A poll of Southern Methodist University fans and Dallas sportswriters held during the school's 75th anniversary of varsity football in 1991, judged the 32-28 upset by SMU over Heisman Trophy winner Roger Staubach and Navy in 1963 as the school's eighth greatest football win.
It is far more satisfying to recall the heroics of Doak Walker, Kyle Rote, John Roderick and the Eric Dickerson era in the early '80s when SMU went 41-5-1 than the repeated frustrations the team has suffered the past five seasons after the NCAA imposed a "death penalty" on the scandal-ridden football program.
It was a scandal that even implicated then-Texas Gov. Bill Clements, who admitted knowledge of a $61,000 slush fund by team boosters. He even gave tacit approval to continued payments to the chosen players while the NCAA investigation ensued, believing in the old Texas principle "a deal is a deal."
After SMU was forced to cancel its 1987 season and elected to sit out the next year when its scholarships were curtailed, Leroy Howe, then president of the SMU Faculty Senate, predicted, "We may never again have the kind of football team boosters would be interested in supporting."
The Mustangs, who resumed playing in 1989, have gone through extremely lean times, winning only 10 of 54 games. But despite their 1-7-2 record, there are definite signs of a rebirth on the Dallas campus.
In six games this season, the Mustangs were ahead or tied going into the fourth quarter. They led nationally ranked Wisconsin 13-0 at halftime before losing, 24-16.
Said Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez, "I thought they were through after the death penalty, but they really impressed me, and it certainly wasn't a case of underestimating them."
After finishing a surprising 5-6 in 1992 and losing 30 seniors, a season of rebuilding was a realistic expectation. But athletic director Forrest Gregg and coach Tom Rossley remain optimistic about the future.
Said Gregg, the former Green Bay Packers star and SMU alumnus: "I never viewed coming back as impossible. People told us we'd need 10 years, and there were a lot of negatives in recruiting. Rival recruiters told kids they'd never win here."
Rossley envisions a definite upgrade in talent with Ramon Flanigan, a flashy redshirt freshman quarterback directing the run-and-shoot offense, and Chris Bordano, a true freshman middle linebacker, receiving rave reviews from Southwest Conference coaches.
"The biggest thing is that we can now redshirt our freshmen," said Rossley, who employs two redshirts on his offensive line in center Brannon Kidd and guard Keith Chiles. "We've never had a chance to play fifth-year seniors. Now we have scout-team players who could have started for us when I took over.
"Bordano is the only freshman playing for us now. Because of his weight [205 pounds], we'd have preferred holding him back a year and bulking him up on weights."
But Rossley had a quick change of heart after Bordano made 23 tackles against Texas A & M. "We show highlight films with two clips of all our signees. That was easy with Chris. He's got the attitude that when he tackles a guy, he comes out the other side."
The youthful Mustangs have proved highly competitive, tying Houston and Missouri on the road to go along with their 21-15 victory over Texas Christian.
"Losing a lot of close games has been mostly a matter of depth and getting worn down in the last quarter," said Rossley.
After reviewing films, Navy coach George Chaump labeled the Mustangs "the best 1-7-2 team I've ever seen. What they've accomplished in a few short years since getting the 'death penalty' is truly remarkable."