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'Death' from above: The year a football program was banished

NCAA levied its 1st and only football 'death penalty' against SMU in '87

POSTED: July 9, 2011 10:11 p.m.
Associated Press/

Eric Dickerson (19) makes a diving first down at the North Texas State 1-yard line on Sept. 12, 1981 in Texas Stadium at Irving. Dickerson was one of the first big recruits landed by Southern Methodist University's football program by then-coach Ron Meyer. At the time of Dickerson's recruitment, rumors circulated that Meyer was willing to pay up to $20,000 for players' services

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On Feb. 25, 1987, the NCAA issued a report that forever changed the landscape of college football. In the span of little more than six pages, it told the story of a program spun out of control, of boosters gone wild, of players being paid while coaches and administrators, at the very least, looked the other way.

It was a scandal of the highest order — even the Governor of Texas was implicated — and the NCAA determined there was only one punishment to fit the crime.

The death penalty.

At least that’s the way it’s remembered.

In fact, the penalties handed down to Southern Methodist University on that dreary day in Dallas were not the harshest available to the NCAA. But they were the toughest ever handed down to a football program and sufficient to cripple what, for a short spell in the early 1980s, had been one of college football’s most successful teams.

Wild, Wild West
From 1973-76, four different teams won the Southwest Conference football championship. None of them were SMU.

The Mustangs, regular contenders for the crown in their early years, hadn’t been consistently good in a long time. From 1951-79 they fielded just eight winning teams. So, SMU decided to do something about it. And in that time and place, doing something about it often meant paying large sums of cash to secure the commitment of the best athletes.

“Schools like Texas in particular, and Oklahoma were kind of cherry-picking the best players,” said Dale Hansen, a television sports anchor in Dallas who has covered the area for 31 years. “And SMU obviously felt like well, if we’re going to break this cycle of losing ... Ron Meyer, in particular, decided we’re going to have to start buying us some players. And they did.”

The cheating at SMU didn’t begin with coach Meyer, he was just better at getting results from it.

When Meyer arrived in 1976, SMU had already been banned from two postseasons for improper recruiting tactics (1974) and was sanctioned again just before Meyer was hired.

The Mustangs were hardly alone in their wrongdoings: Arkansas and Rice were the only two SWC teams that didn’t spend some portion of the 1980s on probation.

“It was, in many ways, (the wild, wild West),” Hansen said. “I’m not sure it was a great deal different than it was in other parts of the country, but I do think they (the SWC schools) took it to a higher level.

“Players were being paid at a lot of schools around the country, but I think in the Southwest Conference at that time ... it was almost incestuous the way everybody was fighting for players. And there were so many good, natural rivalries, it was pretty intense, and I think that intensity led to the incredible cheating that was lead by SMU”

Rise before the fall
The tales of Meyer’s recruiting travails in Texas are the stuff of legend. In the ESPN documentary “Pony Excess,” both Meyer and assistant coach Steve Endicott admit to offering up to $20,000 for players’ services.

Whatever they were doing, it worked. In the winter of 1979, SMU landed Eric Dickerson and Craig James, two of the best high school running backs in Texas and both future NFL players. It was a coup for the relatively small school, and it wasn’t long after that the wins followed.

After a 5-6 season in 1979, the Mustangs went 8-4 in 1980, their best season in more than a decade. But the methods that led to SMU’s success also limited it.

In June of 1981, the NCAA found the football program guilty of numerous infractions during the recruitment of the 1979 class and the team was banned from bowl play for the ensuing season. The Mustangs went 10-1 that fall, but had to satisfy themselves with the conference championship.

In the following season, with the postseason ban lifted, SMU repeated as SWC champs and won the Cotton Bowl. But despite finishing 11-0-1 as the only unbeaten team in the country, the Mustangs finished No. 2 in the AP poll.

Two more 10-win seasons followed, but SMU never got any closer to a National Championship.

Repeat violator
“Not only is Southern Methodist University a repeat major violator, but its past record of violations is nothing short of abysmal.”

So reads the 1987 NCAA report that essentially disbanded the SMU football team for two seasons.

In June 1985, in response to the brazen disregard for rules that was occurring across the country, the NCAA ratified the repeat violator rule. Aimed at schools with more than one major violation within a five-year span, the rule gave the NCAA the ability to enforce stronger penalties, including what has become known as the death penalty.

SMU fit the repeat violator profile so well it could have been crafted in the Mustangs’ image.

Meyer left the program after the 1981 season and was replaced by Bobby Collins. By then, however, the head coach was of little consequence when it came to illicit recruiting. The culture of cheating had been institutionalized.

In Aug. 1985, a 29-month NCAA investigation found 36 recruiting violations, some of which occurred while the school was still on probation for the transgressions of 1979. That landed the program on three more years of probation.

But the death knell was rung in late 1986, when Hansen aired a report with the first-person account of a former SMU player who detailed the pay-for-play scheme. The resulting investigation showed how deep the scandal went.

Numerous players had been recruited to SMU on the promise that they would be paid throughout their career. Even after the 1985 ruling against the school, the decision was made to continue paying the players until their eligibility was completed.

According to an investigation helmed by the United Methodist Church, that decision was made solely by Texas governor Bill Clements, who at the time was in between non-consecutive terms in Austin and serving as chairman of the SMU Board of Governors.

The NCAA probe found 13 players received payments during the 1985-86 school year totalling approximately $47,000.

The aftermath
Clements was voted out of office at the next election, Collins has never coached again in college football, and SMU football has only recently begun to recover after losing the 1987 and ’88 seasons.

The 1987 NCAA ruling barred the team from playing any games in 1987, and while the school was allowed seven road games in 1988, there weren’t enough players left to field a team. When the penalties were announced, current SMU players were allowed to transfer to the school of their choice without sitting out the customary one year.

When the Mustangs returned to the field in 1989, it was as a shell of their former selves. They won four games over the next four seasons, didn’t have a winning record until 1997, and didn’t reach a bowl game until 2009.

No football program has been so severely sanctioned since, and many think no program ever will.

“As I’ve said for the better part of the last 25 years, you’re never going to see it again,” Hansen said. “ They’re not going to shut down Auburn. They’re not going to shut down Ohio State.

“It’s real easy to give SMU the death penalty. It has a minor ripple across college football. I don’t think anybody outside Dallas really cared.”


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