Last fall, on the 5th of November, the Mustangs of SMU trotted onto the turf of the Cotton Bowl for their game with Rice. They were greeted by the roar of a crowd of 6918. Like most people, I wasn’t there. But when I read the attendance figure in the Sunday morning sports page, I cringed. Poor SMU.
Since I was nine years old, watching from the upper deck of the Cotton Bowl as Don Meredith disappeared under a swarm of blue-shirted Navy defenders only to emerge somehow unscathed and launch a miraculous pass deep into the end zone, I’ve been a closet Mustang fan. I have no attachments to SMU itself, but I’ve always quietly rooted for the Mustangs. For no good reason except that they’re from Dallas, where I live. But rarely has my rooting been from a seat in the Cotton Bowl. 1 suppose there are a lot of others like me. So does Russ Potts.
Russ Potts is the new athletic director at SMU and the architect of Mustang Mania. Mustang Mania plastered your 7-Eleven with posters for the "Jerry Lewis/7-Eleven Bowl" featuring SMU vs. TCU; Mustang Mania is responsible for the two million SMU pocket football schedules floating around town; Mustang Mania has put an SMU-Coca Cola football schedule on every bulletin board and cash register in the "Metroplex" and more bumper stickers on more cars than in all the last decade. Russ Potts believes passionately in "visibility," and Mustang Mania is visible all over the place. But can the campaign revive an athletic program that has wallowed in 20 years of lethargy? Can the red and blue papering of the town stir a populace that has for so long treated the Mustangs with acute indifference? Yesterday I would have said no. Today, after listening to the gospel according to Russ Potts, I say maybe.
When Russ Potts graduated from the University of Maryland in 1964 with a degree in journalism, he hired on as sports editor with a small-town newspaper in Virginia. At some point, between coverage of high school football games and Fourth of July softball tourneys, Potts started helping out with something called the Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival and the spirit of the promo man was unleashed. His Apple Blossom successes may or may not have been a factor, but Potts was ultimately hired by his alma mater as "sports promotion director," the first in collegiate athletics.
The University of Maryland was desperate: When Potts started work, Maryland was nursing the wounds of nine straight losing football seasons; Potts’s first game on the job pulled only 12,000 fans, and the previous season’s average was a pathetic 17,000 per game. When he left, seven years later, the Terrapins were drawing an average of 43,000 per game; on top of that, the basketball program was one of the biggest financial successes in the country, selling out virtually every home game.
On New Year’s Day, 1977, Potts, then assistant athletic director, brought his Maryland team and a fat contingent of Terrapin fans into Dallas for their Cotton Bowl match against the University of Houston. A Dallas friend gave him a tour of the SMU campus and told him of the Mustangs’ long-standing athletic woes. Potts’s eyes widened - he saw "a sleeping giant." When SMU’s call for an athletic director came a year later, Potts jumped at the chance.
One wonders why. SMU, like most metropolitan universities, fights a losing battle for the local entertainment dollar. Even a school like UCLA, rich in athletic prowess, is poor at the gate; last season UCLA football averaged only 40,000 fans a game (including a showing of 80,000 for the final game of the season against crosstown rival USC), this despite a stateful of alumni and the enormous LA audience. The reason, of course, is that there are plenty of other things to do in Los Angeles. As opposed to Norman, Oklahoma, where there is little to do but watch the Sooners.
"My mission," says Russ Potts, for whom the word is appropriate, "is to make sure that the man on the street knows that SMU is playing football on Saturday." To that effect, he is spreading the good word. He speaks to any student group that will listen, collars alumni at every street corner, has mailed a Mania letter to every resident of the Park Cities, and has secured a delayed broadcast TV contract with Channel 5 (the first of its kind in the Southwest Conference). Every home game is a promotional event. The first, against TCU, became the Jerry Lew-is/7-Eleven Bowl - charity football for muscular dystrophy - bolstered by 12,000 tickets purchased by local business and industry and then distributed to youth groups. ("The kid sitting in the end zone today," says Potts, "buys a season ticket tomorrow.") The result: a crowd of 41,112, largest for an SMU-TCU game in 20 years. The second home game, against Houston on October 21, will be Kids Day, sponsored by Jack-In-The-Box: For every paid adult, five kids get in free. ("You may say that sounds preposterous," says Potts. "But we know that no single adult can handle five kids, so he brings another adult. That’s two seats sold at eight bucks each and that’s 16 new dollars for SMU football.") The November 4 Texas A&M game will be the "Hall of Fame" game with an "appropriate giveaway" from Dr Pepper and 8,000 SMU caps given away by Frito Lay. The November 25 Arkansas game will feature the giveaway of 10,000 SMU warm-up jackets.
