SMU Football Scandal: How the NCAA' Death Penalty' Destroyed a Program
On February 25, 1987, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) levied its harshest penalty when it shut down the Southern Methodist University's (SMU) football program for repeated and brazen violations of rules and regulations. The decision was a landmark and came during an era when college football's integrity was compromised by players, coaches, boosters, and even administrators.
At the time, SMU had been on probation seven times since 1974 and was on a three-year probation in 1985 for recruiting violations, including illicit payments to players and the player's families. In 1986, two whistleblowing players alleged that star recruits were being paid to come to SMU. An NCAA investigation in 1986 discovered that 21 players received $61,000 in cash payments with the help of athletic department staff. The money came from a slush fund set up by several boosters, including Texas governor Bill Clements and millionaire land broker, and former SMU football player Sherwood Blount.
The fallout was devastating not only for SMU, which became the first, and to this day, only Division I-A football program to receive the dreaded 'Death Penalty,' but also for the Southwest Conference (SWC), which it was affiliated. The Mustangs' 1987 season and all home games for 1988 were canceled. The university also lost lucrative television appearances, bowl games, and advertising sponsorship. In the process, the program had 55 scholarships eliminated for four seasons and was only able to hire just five assistant coaches. It would take two decades for SMU to have a winning season and a bowl appearance (2009). Since returning to the football field in 1989, the Mustangs have defeated just two ranked teams and only have had six winning seasons.
SMU had one of the most successful football programs in the 1930s and 1940s. The Mustangs won 10 Southwest Conference titles, played in 11 bowl games, and won the 1935 national championship. Along the way, the school had several All-Americans, including 1949 Heisman Trophy winner Doak Walker.
With just 9,000 students enrolled at SMU, the school was one of the smallest in the Division I-A rankings and was the second smallest school in the SWC. SMU, located in Dallas, had trouble competing against larger schools and had just nine winning seasons following the 1949 season.
The SWC was a nine-member conference with eight of the schools from the state of Texas. In the 1970s, the oil industry made Dallas one of the most lucrative and extravagant cities in Texas. Dallas was home to several Fortune 500 companies with many high-powered alumni having graduated from a school in the SWC. School pride led to intense competitiveness amongst the wealthy boosters who supported the University of Texas, SMU, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, the University of Houston, Texas Christian, and Baylor. Recruiting top high school athletes in the state also led to these same boosters helping their respective school land the state's top football players.
Desperate to compete against the more extensive programs in the SWC, SMU, with help from prolific boosters, began to stray remarkably close to the ethical line, and in some cases, leaped over it. In 1975, the school hired up-and-coming head coach Ron Meyer, who led the University of Nevada Las Vegas to an undefeated season in 1974. While success was slow-going at first, Meyer was making a name for himself as a dynamic recruiter (Drape, 2012).
High school football recruiting is a landmark event in Texas every winter. As the top players in the state decide to sign, fans of the respective schools wait in anticipation. In the 1970s and 80s, it was common for a player to commit to a school and then change his commitment at the last minute. The recruiting circuit in Texas was considered "Wild West" as college coaches, with some significant aid from boosters, made the rounds (Drape, 2012).
It was well known that the SMU head coach was a constant presence on the recruiting trail. He admitted leaving his business card and a $100 bill to top players (ESPN, 2009). His schemes worked as tiny SMU began signing the best players away from the larger universities.
Not all of Meyer's tactics were socially acceptable. Under his guidance, and with the full knowledge of school administrators, Meyer began paying high school recruits' cash and at times giving them gifts, both in violation of NCAA rules. Some payments were as high as $500, and some payments were even more lucrative. Former SMU quarterback Lance McIlhenny called Meyer "the greatest salesman he'd ever met" (Drape, 2012).
When Meyer convinced the nation's best high school player in 1979, Sealy High's Eric Dickerson, to change his commitment from Texas A&M to SMU, the NCAA noticed. It did not help that Dickerson was driving a brand-new gold Trans-Am his senior year of high school.
Meyer's strategy worked, and in 1980, the Mustangs, behind the high powering running attack of future NFL stars and Texas natives, Dickerson, and Craig James, qualified for their first bowl game in years.
Dickerson, the Parade national high school running back of the year in 1979, and James, another blue-chip running back who signed with SMU over Alabama, were in the same recruiting class. The dynamic duo formed the famed "Pony Express." A sportswriter described SMU's fast ascent as "going from Death Valley to the top of Mount Everest" (ESPN, 2009). The Mustangs' explosive offense shredded opposing defenses, and during the "Pony Express" era (1980-1984), SMU posted a 49-9-1 record, the highest win percentage in the DI ranks at the time.
