in effect at any one time. What prompted the rule was the way open and unlimited recruiting had tended to perpetuate success. The big teams with plenty of money could gobble up all the best athletes because all the best athletes wanted to play for the big teams. As a result the bigs would sign a load of good players not only to assure depth but also to make sure they didn't play for anybody else. Pittsburgh is a classic example. In 1973, the final year of open recruiting, it took in a freshman class of 75 players—including Tony Dorsett—and parlayed that boxcar number into a national title in 1976.
Naturally, most of the traditionally powerful schools screamed at the new rule, saying it penalized them for working hard and recruiting the best players. At the same time most fans ignored what seemed to be yet another boring backroom squabble in the business of football. But privately, coaches—again, those at the large football-oriented schools—confessed their true fears: it might give a lot of other schools a chance to get good players and start winning, too.
These fears—and hopes—have been confirmed. Thus far this has been a gloriously unpredictable year in college football. No longer is it only the same old boys winning, laughing and telling jokes; no longer is it only the same old boys losing, moping and saying, "Shut up and deal." It has shorted the computers, confounded the odds people and electrified fans.
"Yes, sir," chortles Meyer, "the new rule means places like SMU can dust off their great heritage, which has been lying around like unshined copper—all green and cruddy—and polish it up." Even at Houston, which routinely had around 100 players on scholarship, Coach Bill Yeoman was hailing the change last week as his squad prepared to meet the Mustangs. "It's the salvation of college football," he said.
There are examples of the new balance everywhere, and next year should be even more dramatic. In the Big Ten both Michigan and Ohio State—those hoary superpowers—have been beaten in conference play. And the Buckeyes also were beaten by Penn State and tied by, yup, SMU. Michigan has lost to Michigan State. Which means that Purdue, 27-16 victor over Ohio State, is leading the Big Ten. Purdue!
In the Pac-10, things they are a-changing, too. Three of the nation's top seven passers are in the conference, no great surprise there. What is a shock is that not one of them plays for USC or UCLA; Steve Dils is at Stanford, Jack Thompson at Washington State and Rich Campbell at California. Before the 30-95 rules, these players might have been showing their brilliant passing ability only in practice at one of the perennial powers.
Among independents there are signs of the 30-95 blues at Notre Dame and Pitt. And Penn State had all it could handle while beating Temple, Rutgers and, wouldn't you know it, SMU.
But nowhere are things more colossally scrambled than in the Southwest Conference. As the season moved along, Texas A&M appeared to be the best team, and people were looking forward to its Nov. 18 game with Arkansas. Whoops. Two weeks ago Houston swamped the sixth-ranked Aggies 33-0; last Saturday winless Baylor (0-5) stuck A&M again, 18-0. And another football heritage, the Aggie joke, was dusted off. Undefeated Arkansas went to Austin Saturday with its best team in years to face a Texas team that had been blitzed by Oklahoma. Whoops. This weekend the Longhorns play—wouldn't you know it—SMU.