There was a time in college football when the cash was flowing and players were bought. Boosters and coaches lined pockets of their potential recruits, using money and gifts to build powerhouse programs. Winning the game was all that mattered and this was how the game was played and won. Not to say that the college football recruiting game has been totally cleaned up (the Reggie Bush/USC scandal is still fresh) but back in those days it truly was the wild west.
Paying to get players to come to your school, and even paying them while they attended, was a big thing, and just like everything else, it was bigger in Texas. It was in Texas that this situation came to a head when Southern Methodist University (SMU) became ground zero for the issue. The punishment that SMU received for recruiting violations was and is the most severe ever handed out in college football. It sent shockwaves through college football and forever changed the landscape of the game. SBS Remembers the SMU Death Penalty, a punishment so extreme that it will probably never be seen again.
Throughout the 1970’s and 80’s, the Southern Methodist University Mustangs were a powerhouse football program and posted a 49-9-1 record from 1980-84. This was despite being one of the smallest schools in all of college football, with an enrollment of about 9,000 student. They were members of the now defunct Southwest Conference, that featured such monsters as Texas, Texas A&M, Arkansas and Houston. In order to keep up with the big kids they played the same game everyone else was playing. And that meant enticing the nation’s best recruits, by any means necessary.
There were rumors of coaches walking in high schools and giving out money to players. When they landed the nation’s #1 recruit Eric Dickerson, in 1979, there were rumors that he had been enticed to join the Mustangs using un-ethical means. The fact that he showed up driving a brand new gold-colored Trans Am, probably helped feed those rumors. From 1974 on, the program was under almost constant scrutiny from the NCAA and the program was placed on probation five times between 1974 and 1985.
The well-to-do Dallas business men who comprised the boosters at SMU weren’t going to let a pesky little thing like NCAA probation stop them from maintaining the standard of excellence that the program had become accustomed to with recruiting. Payments to prospective athletes continued and there was even a payroll for players currently enrolled at the school via a slush fund maintained by boosters. There were players who had their apartments paid for, and players whose families, most of whom were poor, received money in order to help make ends meet. These violations were constant, and ongoing, with the knowledge of the administration and athletic department at the highest levels in the university.
Southern Methodist University was clearly not the only offender when it comes to enormous recruiting violations. In fact, that gold Trans Am that Eric Dickerson fell into on the eve of national signing day in 1979 was said to be initially financed by Texas A&M, who Dickerson was originally committed to. After a last second flip to the Mustangs, it’s reported that SMU and the boosters kept up the payments. These brazen acts of bribery were commonplace throughout the NCAA. So how was it that the SMU Mustangs were singled out to such an extreme level?
Aside from being located in Dallas, where football is god, the school also happened to be caught smack-dab in the middle of a full-fledged media war. The two main newspapers (remember those?) in town were the Dallas Times Herald and The Dallas Morning News. They were constantly competing with each other for readership and nothing increases readers like a good scandal. It is out of this intense rivalry between newspapers that all the dirt on SMU got stirred up. In some cases it was the media in Dallas that did the work for the NCAA.
Disgruntled ex-players became more and more of a problem for the school as well. None more than David Stanley, who put the final nail in the coffin of SMU. Stanley was kicked off the team for substance abuse problems and had his scholarship rescinded. Once the media got ahold of him he claimed that SMU athletic officials had paid him $25,000 to sign with the school. When school officials denied the allegations, reporters produced a series of envelopes that had allegedly been used to send money to Stanley’s family. A few envelopes wouldn’t be particularly damning unless you realized that the envelopes had been sent from the SMU athletic department with the official department stationary and initialed by administrative assistant, Henry Lee Parker.
When initially presented with Lee quickly indicated that the envelope was indeed sent by him from his department, but once he was told that the envelopes were used to send money to David Stanley’s family, he backtracked. Parker pulled out his reading glasses, perused the damning evidence that had just been thrown in his face and said, “No, this is printed… I don’t write that way.” All of this happened on camera. You can watch the ESPN doc, Pony Exce$$, to see just how guilty he looked. A handwriting expert later confirmed that it was in deed Parker’s signature. These guys were so brazen that they were sending payments with official university stationary. What’s more, is that one of these envelopes was postmarked October 4, 1985, a date after SMU had been placed on its most recent probation. The date on this envelope would become the last ingredient to the perfect storm that made the SMU Death Penalty possible.