It was a 20-6 victory at No. 2 Texas in 1980 that finally prompted the NCAA to investigate. The Mustangs received the first of multiple probations, including a one-year bowl ban in 1981. Still, SMU won the SWC and finished fifth in the Associated Press poll that season. Meyer, who admitted later he was feeling the heat from the NCAA, stepped down following the '81 season, and the school hired Southern Mississippi head coach Bobby Collins in 1982. SMU did not miss a beat, finishing the season undefeated and knocking off the University of Pittsburgh in the Cotton Bowl. After beating Notre Dame in the 1984 Aloha Bowl, it seemed the Mustangs from tiny SMU were finding a way annually to not only to compete with the larger schools, but win.
SMU was one of five SWC schools on probation between 1981 and 1983. The Mustangs won their third SWC title in four years in 1984. While the recruiting pipeline was limited to the south, SMU, strongly encouraged by Blount, recruited highly touted offensive lineman Sean Stopperich from Pennsylvania. Getting Stopperich to Dallas was going to be costly. With Blount's help, SMU gave the lineman and his family $11,020 in cash during an eight-month period in 1984 (Robbins, 1985). Stopperich made a verbal commitment to attend the University of Pittsburgh about two weeks before the signing date. Then he made a sudden switch to SMU.
While Dallas gave the Stopperich family an escape from tough times in Pittsburgh, Sean was disgruntled. After one year, he withdrew from SMU and returned to Pittsburgh. The NCAA soon followed, and the testimony Stopperich gave was damning and was a significant break in the NCAA's preliminary inquiry into the SMU football program, an inquiry that was a year and a half old at the time (Robbins, 1985).
The NCAA came down harder on SMU than it previously had. The school was not allowed to grant any new football scholarships for the 1985 season, and only fifteen would be available for 1986. The Mustangs received a two-year postseason ban for those two seasons and a complete ban from live television for 1986.
In the meantime, Clements, who became the chairperson of the SMU board of governors in 1983, arranged a meeting with boosters and overruled two top-ranking SMU officials in 1985 and ordered Athletic Director Bob Hitch to continue the payments, less than three months after SMU went on NCAA probation for just such infractions (Chicago Tribune, 1987).
The SMU dropout, who made a fortune in the oil industry, was also running for Governor of Texas for the second time since he lost in 1982. The meeting with boosters, which took place on March 26, 1985, was designed to stop the crisis, but not the payments (ESPN, 2009). Clements was complicit, and he also wanted to stop the bleeding to win the governorship. During the meeting, and to divert the NCAA, Clement blamed nine boosters who were told to disassociate themselves from the SMU program, four of whom were permanently banned (Lawrence, 1985). Among the "Naughty Nine" was Blount, SMU's biggest booster (ESPN, 2009).
Later that year, according to the report, then SMU President L. Donald Shields and board of trustees' chairperson Edwin L. Cox wanted to stop the payments completely, in opposition to Clements and Hitch. An NCAA report revealed that in 1986 Clements had met with Hitch and they concluded the Mustangs "had a payroll to meet." Clements then allegedly told Shields: "We'll take care of it. You stay out of it. We'll run the university."
The report showed Clements, Shields, and three members of the board knew of the payments. Two of those board members, it was revealed, conspired to cover up Clements' involvement. One of those was Clements' successor as chairperson, William L. Hutchison (Wangrin, 1987).
Fed up with SMU continually breaking the rules, and to curb the violations, the NCAA held a two-day emergency convention in New Orleans in 1985 to produce more effective deterrents and guidelines to tighten the grip on schools who blatantly cheated. The enforcement made a measure that would kill a program. Representatives from more than 200 universities voted in favor, with just six voting against; predictably, three of those six were from the SWC, including SMU (ESPN, 2009). The new measure, officially called "Repeat Violator Rule," was nicknamed "The Death Penalty." It would mean shutting down a program for up to two years.
In 1986, athletic department employee Teresa Hawthorne contacted Dallas-Fort Worth ABC affiliate WFAA-TV and tipped them off about further wrongdoings. Producers eventually tracked down and interviewed former linebacker, David Stanley. Like Stopperich, Stanley was a member of the 1983 recruiting class who claimed he received benefits from boosters. In a television interview with reporter Dale Hanson, Stanley said Henry Lee Parker, an SMU athletic official, paid him $25,000 to sign with the Mustangs in 1983 and continued to pay him $400 monthly while playing football for SMU. His mother, Dawn, and his father, Harley, were also allegedly given money from Parker (Sullivan & Neff, 1987).
