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SMU recruiting goes full circle, in a gold Trans Am

Four decades after Eric Dickerson's infamous car played a part in killing SMU football, the Mustangs are now using a gold Trans Am to recruit.

They say comedy equals tragedy plus time. In SMU's case, apparently 43 years is the right amount of time. 

As the story goes, Eric Dickerson the best running back in the class of 1979, a time when running back was the most valued position in the sport -- a true 5-star before anyone knew the term. Hailing from tiny Sealy, Texas, Dickerson then became the object of a black market bidding war, a bidding war Texas A&M thought it won by presenting him with a gold Pontiac Trans Am. Dickerson drove that gold Trans Am to announce his commitment to the Aggies, sparking obvious questions about the link between the two. Dickerson, famously, claimed his grandmother purchased him the car.

Fast forward some months, and Dickerson ultimately signed with SMU. Depending on which route he took from Sealy, he could have driven right past College Station on Highway 6 en route to Dallas.

Here is Dickerson's version of events, from his autobiography Watch My Smoke, coincidentally released earlier this year:

Even though I turned (a $50,000 cash offer) down, A&M stayed after me and remained in the picture—there was that much pressure for me to go there. And then, a few weeks later, I mentioned to my stepdad in passing that I really liked the new Pontiac Trans Am. I’d seen it at a dealership on I-10 that I used to drive by to visit my grandparents in Houston, and I just liked it: the bird on the hood, the fins on the side, how sleek it was.

It was an innocent comment. Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t have remembered even saying it. But recruiting isn’t a normal circumstance, and before I knew it, I was talking to Shear, the big A&M booster in town.

—We can make that happen, he said.

Then he told me to go to the dealership, and all of a sudden I’m there with my mom and my grandma, then the staff is telling me to pick any car on the lot. That’s the way things were in those days: one minute I’m a broke kid idly fantasizing about a nice car. The next, a bunch of grown-ass men are falling over themselves to give me that car.

I had my pick of a Corvette and three Trans Ams: black, silver, and gold. I liked the gold one.

The dealership guy said he’d be right back, that he just had to make a phone call. When he returned, he gave my grandma the paperwork to fill out.

Now, until the present day, I’ve always said publicly that my grandparents bought me that car. My grandfather made good money from his job as a crane operator at a steel mill, and my grandma’s name is on the paperwork, so that’s technically true. But behind the scenes, A&M had agreed to reimburse her. And that, my friends, is how the notorious Trans Am was paid for.


It was a verbal commitment. I was 18 and it seemed like the thing to say to make a lot of adults happy. But my heart was never really into it, and I’d soon renege on it. I know a lot of A&M fans are still pissed at me about that, but I really don’t care: if they want to be pissed at a kid whose head was spinning and was being pressured by all different kinds of adults, then that’s their problem and not mine.

There’s this urban legend that angry A&M boosters destroyed the car, but I’m here to tell you that never happened. I had the Trans Am my first few years at SMU, before I sold it to my best friend and fellow SMU running back, Charles Drayton. Thanks to an SMU booster named George Owen, I was driving a Corvette by then.

Dickerson played four seasons for SMU, accumulating 4,450 yards and 47 touchdowns. SMU went 11-0-1, won the Southwest Conference and finished No. 2 in the polls in Dickerson's senior season of 1982. He went No. 2 in the draft the following spring en route to a Pro Football Hall of Fame career. The deal worked out for both sides. Times were good. Until they weren't.

By 1987, the NCAA had imposed a death penalty upon SMU football rampant rules violations. The program would not win more than six games in a season again until 2009. While June Jones, Chad Morris and Sonny Dykes did an admirable job building the program into a competitive one again, the program arguably never recovered from the toll of the death penalty. (Evidence: By 2024, the only SWC programs not in the SEC or the Big 12 will be SMU and Rice.)

That Trans Am soon took on a mythic quality. When SMU football was temporarily shut down and the Southwest Conference at itself alive before being disbanded, that gold sports car with the bird on its hood became a living metaphor for the corruption that rotted the SWC from within. 

Let's now fast forward to today.

SMU recruiting

Yep, that's a gold Trans Am on an image tweeted by SMU's football account, issued Tuesday morning. Coincidence? No way. 

Of course, all the activities that got SMU put in NCAA prison in the 1980s are now legal in the 2020s.

In a twisted way, the success of SMU in the 1980s can be an encouragement to SMU and other programs of its ilk today. If SMU could buy its way to a top-5 ranking in the 80s, beating out Texas A&M for the No. 1 recruit in the country, what's to stop them from repeating history in the 2020s? SMU has its own collective, Pony Sports DTX, designed to put the next Eric Dickerson in the 2022 version of a gold Trans Am.

It makes perfect sense that SMU's battle cry is even more fitting in the NIL era than it was before. Want SMU to relive its glory days, SMU fans? Pony up.