SI Vault
The Loneliest LOSERS
Tim Layden
November 18, 2002
Fifteen years ago SMU's powerhouse football program was obliterated by a pay-for-play scandal and the NCAA's first "death penalty." Since then 20 other college programs—including Alabama football this year—have qualified for the ultimate sanction, but all have been spared. Why hasn't the NCAA dropped the death bomb again? Much of the answer lies in the athletic rubble at SMU
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
November 18, 2002

The Loneliest Losers

Fifteen years ago SMU's powerhouse football program was obliterated by a pay-for-play scandal and the NCAA's first "death penalty." Since then 20 other college programs—including Alabama football this year—have qualified for the ultimate sanction, but all have been spared. Why hasn't the NCAA dropped the death bomb again? Much of the answer lies in the athletic rubble at SMU

View CoverRead All Articles

Since SMU got the death penalty in 1987, there have been 22 instances in which a school faced tht same sanction. All received lighter punishment. Here are the 10 most notable cases.




Basketball, 1988

Improper recruiting inducements, contacts and entertainment

One year: no official visits by recruits; loss of scholarship

Football, 1989

Extra benefits; unethical conduct by student-athlete and coach

One year: no TV games or bowl; loss of scholarships

Wrestling, 1992

Excessive aid; improper recruiting; salary supplements; extra benefits

Three years: forfeit victories and titles; loss of scholarships

Football, 1994

Extra benefits; impermissible recruiting contacts; lack of institutional control

Five years: no TV games or bowl for one year

Football, 1996

Unethical conduct; extra benefits; improper recruiting

Four years: forfeit games; loss of scholarships

Basketball, 1996

Improper recruiting inducements; lack of institutional control

Four years: reduction in official visits; loss of scholarships

Bkb., Football, 1997

Improper recruiting and financial aid; academic eligibility; extra benefits

Five years: playoff ban for one year; loss of scholarships

Bkb., Football, 2001

Improper recruiting inducements; extra benefits

Five years: loss of scholarships; $150,000 fine

Football, 2002

Improper recruiting inducements; excessive entertainment

Five years: no bowl for two years; loss of scholarships

Basketball, 2002

Extra benefits; unethical conduct; lack of institutional control

Two years: loss of scholarships; reduction in official visits

Briefly in September there were signs of life. For Southern Methodist's first two games of the season, home dates against Navy and Texas Tech, Gerald J. Ford Stadium was filled nearly to its capacity of 32,000. "Just like college football is supposed to be," says Jim Johnston, SMU '66, once a lineman and now a big donor in a luxury suite. But the Mustangs were defeated in both games, signaling another lost season in Dallas, and then dropped five more. When SMU finally won a game, defeating Louisiana Tech 37-34 on homecoming in mid-October, fewer than 15,000 fans were on hand, docile observers sitting under an angry gray sky. "Nobody wants to watch a loser," says Mustangs senior linebacker Vic Viloria.

Fifteen years have passed since the NCAA punished SMU for an elaborate pay-for-play scandal by hammering the football program with the "death penalty?' shutting it down for a full season and crippling it so badly that the school decided on its own not to play the following year as well. The program still hasn't recovered.

First-year man Phil Bennett is the fourth coach hired to pull SMU out of the abyss, but the task remains daunting. SMU plays in the Western Athletic Conference, whose schools—Fresno State, Hawaii and Nevada, to name three—have no cachet in tradition-mad Texas. Many of the 81 Mustangs on scholarship are marginal Division I-A players, and Bennett sells the future. Says sophomore defensive tackle Allan Adami, "I have no doubt that we're going to be better next year and the year after." A decade and a half has passed, and all that's left to hold is hope.

Late in the afternoon of Nov. 17, 2001, five members of the NCAA's Division I Committee on Infractions sat around a table in an Indianapolis hotel, considering the appropriate penalty to levy against Alabama's football program, which the committee had already found guilty of major rules violations. Colonial Athletic Association commissioner Tom Yeager, chair of the committee and a former NCAA enforcement investigator, asked that summaries of similar cases be distributed for comparison, including the committee's 1987 action against SMU.

As Bennett sees it, the SMU case is the NCAA's Hiroshima. "It's like the atomic bomb," he says. "The NCAA did it one time and created devastation beyond belief—and it's never going to be done again."

It certainly appears that way. With violations that included payments totaling over $150,000 to recruits by three boosters, the Alabama case marked the 20th time (chart, page 72) since the SMU program was leveled that a school faced the maximum sanction and was given a reprieve. However, Yeager says, " Alabama came as close to SMU as anyone ever has. We seriously considered the death penalty" Instead, the Crimson Tide's football program was hit with a five-year probation, banned from postseason play for two years and docked 21 scholarships over three seasons, among other punishments. The NCAA contends that Alabama avoided the death penalty only by means of its own vigorous cooperation with investigators.

Such a show of contrition by SMU might have spared the Mustangs as well, but two decades ago the football program and its boosters were defiant, arrogantly looking down on their Southwest Conference rivals from their perch atop the college football world. In 1981 the Mustangs missed a perfect season by two points and finished No. 5 in the nation. The next year, fueled by the Pony Express backfield of Eric Dickerson and Craig James, SMU went 11-0-1 and defeated a Dan Marino-led Pittsburgh team on New Year's Day in the Cotton Bowl to end up ranked No. 2. The Mustangs played their home games at Texas Stadium, where in November '82 a near-capacity 65,000 spectators watched the regular-season-ending 17-17 tie with Arkansas. There were whispers then that the team's best players had been bought, but with nothing proved, Mustang nation rode on.

The current atmosphere couldn't be more different. After a 24-6 home loss to Nevada on Nov. 2, Bennett's team was 1-9, his program still suffering from the sanctions. It didn't help SMU that college football's seismic conference shakeout of the '90s killed the Southwest Conference and left the Mustangs with little choice but to join the WAC. To its credit, SMU built a $60 million campus football facility, including the striking boutique stadium, but it has been sold out only twice since opening three seasons ago.

In the NCAA Manual schools found guilty of major violations twice within a five-year period, not necessarily in the same sport, are called "repeat violators." In June 1985, when booster activity across the nation was running virtually unchecked, turning college football and basketball recruiting into a Wild West shootout for the best talent, the NCAA membership approved a special penalty for habitual offenders. According to the manual, the penalty includes:

(a) The prohibition of some or all outside competition in the sport involved in the latest major violation for one or two sport seasons and the prohibition of all coaching staff members in that sport from involvement directly or indirectly in any coaching activities at the institution during that period.

Continue Story
1 2 3