Stanley was a marginal player who dealt with drugs and injuries. When the football team booted him, a disgruntled Stanley decided to talk to the press and exposed the program. The interview, which aired on TV, was the lethal blow, and the dam broke. During an infamous live television interview, Parker, an assistant to the SMU Athletic Director, was confronted with handwritten envelopes addressed to Stanley's family (Taafee, 1987). Although he denied sending the payments, it was clear to many viewers that Parker was lying and that SMU had made payments to Stanley in violation of NCAA rules (Brezina, Casey, Grenier & Reffett, 2012).
The NCAA reacted even harder, and its investigation revealed that between 1985 and 1986, 13 players had been paid a total of $61,000 from the slush fund. Payments ranged from $50 to $725 per month and had started only a month after SMU had been handed its latest probation. These payments were made with the full knowledge and approval of athletic department staff and school administrators.
The nature of the infractions, which saw an SMU program completely out of control and "riddled with corruption", coupled with concern over the integrity of college sports, prompted the NCAA to react swiftly and harshly. An incredibly nervous and anxious David Berst, the NCAA director of enforcement, flew to Dallas to deliver the news. During a tense press conference, Berst announced an NCAA investigation had uncovered significant and more pervasive violations. Berst then announced the harshest penalty an NCAA member can receive: the termination of the 1987 football season. After he made the jarring announcement, Berst stood up and promptly fainted (UPI, 1987).
The termination of the 1987 football season crippled the university and led to the resignation of Shields, Hitch, Parker, and Collins, and most of his staff. The NCAA infractions committee invoked a never-before-used provision in its repeat-violator legislation, banishing SMU football in 1987 and severely restricting it in 1988. SMU decided not to field a team again until September 1989.
Nearly every player transferred. With no football, the social centerpiece at a school known for a preponderance of BMWs in the campus parking lots, homecoming was reduced to festivities planned around a soccer game (Drago, 1996). The 'Death Penalty' and SMU's suspension eventually led to the SWC disbanding. Additionally, in the wake of the scandal, SMU officials opted to significantly increase the admissions standards for prospective athletes, effectively removing them from contention for the kinds of players they attracted in the 1980s (Dodd, 2017).
On March 3, 1987, Clements acknowledged that while sitting on the SMU board, he and other school officials had approved a secret plan to continue illegal payments to SMU players. Attempting to take the high road, Clements said the agreement was reached to "phase out" the payments and restore integrity in the football program. But, Clements explained, integrity also required the school to honor its slush fund commitments to the players still in the program.
"We made a considered judgment decision over several months that the commitments had been made and in the interest of the institution, the boys, their families, and to comply with the NCAA, the program would be phased out," Clements said (Wangrin, 2007). While Clements overwhelmingly won the Governor's race in 1986, the scandal would haunt him during his time in office, and he did not run for re-election in 1990. SMU decided to forgo the entire 1988 season as well, which cost the university millions in revenue. The second most severe sanction was the loss of 55 scholarships over four years. As a result, the Mustangs did not have a full complement of scholarships until 1992. In 1989, a vastly different Mustang football team, coached by Forrest Gregg, won their first game in two years on September 16. But SMU would not have a winning season until 2009. Since the "Death Penalty" of 1986, SMU football has had just six winning seasons.
Integrity in College Sports
Never had the NCAA suspended a football program. But SMU had gone out of its way to being the first. Not only had the Mustangs been caught breaking NCAA rules for a record seventh time, but the infractions had also occurred while the program was already on three years' probation for recruiting violations cited in 1985 (Sullivan & Neff, 1987).
The question of why can be answered in several ways. Recruiting high school football stars nationally has always been extremely competitive amongst the NCAA's larger schools. For SMU, with an enrollment of less than 9,000? It was struggling to bring in recruits from its own state.
Being in Dallas was both a blessing and a curse. The metroplex played a significant role in the rapid rise and terrible fall of the Mustangs. By the 1970s, the northern Texas city was a growing metropolis, a hub for businesspeople who had recently acquired their fortunes thanks to oil and real estate (Dodds, 2015). Each of these men had a college football team he supported, and with that support came an intense sense of pride, not to mention competition. Combine that environment with the enormous success of the NFL's Dallas Cowboys during the 1970s as they assumed the title of "America's team," and it is easy to see how so much pressure was placed on SMU (Dodds, 2015). It also did not help that Dallas was full of talented sportswriters who were highly motivated to uncover major scandals to sell newspapers and propel individual careers. At the time, The Dallas Morning News, Dallas Star Telegram, the Dallas Herald, and local television media were all aggressively pursuing leads related to potential recruiting violations at SMU (Brezina, Casey, Grenier & Reffett, 2012).
