SMU football working to make fans, prospects in the Dallas area ‘pony up’

SMU coach Sonny Dykes understands the situation: You, a random Dallas resident, may have grown up rooting for Texas, or gone to school at Texas A&M, or moved into the city from Oklahoma, Louisiana, California or elsewhere.

In other words, as one random resident of the about 7.5 million in the Dallas-Forth Worth Metroplex, you might not be an SMU fan. But that's OK.

"Look, we don’t have to be your favorite team. We just want to be your second-favorite team," Dykes said. "If you’re an Oklahoma graduate, sure, go to homecoming in Norman. But buy season tickets here."

Since his arrival in 2017, SMU has branded the program around the Metroplex, creating advertising campaigns, erecting billboards and designing uniforms in an effort to reach a specific individual: someone who might not love SMU — someone more attached to another football team, in other words — but definitely loves Dallas.

SMU coach Sonny Dykes (Photo: Tim Heitman, USA TODAY Sports)

"SMU had fallen kind of the to the wayside in recent years," said Tyler Olker, the team's director of recruiting operations, "and I think we’re using that niche of Dallas to just help promote ourselves, tie the school to the city, bring ourselves back to relevance with the winning we’ve been doing, the success we’ve been having. It’s such a great city with so much to offer. Why wouldn’t we pony up and use it?"

Joined by the Mustangs' development into one of the more successful programs in the Group of Five, these efforts have deepened SMU's connections and reputation within one of college football's most fertile and contested recruiting crossroads.

Annually home to dozens of prospects with Bowl Subdivision scholarship offers, the very best talent in the Dallas area has long been pillaged by local powerhouses, led by Texas, Oklahoma and Texas A&M; harvested by national programs with enough clout to open doors among prospects and high schools, such as Ohio State and Alabama; and then picked clean by TCU, Baylor and the other Power Five schools in the region.

Alabama, which has the nation's top-ranked recruiting class, has three verbal commitments from the Metroplex, including the state's highest-ranked recruit in Fort Worth offensive lineman Tommy Brockermeyer.

For the first time in decades, SMU spent this recruiting cycle in contention for some of the region's top prospects, securing at least one high-profile commitment and being in the final group for several others.

"We feel like we can pretty much compete with anyone that comes into the city," said Jeff Jordan, SMU's director of player personnel. "It’s been really neat to be a part of, just to see how perception has changed in the last three years over what it was for the previous 30."

With 17 known verbal commitments heading into the first signing day — the second, more traditional signing date is in early February — SMU's class is almost guaranteed to finish in the top three in the American. By the average ranking of each commitment, the Mustangs' group is currently the best in the Group of Five, per

The projected signing class is headlined by four-star quarterback recruit Preston Stone of Parish Episcopal School in Dallas, who verbally committed to SMU nearly a year ago over scholarship offers from over 40 programs, including Alabama, Notre Dame, Southern California and Ohio State.

Along with Oklahoma, the Mustangs are one of the co-finalists for Duncanville, Texas, offensive tackle Savion Byrd, one of the nation's top uncommitted prospects.

"Prior to 2017 or 2018, you’d see Oklahoma, Texas, Auburn. Now you see SMU on that list and it’s not surprising," said Parish Episcopal coach Daniel Novakov. "Before you’d take notice. It doesn’t look out of place anymore. It looks perfectly normal for a kid to list Baylor, Oklahoma, (Texas) Tech, Oklahoma State, SMU."

SMU wants to be the program top players in the Dallas area point to. (Photo: Roger Steinman, AP)

SMU had spent most of the previous three decades as a recruiting afterthought before finding a local foothold under the current coaching staff.

The program was given a one-year ban from all competition by the NCAA in 1987, which the university then extended through 1988, for massive recruiting violations dating to the 1970s. SMU would go 20 years with just one winning season before returning to the postseason under former coach June Jones in 2009, the first of the Mustangs' four consecutive non-losing seasons.

After Jones' tenure sputtered, SMU climbed back into bowl play in 2017 under former coach Chad Morris, who parlayed that success into two miserable years at Arkansas and spent this past year as the offensive coordinator at Auburn.

Morris, a former high school coach in Texas with strong relationships inside the coaching circuit, improved SMU's recruiting efforts but with a broader, statewide focus.

"Prior to Sonny coming to SMU, I didn’t know a single person on the staff," said Novakov, who has been at Parish Episcopal since 2011. "Before that, I couldn’t tell you the last time an SMU coach was in the school."

The genesis of the program's recruiting approach dates to the early 2000s, when Dykes, then an assistant coach at Texas Tech assigned the Dallas area as his recruiting territory, envisioned building an entire program around prospects from the Metroplex. The theory was rekindled while spending the 2017 season as an offensive analyst at TCU, the Mustangs' primary rival.

"When the SMU job opened, that was sort of my pitch from the very get-go," he said. "Look, we’ve got to, No. 1, become Dallas’s football team. We have to become relevant in our own city. And if we can’t become relevant in Dallas, we’re going to have issues."

Spearheaded by Dykes' chief of staff, Anthony Crespino, SMU developed a billboard campaign highlighting the program's local standouts, beginning with former wide receiver James Proche, who went to high school in nearby DeSoto. SMU paid for eight similar billboards throughout the Metroplex to highlight the 2020 season, including a group photo erected near Dallas Love Field Airport. 

Last season, SMU debuted uniforms with script "Dallas" across the chest and helmets bearing the Dallas city logo — a capital D composed of three concentric lines. 

"They’ve got Dallas on their uniform," said Duncanville High School coach Reggie Samples. "Kids notice that. It means something."

Tying a program to a substantial population center is unique in the FBS, where the predominant number of schools are located outside of major cities. Northwestern embraces the label of "Chicago's Big Ten team" despite being located in Evanston, Illinois, about 40 minutes north of downtown. Southern California leans into the glitz and glamour of Hollywood without any direct references to Los Angeles.

"I think the difference between Chicago and here is all the players we recruit are for the most part within 30 miles of here," said Crespino, who spent two seasons at Northwestern before joining SMU in 2018. "There’s this new sense of camaraderie, that we’re all unified. That this is Dallas’s team. I mean, we’re not the Mavericks, but if you live here, we’re your team."

During the final two full recruiting cycles under Morris, in 2016 and 2017, SMU signed 11 players from the Metroplex out of a combined 42 commitments. That proportion grew to 17 of 39 commitments in 2018 and 2019. All but four of the Mustangs' verbal commitments heading into Wednesday's early signing period hail from the Metroplex, including two pairs from the same high school, Parish Episcopal and Duncanville. 

Tying the program to Dallas has also made SMU a preferred destination for Power Five transfers originally recruited out of the Metroplex. Eleven of the 16 major-conference transfers added by SMU across the past three recruiting cycles are from the area, including all-conference quarterback Shane Buechele, kicker Chris Naggar and three defensive starters.

"People know it’s not just lip service," Dykes said. "We’re serious about it. And these kids are starting to see SMU as a viable option."

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