Spiel of Dreams

He's sitting in a makeshift conference room in a temporary building, not far from where workmen are finishing his more permanent, palatial digs -- maybe a long touchdown pass or kickoff return from SMU's nearly finished Gerald J. Ford Stadium. Even now, with silver and green wires hanging everywhere, with dirty uncovered pipes cluttering the floor, GFS is a wondrous vision -- for a football field, at least. At one end of the horseshoe-shaped structure is an enormous scoreboard sitting atop a shaded, sloping hill just above the south end zone. Across the way, above the north end zone, are scores of red and blue bleachers with a picturesque view of the downtown skyline. There are no bad seats here. Even the uppermost level has an intimate feeling, as though the sideline is only an arm's length away.Still, head coach Mike Cavan doesn't gush over his soon-to-be home. He doesn't let it delude him. He doesn't say it's the only thing, doesn't say the fans will forever fall in love with romantic Saturday afternoons on this scenic campus, doesn't say this is the final piece to a difficult football reclamation puzzle.

He knows Ford Stadium is not an elixir. Oh, it's pretty enough -- lots of red brick and glass and aesthetically pleasing sightlines -- but it's not going to cure everything that ails his team. Actually, when it all shakes down, GFS, with its luxury suites and club boxes, could very well be the first stage of an unwanted litany: new stadium, losing season, dwindling fan base, pink slip.

"The stadium is great, but that won't get the program back to how it was [before the death penalty]," Cavan says casually. Dressed in a dark blue Mustangs shirt, khaki pants, and brown loafers sans socks, he looks at ease. That'll probably change in less than a month when the season begins at home against Kansas.

"The way you get back there is you win. You win. That's the only way back. The allure of the stadium will wear off quickly. I've said that from the start. We've got to win."

He's right, of course. They've got to win because, in the end, winning really is everything -- at least as far as ticket sales are concerned. After all, you could replicate the Vatican in Big D, but if all you've got to fill it with is a fat Elvis impersonator and a few elderly cocktail waitresses, who's gonna go?

If they don't go to GFS, if the team struggles to another mediocre record -- the Mustangs were 4-6 last season -- and the novelty of an on-campus venue wears off sooner rather than later, what then? You know what. If Southern Methodist is left with 32,000 empty, or emptying, seats, someone's head is going to roll. Actually, at $56.8 million, regardless of the fact that it's a beautiful facility, the higher-ups are going to want a whole bunch of scalps -- and likely some limbs and a few torsos too.

You get one guess whose name would be at, or near, the top of the list.

"Nobody puts more pressure on football coaches than the coaches themselves," Cavan says in an even tone. "Every year I feel pressure, no matter what. I hope there is a lot of pressure. It's better to have high expectations and pressure than apathy. That means we're headed in the right direction."

For things to continually pan out the way the university's administration hopes -- lots of fickle SMU kids and alumni filling lots of seats at lots of games -- SMU will need to buck a disquieting trend. There's been this little problem with history and SMU football and its supporters. The little problem being, when the team is bad, or even when it's OK but not Eric Dickerson-level great, fans don't show. Simple as that. Since 1995, the team has averaged a meager four wins per year, including an atrocious 1-10 mark five seasons ago. During that stretch, attendance hovered right around 20,000 a game. But even those figures are perverted slightly because of huge turnouts the last two years when Arkansas came calling. Take away the 50,000-plus fans from the Hogs match-ups, and the ticket sales dip to about 17,000 a game.

By contrast, other regional private schools like TCU (7-4 record, 26,290 average attendance) and Baylor (1-10, 29,169) each outdrew the Mustangs last year. "It's no secret our fan support wasn't outstanding," says junior quarterback Josh McCown.

Some of that had to do with the team playing in the drab Cotton Bowl -- it even makes that erector set they call Texas Stadium look good -- and some of it had to do with fan indifference and reluctance to drive to Fair Park. Most of it, though, had to do with that whole sucking thing.

Luckily for athletic director Jim Copeland and the other higher-ups, the fans have short-term memories. Apparently the ticket-sale phones have been ringing nonstop.

"Pulling everything together by September 2, it's coming close now," Copeland, a big, bear-like fellow, says excitedly. "I think we're in pretty good shape right now. But it is hectic. [But] selling tickets, it's the kind of busy you like to have."

So they've built it, and they're going to come. But whether the fans keep coming is, again, up to Cavan's troops.

His background says he's ready for the challenge of tempting SMU students away from hangover-healthy Snuffer's and into GFS come fall Saturdays. At his last two stops, Valdosta State and East Tennessee State, he resurrected down-and-out teams. Thing is, this isn't Valdosta State or East Tennessee State. Thing is, this is a step up, and sometimes when you're climbing a ladder you slip -- whether you're paying attention or not.

But today, we've all got our fingers crossed, we're all optimistic. Today, Cavan is calm and prepared while the PR people plug along happily, churning out media packets and towels and shirts and such. They've even come up with a slogan, a catchy one: "New Turf. New Team."

Today, if you were inclined to bet, you'd put a stack of chips on the third-year head coach to improve the team and fill seats. Until you remember who you're dealing with: SMU's "fans" and its recently emaciated program.

On second thought, you'd better make that a small stack.

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John Gonzalez
Contact: John Gonzalez