How SMU got into the ACC, a three-year sprint to end a three-decade return to the big time

UNIVERSITY PARK, Texas — Rick Hart typically doesn’t let his emotions get too high or too low, but as SMU’s athletic director looks out his office window, the excitement on his face is hard to miss.

Across an empty field at Gerald J. Ford Stadium on this Dallas morning is a new end zone facility, wrapping up construction and set to open by August. In September, Florida State will play on this field. Duke men’s basketball will visit campus next year to play against a coach SMU hired away from USC.

SMU officially joins the ACC on Monday, about 40 years since its football program got the “death penalty” and almost 30 years since the collapse of the Southwest Conference. Now the Mustangs are back in a high-major conference.

The Garry Weber End Zone Complex was built off a $50 million donation from Weber’s foundation in 2021. In the one week after SMU announced its move to the ACC last year, the school raised $100 million for the transition. In total, athletics raised $159 million over the last year. The department will need it: SMU gave up nine years of ACC television revenue to get the invite, more than $200 million.

Conference realignment moves usually happen for TV or geography reasons. Adding a school for financial reasons in an arrangement where that school won’t receive the financial benefits of the league for a decade is much less common. It’s an unprecedented college sports investment from people who have a lot to spend. SMU and the ACC believe it’ll pay off.

“We’re all-in,” Hart said, “and we’re going to be able to compete at a high level.”


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David B. Miller always does things big. He is, after all, a 6-foot-8 former SMU basketball player. He won a SWC championship as a senior in 1972. He became a billionaire through an oil and gas company he co-founded, which he followed by founding a private equity company. He has been an SMU board of trustees member for 16 years and the board’s chair for the last two. He has donated more than $100 million to the university through the business school and other areas. His name is on the basketball court.

“I went to SMU for five years and never paid a dime of tuition,” Miller said. “I hoped I’d have the opportunity to give back.”

SMU is a small private school (around 7,100 undergraduates last year) with a wealthy and proud alumni base. So when Miller and Hart gathered a handful of other millionaire and billionaire alumni to explain how much a power conference move could cost, there wasn’t a hesitation to chip in.

“We have some of the most successful owners of private equity firms in the country, and we can’t invest in them because they’re on our board,” SMU president R. Gerald Turner said with a laugh.

When Texas and Oklahoma stunned the college sports world with their announcement of an SEC move, SMU scrambled. Leaders saw the Big 12, Pac-12 and ACC as possible new homes, and they knew this might be their last chance to pitch the school’s value proposition centered around academics, athletics and access to Dallas. Pretty quickly, SMU sensed that the Big 12 wasn’t very interested. SMU fans of the 1980s believed other Texas schools became jealous of their success, and people around the school believe the feeling remains similar, whether or not it’s true.

“I don’t want to come off sounding (bitter),” Hart said, “but if there were schools in that league who were afraid that inviting us was a threat to their position, then they were right to think that, and I get it.”

The school hired former college administrator Oliver Luck (who had assisted the Big 12 in its round of expansion that brought in Houston, Cincinnati, UCF and BYU) as their own consultant and began a three-pronged plan of attack. Hart, Turner, Miller, Luck and a media consultant put together a dashboard of information on schools in the conferences they had targeted: presidents, board chairs, athletic directors, who made the key athletics decisions, how often to contact each person, how to pitch them, which schools would be key votes. They learned how each school worked and how best to make their case.

Hart took the ADs. Turner took the presidents. Miller took the board chairs. Luck facilitated many of the connections, especially for Miller. It helped to have a billionaire. If someone wanted to meet, Miller would jump on his personal plane and visit them the next day.

“It’s better than a phone call,” Miller said.

For a period, the Pac-12 looked like the destination. SMU and San Diego State knew they would be the likely additions to the league once the conference closed its television deal. Commissioner George Kliavkoff was spotted at SMU by The Athletic during a February 2023 basketball game.

“We were told unequivocally more than once that it was just timing,” Hart said.

But months dragged on, the TV deal never came together and the Pac-12 unraveled that August.

With Big 12 and Pac-12 hopes dashed, there was only one option left. SMU hadn’t stopped talking with the ACC, and school officials say they always felt the ACC was the best fit, as a league with plenty of private schools. The talks ramped up, especially when Cal and Stanford realized they needed a new home. SMU kept raising its offer of how many years it would forgo ACC TV revenue, to seven and then nine.

