Mustang Mania resurrected 30 years later

Harvey Armstrong remembers the details from practices, the camaraderie with the players and coaches, and the promise the 1978 football season brought to SMU. It was the beginning of Mustang Mania. Thirty years later is it happening again. Go inside to see what several players have to say about the current excitement surrounding the program.

Harvey Armstrong remembers the details from practices, the camaraderie with the players and coaches, and the promise the 1978 football season brought to SMU.

The results from that 4-6-1 season remain blurry to him. But those don't matter now. The memories surrounding the '78 Mustangs don't revolve around what they did on the field, the former All-Southwest Conference defensive tackle said, as much as what they started.

Scripted by a salesman as a head coach, promoted by a visionary athletic director, and prompted by a high-powered offense led by two of the nation's yardage leaders at quarterback and wide receiver, Mustang Mania arrived at SMU 30 years ago this season.

That 1978 team full of raw talent set the stage for one of the most dominant eras in SMU's history. Four of its defensive players would later play in the NFL. The Pony Express backfield of Eric Dickerson and Craig James would come a year later, and winning would soon follow.

As Mustang Mania turns 30, there are few if any on-campus connections left between 2008 and 1978. But just as it did a generation ago, SMU sits as the cusp of another rebirth with a top-flight coach, working with a high-caliber offense highlighted by returning leaders at quarterback and receiver, in a program built by another visionary athletic director who is setting SMU up for greater things to come.

"I see plenty of similarities," said Armstrong, who was one of the former players in town last week at the Mustang Legends for Charity event put on by the June Jones Foundation. "In 1978 what we learned was to be able to compete. We had a lot of freshmen that grew up quick. In my third game as a freshman, we went up to Penn State and took on Matt Suey and I played against a tackle that was a number-one draft pick (Keith Dorney). We held our own. We played a tough schedule, but learned a bunch too.

"That's what these kids are going to experience at SMU this year."

SMU can only hope to duplicate its success from 1978. The Mustangs opened the season with a 45-14 home trouncing of TCU. The following week SMU won at Florida, 35-25. Then came a narrow 26-21 loss at No. 3 Penn State. Two weeks later, SMU went back on the road and tied No. 14 Ohio State, 35-35, outgaining the Buckeyes by 200 yards and missing a 48-yard field goal for the win in the final minute.

Such success on the road against those same opponents would be unheard of for a non-BCS school today. But a similar chance for national awareness exists for the 2008 Mustangs with September games at No. 12 Texas Tech and TCU back-to-back.

Those early games in 1978 prompted SMU's surge. According to the school's media guide, SMU led the nation in increased attendance, jumping from an average of 26,000 to 52,000. More than 64,000 people saw a 3-1-1 SMU team play No. 11 Houston, its largest crowd in 13 years.

Sophomore quarterback Mike Ford led the nation in total offense. Junior wide receiver Emanuel Tolbert was a first-team All-American. The Mustang Club tripled its contributions after the season in the most successful fund drive in SMU's history. Freshman enrollment increased at SMU the following year, and the number one reason was listed as the upsurge of the football team. The guide stated 90 percent of SMU's undergraduate student body attended each Mustangs home game at the off-campus Cotton Bowl.

SMU's recruiting class in 1979 was rated in the top three nationally, which only buoyed the school's decision to move its home games to Texas Stadium.

Armstrong says he still has the red Mustang Mania bumper stickers hanging on his wall at his house in Atlanta. SMU's rebirth in 1978, and the Mustangs' resurrection he predicts this season, he said, is due to coaching.

"Ron Meyer was a true salesman," Armstrong said of his former coach. "I had half the country coming after me in recruiting, and I was pretty set on either Oklahoma or UCLA. I came to SMU because of the coaching staff. They made me feel welcome. "(Meyer) had the sales approach with you. With June, he makes you feel warm. He's down to earth with you. He's won everywhere he's been, but he makes you feel important too. That's the reason kids are going to come to SMU now.

"It's the same feeling as Meyer gave you, but from a different approach."

Eric Dickerson, who said he came to SMU specifically to play for Meyer, said this year's team is set up well for a similar launch into the national spotlight. Junior quarterback Justin Willis topped Ford's total yardage numbers last season and has mirrored Ford's early success. But he won't be behind the center when the season starts Friday.

Junior receiver Emmanuel Sanders (889 receiving yards in 2007) is a facsimile of Tolbert, and has already had two Tolbert-like seasons at SMU. A 1,000-yard receiving season by Sanders this year would put him within 300 yards of Tolbert's 2,784 career yards that are tops in SMU's record books.

Throw in an improved defense, and SMU may be ready to begin its ascension in the conference ranks after an 0-8 Conference USA mark last year.

"The fact that the players today are going to get to play for Coach Jones is fantastic," Dickerson said. "I know what it was like playing for a great coach, a player's coach, with Meyer. And I know how it was playing for Jones (with the Atlanta Falcons). They'll appreciate playing for Coach Jones more than they realize now."

SMU ended the 1978 season losing five of its last six games. It went 5-6 in 1979. But it earned its first bowl game in 12 years the following year, and won at least 10 games in the next four seasons, including an undefeated 11-0-1 year in 1982.

Dickerson says SMU is set up for a similar path, pointing to the fact that even with all the talent from his nationally-ranked recruiting class, it took a few years to put it together and earn championships. It took patience to get it going in 1978, and likely will again. But just as it was 30 years ago, hope has been restored on The Hilltop.

"With June these guys may not have to wait as long," Dickerson said.

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