The ones who didn’t get away : SMU college football’s greatest mistake.

With the "Pony Express" of Eric Dickerson and Craig James, SMU became one of college football's greatest dynasties
With the “Pony Express” of Eric Dickerson and Craig James, SMU became one of college football’s greatest dynasties

SMU. What do these three letters mean to you? Don’t worry take a few seconds. Done? Ok good. My guess is that you have no idea what those three letters stand for. It’s ok, you can thank the NCAA for that. Back in the early 1980’s the Mustangs of Southern Methodist University, SMU, fielded one of the greatest team’s in college football history. From 1981-194 the Mustangs would be 41-5-1 with three conference championships. Not only that, but they had arguably had the greatest backfield tandem with NFL greats Eric Dickerson and Craig James. So what happened to them? Why does none know of this great football dynasty? One word: money. If I was to list all of the NCAA football programs who have made illegal payments to student athletes, it would take forever. A few do come to mind though; USC, Miami, Ohio State, Alabama, and Kentucky just to name a few. Why is SMU different? Well they were the ones that were penalized the most. What happened was that SMU boosters were actually signing players to professional contracts to come play college football. Just ask Dickerson, where the most common joke is that he took a pay cut when he came to the NFL. All of a sudden after Ron Meyer took over a struggling program in 1978, SMU soon became a recruiting juggernaut. In 1979 Eric Dickerson was the most sought after player in high school football. While originally committing to Texas A&M, which itself was shady because he somehow wound up with a gold Trans-Am, at the last-minute Dickerson decided to commit to SMU. Many coaches and fans were left wondering, how the heck is SMU getting all these players? During the eighties the team would be hit with sanction after sanction when it became apparent that SMU had been giving incentives to its players. In 1984 the program was put on probation for two seasons after it was discovered that an offensive lineman, Sean Stopperich, had been given money and a house for his family from SMU alums. After this probation the NCAA created the so-called “Death Penalty” for second time offenders to the NCAA rules. After two 6-5 seasons, SMU would find itself in the crosshairs of the NCAA. After not being

David Stanley blew the lid off the SMU program
David Stanley blew the lid off the SMU program

allowed to join the team after a drug problem, linebacker David Stanley interviewed with Dallas Channel 8 and exposed that SMU was still paying players even after the 1985 probation. The main reason SMU didn’t stop the payments is because they knew that if they stopped the payments, someone would talk. After the news broke, the NCAA decided to act. On February 25, 1987 the NCAA banned the SMU football program from playing any games or scholarships as the program was issued the “Death Penalty”. With the death of the SMU program, the lone star state lost not only lost the only major college football team in the state’s largest metropolis Dallas, but it exposed a rampant problem of illegally recruiting throughout the state of Texas. To make matters worse, the chairman of SMU who has promised to clean up the program was none other than Texas governor Bill Clements. Think about it, the governor of the state didn’t stop a cheating scandal for a college football program.  After the Death Penalty, SMU’s top players were allowed to 1smuthe University, which a vast majority of them did. It wasn’t until 1989 when the SMU football program would return to the field. However, with their reputation and a crack down on recruitment, SMU found it impossible to recruit the same talent they had before. Marred the scandal the program the Mustangs were forced to join Conference USA after the SWC dissolved. Despite the move from 1989-2009,  SMU would only have one winning season. Despite a recent resurgence in the program, including moving into the American Athletic Conference, the program still is nowhere near being a national competitor like in the early eighties. While only time will tell use how Penn State’s probation will affect the school long-term, it’s clear it will not be as severe as SMU. While many of the schools today get put on probation or might lose some scholarships or bowl appearances, it doesn’t come close to suspending the entire program for two seasons. Did SMU deserve to get slammed for its actions? Absolutely! Did it deserve the opportunity to compete for thirty years? No. After the Death Penalty was issued and the impact of the decision was realized, it’s my personal opinion that the NCAA will never issue another Death Penalty again. First there is too much money at stake, especially if they ever had to get rid of a top program for one year. Also, I believe the NCAA thought that SMU could recover, but after realizing the damage it did, the NCAA will not put another program through the same turmoil. Just look at Penn State. This was a program

The legacy of SMU still lingers, especially with all the corruption that still surrounds college football
The legacy of SMU still lingers, especially with all the corruption that still surrounds college football

that had egregious crimes, and while they did get severely penalized, they were allowed to keep their program. Of all the people who suffered the most from SMU’s penalty, it was the kids. The fans, and athletes who didn’t get money were being punished for something that they weren’t involved in. Why should a whole school, football program, and city suffer for the bad decisions of a few individuals? While Penn State fans are upset about their bowl appearances and Joe Paterno’s wins being forfeited, but they still have a competitive team to root for. SMU had to go two years without a team to cheer for and have gone almost thirty years without a team that they could dream would be in the hunt for a National title. I hope SMU can get there one day. While it is a steep climb to the top, this program has been steadily moving the right direction for the past couple of seasons. This is a team that I think a lot of fans can get behind. A team and fan base that has gone through so much finally rising from the ashes and reaching upward. Being a UCONN fan myself, I’m ecstatic the SMU Mustangs are joining the AAC. They are a team on the rise and a team that once again could make some national noise in the future. Who knows, maybe one day SMU fans the Pony Express will ride once again.

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1 Comment

  1. I think that the NCAA dropped the ball NOT when punishing SMU but when they failed to hand out “Death Penalties” to the other 29 or so, schools that have since been found to be ‘repeat offenders’.

    Since the NCAA is not going to punish all these new Repeaters, shouldn’t they reimburse SMU for lost revenue — for the last 30 yrs? Everyone that was interested in college football in the 80s remembers how bad the illegal recruiting was. All SWC schools , as far as I can recall, had some kind of incident that warranted a visit or investigation from the NCAA.

    They way the NCAA is structuring the playoffs this year lets not expect that they can control things — if they ever did. They did a lousy job policing the universities in the past. Now that they have bowed down to Capitalism by giving schools more ‘motivation’ to cheat with a tournament format, the genie is forever out of the bottle.

    its ironic that the enforcement arm of the NCAA is going to be responsible for the blurring the line between amateur and professional football. Shame on them, forever.

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