An ACC straw poll had the three schools one vote short of expansion, as Clemson, Florida State, North Carolina and NC State were against the move. SMU officials knew NC State was the best chance for a flip. Miller called up NC State’s board chair, Ed Weisiger, and pitched him again.

“At another time, I’ll tell you how we got North Carolina State to flip,” Miller teased. “That’s a whole other story.”

Minutes into the ACC’s early-morning expansion meeting on Sept. 1, Turner got the call. The door had opened. The ACC invited all three schools. It wasn’t a unanimous vote; ACC officials have downplayed that, noting the additions of Miami and Virginia Tech in 2003 didn’t have full support, either.

“There doesn’t seem to be a ceiling on what SMU can bring to the conference,” commissioner Jim Phillips said. “I can’t tell you how bullish I am about SMU joining the league, and I really believe they’ll be competitive from the beginning in a variety of sports.”

(The additions also provide a backstop as Clemson and Florida State actively sue the conference in an attempt to get out of the ACC’s grant of rights. The ESPN contract requires the ACC to maintain at least members. Coincidentally, Hart is the son of former Florida State AD Dave Hart Jr.)

To SMU, it didn’t matter if the vote wasn’t unanimous. The Mustangs were in, and those billionaires and millionaires went to work. Miller credits energy executive Ray Hunt for organizing it. The $100 million raised from its First Week Society, along with $25 million raised from fans since then, will provide about $25 million to the athletics budget annually for five years, essentially making up for the $24 million in ACC TV money SMU won’t get each year.

SMU officials and donors push back on the notion they bought their way in. To them, this was like any university business investment. It’s not just athletics. Miller made a $50 million donation to the business school in 2019, and a quadrangle named after him opened in May. Some of SMU’s billionaires and millionaires are on the school’s board, and an ACC move only helps the school. It will now be associated with the likes of Stanford, Cal, Duke, North Carolina and Miami. Miller said an SMU dean told him recently that a candidate for a job at SMU said the ACC move was the only reason they considered the position.

“We’re already a top-100 university,” Miller said. “My goal is to be a top-50 university. We’re well on our way, and this will help catapult SMU’s brand and academic reputation nationally.”

School officials also note that plenty of schools take loans or issue bonds to raise money and build facilities. Some schools and conferences are currently looking at taking on private equity. Why should SMU be looked down upon for getting its money through donations like every other school?



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And it’s not just the money.

“Probably the biggest thing is that we’ve been winning,” football coach Rhett Lashlee said.

SMU football has more wins than any Division I team in the state of Texas since 2019. The Mustangs have appeared in the AP Top 25 in four of the last five years. Last fall, they won their first conference championship since 1984. The athletic department finished 54th nationally in the Directors’ Cup standings, tops in the American Athletic Conference and ahead of 18 power conference schools thanks to a school-record eight conference championships during the 2023-24 year.

Since Lashlee first arrived as an SMU assistant under Sonny Dykes in 2019, the school has built an indoor practice facility, renovated the locker room and offices and will now open an end zone facility. It expects to have sold 15,000 season tickets by the time the season begins.

The commitment isn’t just in football. SMU surprised observers when it fired men’s basketball coach Rob Lanier after two seasons, a 10-win improvement and an NIT appearance and hired Andy Enfield away from Big Ten-bound USC. Miller, who had golfed with Enfield in California in recent years, helped lead the recruitment. Enfield told him he’d only take the job if he’d have resources to compete. Miller convinced Enfield he would.

“You want to compete at the highest level, and that’s the goal of SMU,” Enfield said. “You go to the premier basketball conference in the country, and to compete at the highest level, you have to compete with Duke and North Carolina.”

Still, coaches and school officials point out the four schools that joined the Big 12 last year all struggled on the field in football. SMU got its ACC invitation just 10 months ago; that’s not much time to build up infrastructure and improve a roster. It likes its football team. It needs to build depth.

Still, the internal optimism from SMU for years was that it just needed to get into a power conference and the rest would come.

Sitting on Hart’s desk is an ACC football helmet in a glass case. At the bottom of the case reads “Power Conference Task Force, 2021-23.” Each of the 16 task force members received one. Hart grew up in ACC country and graduated from North Carolina. But his time in Dallas exposed him to the history of SMU and what it used to be.

“SMU is back where we belong,” he said.

(Photo: Sam Hodde / Getty Images)

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