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SMU football is set to have a seat in a major NCAA conference for the first time in nearly three decades after the ACC accepted the Mustangs, along with Cal and Stanford, as expansion members in time for the 2024-25 academic year. The addition of those schools, approved by ACC members Friday in a 12-3 vote, puts SMU back on a stage it hasn't seen since 1995, which was the final season before the Southwest Conference -- which the Mustangs were members of for the bulk of the 20th century -- dissolved. 

"This is a transformational day for SMU," university president R. Gerald Turner said in a statement via the ACC. "Becoming a member of the ACC will positively impact all aspects of the collegiate experience on the Hilltop and will raise SMU's profile on a national level. We want to thank everyone who has helped position SMU for this important moment. Joining the ACC is an historic milestone in our institution's history, and the start of a new chapter in SMU Athletics."

For more than three decades, SMU has sought a return to prominence after it was rocked by the NCAA "death penalty" stemming from repeated NCAA violations, most notably under-the-table payments to players. The Mustangs have spent plenty of time wandering in the desert since, but a program that has flashed recently is now set to take a milestone step in joining the ACC next year -- even without receiving any conference revenue for nine years. 

"It's just great for our university; obviously for our athletics program, but also our school as a whole" SMU football coach Rhett Lashlee, entering his second year at the helm, told reporters Friday on campus."You think about where our school has come from in the past three or four decades, and there are so many fans, alumni and board members that have longed for this day for decades. ... There's a lot of validation that we are back in a position where we can be on that stage and compete at that level where we feel like we belong." 

Below is a look at SMU's trek back to having a seat at the table in the power conference landscape. 

1987-88: SMU football goes dark after NCAA death penalty

SMU's on-field momentum from the early 1980s was already waning after posting back-to-back 6-5 finishes from 1985-86, but then came the crushing blow in February 1987, when the NCAA slammed SMU with a "Death Penalty" punishment for widespread recruiting violations, shutting the Mustangs' football program for two seasons. Scholarships were stripped away en masse, and SMU did not take the field again until 1989 -- the NCAA canceled the Mustangs' 1987 campaign before the school itself elected to not play in 1988 -- as it faced NCAA sanctions that have been seen since in terms of severity. It all made for an abrupt halt for a program that flourished in the early 1980s amid emergence of the "Pony Express" running back duo of Craig James and Eric Dickerson.

SMU didn't draw many fans to this 1995 game vs. Texas at the Cotton Bowl.

1989-95: Mustangs a non-factor as Southwest Conference fizzles

SMU returned to the field in 1989, but due to the effects of the severe sanctions, the Mustangs only won two games that season. It marked the start of a seven-year stretch in which the Mustangs only won 13 games, not winning a conference game again until 1992. Problems on the Hilltop only compounded when the Southwest Conference, which SMU had been part of since 1918, began to fracture, starting with Arkansas' decision in 1991 to exit for the SEC. The league eventually dissolved after the 1995 season, and the Mustangs were not included when Texas, Texas A&M, Baylor and Texas Tech joined forces with the Big Eight schools to form the Big 12. Rice, Houston and longtime rival TCU were also left behind during that split. 

1996-2012: The wilderness of the WAC, Conference USA

With the Southwest Conference no more, SMU found a home in the WAC in 1996, where it remained through 2004. The 1997 campaign -- the program's fist under coach Mike Cavan -- brought the Mustangs their first winning season (6-5) post-death penalty, but they wouldn't finish above. 500 again while in the WAC. Lows from that stay included a winless season in 2003. 

SMU found a new home when it joined Conference USA in 2005. The Mustangs endured consecutive 1-11 finishes from 2007-08, but a coaching transition from Phil Bennet to June Jones between those seasons ultimately ushered in some hope for SMU. Jones guided the Mustangs to eight wins and a bowl game in 2009, feats that SMU had not accomplished since a 10-2 finish in 1984. That kicked off a stretch in which the Mustangs reached a bowl game in four straight years under Jones before SMU again found itself on the move.

2013-23: Twists and turns in the AAC 

SMU's admittance into the American Athletic Conference a decade ago was a step forward for the Mustangs in terms of conference strength, but the early returns weren't promising. SMU's AAC debut in 2013 saw the program finish below .500 (5-7) before the bottom gave out in 2014. Jones resigned two games into the season as SMU plummeted to a 1-11 record. Jones' eventual replacement, Chad Morris, got the Mustangs back to a bowl game by 2017, only to leave the Hilltop for an ill-fated tenure at Arkansas.

Morris' departure, however, gave way to SMU soon putting together its best three-year stretch of football in decades when the Mustangs went across the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex to hire Sonny Dykes -- then an analyst at TCU -- as coach. SMU showed growing pains during a 5-7 finish in Dykes' 2018 debut, but an increased emphasis on NCAA transfer portal -- specifically power conference players with Dallas-area roots -- gave way to SMU flipping the script under Dykes in 2019. The Mustangs rode a 8-0 start to their first 10-win season since 1984, and also spent time in the AP Top 25 rankings for the first time since 1986.

SMU continued its winning ways under Dykes for the next two years, going 25-7 in a three-year stretch from 2019-21 before he was eventually poached by TCU to replace longtime Horned Frogs coach Gary Patterson. The Mustangs subsequently turned to Lashlee -- Dykes' offensive coordinator at SMU from 2018-19 -- to fill the void. Lashlee guided SMU to a 7-6 finish in his debut last season. 

2023: ACC gives SMU a seat at the table

Friday's ACC announcement marks the culmination of a strong push by SMU to join a power conference amid a stretch in which college athletics has been dominated by conference realignment and NIL. The Mustangs were seen for the better part of the last year as strong candidates to join the Pac-12 if it sought to backfill the loss of USC and UCLA to the Big Ten. Of course, the Pac-12 now finds itself sitting on the brink of extinction with 10 of its 12 members departing in 2024, but those dominoes opened a door with the ACC.

The wealthy booster base at SMU's disposal is no secret -- it's a big reason why SMU is willing to forgo ACC revenue payments for nearly a decade -- and the Mustangs haven't been afraid to flex that. Within the past year, SMU broke ground on a new $100 million end zone complex at Gerald J. Ford Stadium, bolstered by a record $50 million gift to its athletic department from the Garry Weber Foundation. The university isn't expecting donor support to slow down either.

"I expect that the individuals who have gotten us to this point will continue to invest, because that is who they are and what they do," SMU athletic director Rick Hart told reporters Friday. "This is really an opportunity. We need to broaden that support base, and we need others who have been on the sidelines or have been hesitant, whatever it is to step forward. And I don't think there is any other moment where you could replicate the opportunity we have." 

Unsurprisingly, SMU has also been a major player in the NIL landscape since the NCAA permitted players to be compensated for their likeness two years ago. In August 2022, it was revealed that SMU football and basketball players could earn $36,000 annually in NIL compensation through the Boulevard Collective, spearheaded by a group of SMU alumni and donors. The school also hasn't been afraid to embrace its notorious past that led to the NCAA sanctions now that student-athletes can profit freely. 

It remains to be seen how SMU will fare amid increased competition in the ACC, but the Mustangs sit in the heart of a fertile recruiting ground in North Texas. SMU's 2023 signing class was ranked No. 41 in the country by 247Sports, which included the No. 13 ranked transfer class for that cycle. Add in power conference branding with NIL backing, and luring talent shouldn't be an issue on the Hilltop.