Landing Dickerson, the nation's top recruit in 1979, raised eyebrows. While Dickerson to this day remains mum on his reason for changing his commitment from Texas A&M to SMU, the decision put a bullseye on the small school. There was absolutely no question that other programs in the SWC were involved in recruiting practices that stretched the rules when it was possible, but none had quite as many eyes on them as the Mustangs and signing Dickerson did not help their cause.
Signing the best players helps the program win. When the program wins, the school gets acclaim. Many of the recruits had a poor homelife and could be influenced, especially by boosters with deep pockets and especially by the Governor of the state. For the boosters, winning, which included getting the best players, triumphed over ethics. This is the chief problem that challenges the integrity of college sports. It is a $16 billion dollar a year industry, thanks to ticket sales, television revenue, and corporate sponsors. Institutional names are brands, and the teams are the product (Chudacoff, 2015). While the NCAA promoted rules of fair play and level playing field, coaches and boosters found ways to evade those regulations.
The NCAA made the hard decision in 1987 to send a message to those who wanted to break those rules. There was not going to be a crisis of ethics in college sports, especially a blatant repeat violator. SMU become the scapegoat. However, the NCAA's resolution had mixed consequences.
Keeping Ethics in College Sports
The NCAA's decision to kill the SMU football program for one season sent seismic shockwaves throughout the country. Berst said years later that in the committee's view, the Mustang football program was so riddled with corruption that it felt "there simply didn't seem to be any options left" (McCullough, 2007). In the 34 years since the NCAA imposed the sanction, no other football program has received the 'Death Penalty.'
Only two colleges, Division II Morehouse College (men's soccer, 2004 and 2005 seasons) and Division III MacMurray College (men's tennis, 2005-07) were hit with the NCAA's harshest rulings. Several programs since 1987, including the 2012 Penn State football program for its handling of child sexual abuse allegations by an assistant coach, were nearly handed the 'Death Penalty' but were hit with probation instead.
The reason? The SMU fallout was so crippling to the program and the university the NCAA is reluctant to impose another one, even when a program is out of control, as Penn State was in 2012. As University of Florida president John Lombardi stated in 2002: "SMU taught the committee that the death penalty is too much like the nuclear bomb. It's like what happened after we dropped the (atom) bomb in World War II. The results were so catastrophic that now we'll do anything to avoid dropping another one" (Dodds, 2015).
Does this mean programs and boosters can cheat the system? It does still happen, as evidence of the recent events surrounding the University of Tennessee head football coach Jeremy Pruitt and the alleged recruiting improprieties that sources told ESPN centered in part on extra benefits supplied to football recruits on unofficial visits (Low & Schlabach, 2021). The university handled the issue internally, namely firing Pruitt and voiding his contract, to avoid any involvement from the NCAA. The NCAA has said that violations do occur, but to avoid the same fate that SMU did, most school officials report the misdeeds.
The fact is colleges and universities make a lot of money from the athletes playing the game. While these athletes are on a full scholarship to attend the school, most players do not have an income. In 2014, O'Bannon v. NCAA, when former UCLA basketball star Ed O'Bannon filed a class-action antitrust lawsuit against the NCAA on behalf of NCAA Division I football and basketball players challenging the NCAA's use of images of student-athletes for commercial purposes. The judge ruled in favor of O'Bannon, holding that "the NCAA's rules and bylaws operate as an unreasonable restraint of trade, in violation of antitrust law" (Tamaki, 2019). In 2020, The NCAA's Board of Governors took it another step forward when it announced it supports allowing "student-athletes to receive compensation for third-party endorsements both related to and separate from athletics" (Booker, 2020).
Allowing student-athletes to receive compensation addresses one major factor that has hindered college sports for decades. Keeping athletic departments in check and providing a protocol for dealing with high-powered boosters also helps. The NCAA does not want to terminate another program unless it must. It has made that noticeably clear. The NCAA has also made clear the proverbial ball and the fate of a program are very much in the university's hands.
School officials at SMU have expressed they felt like the scapegoat. It was determined that six universities in the SWC in the 1970s and 80s were doing exactly what the Mustangs were doing, yet the second smallest school in the conference was the one that was punished. Still, the 'Death Penalty' had lasting effects and, to this day, can still be felt. Maybe the NCAA made an example of SMU because of the blatant and repeated violations. But the question is, had they not been caught or arrogantly defied the NCAA over and over, would the university still allow boosters to pay for the top recruits?
The NCAA has rules in place, and the expectation is for the colleges and universities to follow them. As stated very clearly on its website: "To deter future violations, presidents and chancellors, coaches and staff have stronger, clearer accountability expectations and face significant penalties if they break the rules" (NCAA, 2021). Will that stop these programs from bending the rules to gain an advantage? No. But as proven, the NCAA will go to great lengths to keep integrity in sports.
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