Potts bases his promotional efforts on "corporate partnership," meaning simply that every promotional scheme is co-sponsored by at least one business entity so that the tab is picked up by somebody besides SMU. Thus, the athletic department’s promotional budget is held in check despite the all-out blitz. In fact, the increase in season ticket sales alone (from 2200 last season to more than 6000 this season) has already covered SMU’s entire football promo budget. Potts doesn’t like to talk money ("I’m much more interested in generating excitement than in generating dollars"), but he confidently claims that in three years, despite his inherited deficit, he’ll have the SMU athletic department back in the black (with the help of hoped-for basketball revenues). "The era of the athletic director as the former football coach kicked upstairs is about to be over," he says. "There are still a lot of those around, but within a decade there won’t be. The new athletic director is administration- and promotion-minded - because that’s what works."
All well and good. But Russ Potts is the first to admit that no promotion is worth a flip if the product isn’t salable. That means a winning football team, and for SMU that’s a monstrous "if." "Ultimately," says Potts, "you have to win. Losing has a pivotal effect. A program like this has to snowball, has to succeed on momentum. Steady progress is our goal."
It certainly won’t be sudden progress.. While Potts is blessed with an offense-minded Mustang team centered on a fine passing tandem (Mike Ford to Emanuel Tolbert), he is also cursed with one of the most devastating schedules in the country. Besides playing in a conference studded with talent (Arkansas is of national championship caliber, UT is coming off a championship season, and Houston, Baylor, and A&M all figure to be very strong), SMU faces a non-conference schedule including Florida, Penn State, and Ohio State - all powerful teams and all to be met on their home turf.
Potts doesn’t try to pretend. "Yeah, we’re going to take our lumps this season. We’re a year away." Not that the 1979 team will necessarily be better (though Coach Ron Meyer’s new recruiting programs will likely begin reaping dividends), but the schedule will definitely be easier. Next year’s non-conference opponents are North Texas State, Tulane, and Wichita. That’s not an accident. When Potts arrived, the Mustangs were scheduled to play fearsome Alabama next year. Potts did some "rearranging," and now the Mustangs can look forward to beating up on Wichita instead (Wichita has also agreed to sub for SMU and go to Birmingham for the slaughter). Potts has padded future schedules with more North Texas State and UT/Arlington games, first for the purpose of establishing regional rivalries (a wise maneuver), but also for the purpose of beating them; North Texas State is no patsy these days, but it’s no Penn State, either. The bottom line is winning, and the bottom line, for Russ Potts, is also precise.
"The magic number is seven," he says. "Seven wins in a season. In these days of the 95-scholarship limit, seven wins will get you a bowl game. And a bowl game is what it’s all about. Even if it’s a secondary bowl. A bowl game is a rallying point. It creates an excitement and togetherness that no bumper sticker ever can. Seven wins is what we’re after." If it takes a diluted schedule to win seven, Potts will take it. "Hey, we don’t have to apologize for our schedule. We play in the best conference in the country."
Russ Potts exudes such confidence andenthusiasm (much like coach Ron Meyer)that it’s difficult to doubt him. In the faceof frightening odds, he is somehow convincing. It is often argued, for example,that the plight of SMU football is largelydue to its being situated in the shadow ofthe Dallas Cowboys: Dallas already has afootball team, the best; it doesn’t need theMustangs, or want them. "That’s ridiculous," says the indomitable Russ Potts."The Cowboys don’t bother me in theleast. Hey, they don’t have any emptyseats left. I’ve got plenty."