Despite being repeatedly caught, the school continued its unethical recruiting practices, that’s when the NCAA decided to take drastic measures. Around the time that SMU had been handed its most recent round of sanctions, the NCAA called an emergency meeting to address the rash of violations committed by college football programs around the country in the 70’s and 80’s. Among the things that came to pass at that emergency meeting was a reinforcement of the NCAA’s power to hand down the “Death Penalty.” Also known as the Repeat Violator Rule, the Death Penalty states that any school found guilty of two major violations within five years could be barred from competing in the sport involved in the second violation for up to two years.
The postmark on those David Stanley envelopes would be the final piece of evidence that the NCAA needed to put a stop to SMU’s cowboy recruiting practices once and for all. On February 25, 1987 the NCAA Infractions Committee voted unanimously to cancel the entirety of SMU’s 1987 season and all four home games in 1988. The committee stated that SMU had gained an unfair competitive advantage as the result of cheating and the “death penalty” was a way to rectify that advantage. The full list of penalties is as follows:
- 1987 season canceled. Only conditioning drills allowed in 1987 calendar year.
- All 1988 home games canceled.
- Existing probation extended until 1990.
- Existing ban on bowl games and live television extended until 1989.
- SMU lost 55 new scholarship positions over 4 years.
- SMU would face further punishments if previously banned boosters continued to associate with the program.
- Team only allowed to hire five full-time assistants as opposed to usual nine.
- No off-campus recruiting until August 1988.
These amounted to the most extreme set of punishments ever handed down in college football. Previously the “death penalty” had been handed down to Kentucky Basketball in 1952 and Southwestern Louisiana Basketball in 1973. Officials from the NCAA had stated that while the punishment was indeed severe, it was seen as the only option for dealing with a program that was completely out of control and refused to change its cheating ways, despite numerous opportunities and second chances to do so.
Though the Mustangs were allowed to participate in all seven of their away games in 1988, the program canceled the season. As a result of the “death penalty” the NCAA granted a full release to every player on the team, allowing them to transfer to other schools without losing eligibility. Under the circumstances, SMU could not possibly field a competitive team, and the walk-ons and scrubs who stuck around risked serious injury if they took the field against the likes of Texas and other big dogs in the Southwest Conference. The film Necessary Roughness is loosely based around what might have happened had they fielded a team in 1988.
When the SMU Mustangs returned to the field in 1989, the results were not pretty and the suffered lossed of 59-6 to Notre Dame and 95-21 to Houston. The loss of those 55 scholarships over the course of four years ensured that the results stayed ugly for a while. The Mustangs’ football team has never fully recovered and has posted just three winning seasons and four bowl appearances since returning to the field in 1989.
The SMU Death Penalty also led to the downfall of the Southwest Conference. The conference had been so besmirched by the SMU scandal, as well as the actions of its other members (at one point only Arkansas, Baylor and Rice were not on probation), that in the years following the “death penalty” schools departed the conference en masse. By 1996 the conference had folded, ending 82-years of history. The schools that had once comprised the conference now reside in the SEC, WAC, Big 12 and Conference USA. The SMU Mustangs are currently members of the AAC.
The SMU Death Penalty is a cautionary tale of what can happen when money is allowed to be the main driver behind college athletics. While the penalty was well-deserved, even those that handed it down admitted that it was probably too much and have expressed doubt that the “death penalty” will ever be used again. Like the nuclear option in the military, the “death penalty” had to be used in order to know the true nature of the damage it could inflict. It was meant to bring an unrelenting rules violator to heel, but instead it destroyed college football culture in the City of Dallas. Now the scandal is ancient history, but there are still lessons to be taken from it. Most importantly that failing to play by the rules for decades can lead to the loss of everything you hold dear.