Overcoming the NCAA Death Penalty: Southern Methodist, 21 Years Later

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Overcoming the NCAA Death Penalty: Southern Methodist, 21 Years Later
Southern Methodist University is fresh off of another losing season in which ultimately cost head coach Phil Bennett his job.  SMU finished the 2007 season with a 1-11 record, the program’s eighteenth losing season in nineteen years.  With a 58-153-3 record since 1989, the Mustangs are one of the least successful programs in the Football Bowl Subdivision.  It didn’t always used to be that way…

Southern Methodist University used to be home to one of the premier college football programs in the country.  SMU has won one national title (including two others which it claims) in addition to 10 Southwest Conference titles.  Players such as Hall of Fame running backs Eric Dickerson and Doak Walker, Hall of Fame wide receiver Raymond Berry, and former Cowboys quarterback Don Meredith all donned the helmet with the red mustang.

So how did such a storied program rapidly dwindle from a championship contender to a perennial bottom of the barrel team in the Conference USA?  The story goes back to the 1980s at the height of success – and controversy – in the SMU program.

In 1982, SMU finished the season ranked #2 in both the Coaches’ and AP polls with an impressive 11-0-1 record.  The team that year was highlighted by the dominant running back tandem of Eric Dickerson and Craig James, also known as the “Pony Express.”

Their success continued throughout the next few years, but the years of being put on probation were beginning to catch up with the football program.  In 1985, SMU lost forty-five scholarships and was banned from playing on television or in bowl games for three years.  While that was a significant blow to SMU football, it was only the first major punishment.

The next year, former Mustang David Stanley admitted on live TV that he received gifts while playing for SMU.  From then on, numerous rumors and reports spread.

Reports surfaced regarding SMU players living in rent free apartments that were paid for by boosters.  There was also a story about an incident in which players robbed the payroll office but received no punishment.

Twenty one players allegedly received approximately $61,000 total in cash payments. Payments ranged from $50 to $725 per month from Ralph Rodriquez of Orange Park Florida and occurred during the three-year probationary period.

As a result of the major recruiting violations while SMU was already on probation, the NCAA cancelled the Mustangs’ 1987 season. In addition to canceling that season, all home games in 1988 were cancelled. SMU was allowed to play their previously scheduled away games only because the other institutions would be financially affected if they shirked on their deal. But ultimately, Southern Methodist cancelled the entire 1988 season as well. Recruits were given the free reign to transfer without having to sit out a year and most took advantage of that opportunity.  The remaining players were mostly freshmen and as a result the school determined that they could not field a competitive team.

Not only were two seasons thrown away, but in the process Southern Methodist lost fifty-five scholarships over four years and was banned from bowl games for two years.  Southern Methodist was also handicapped by its number of full-time assistant coaches; the team was only allowed to hire five full-time assistant coaches, which was essentially half the number of other schools’ staffs.

So in summary, Southern Methodist lost all of its talent, but had few resources in terms of scholarships available and coaches available to recruit.  And even if SMU managed to build a strong team, the school wasn’t allowed to play in a bowl game or even be shown on television.

After two years, SMU began football again, but irreparable damage had been done.  Under new head coach and former SMU great Forrest Gregg, the team entered that season with 73 freshmen and a few junior college players and finished with a 2-9 record.  A poignant example of how bad it became after the death penalty was the 1989 game against Houston.  Houston quarterback and eventual Heisman Trophy winner Andre Ware threw for 517 yards in the first half en route to a 95-21 thrashing of the Mustangs.

Needless to say, the death penalty on SMU football was devastating.  No penalty with such severity has been inflicted on another program since.  As former University of Florida President John Lombardi once said, “SMU taught the [NCAA] 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.”

While the quote was an exaggeration, the death penalty inflicted upon SMU has brought about lingering effects that lasted for two decades.  Baylor basketball in the early 2000s had similar infractions, but the program was allowed to play its conference schedule in part because of what happened to SMU.

While the negative stigma surrounding Southern Methodist may have dissipated, the football program still faces an uphill battle.  The first step in the program’s attempt to turn itself around was attracting a high profile coach who was capable of recruiting top prospects in Dallas – a city in surplus of high school talent.

Southern Methodist found that coach in former Hawaii head coach June Jones.  Jones, a 25-year veteran in the coaching ranks, is fresh off a 12-0 perfect season in which the Warriors made it to the Sugar Bowl.  Hawaii’s overwhelmingly successful season was not only the highlight of Jones’ career, but the exposure he received allowed him seek a more prestigious – albeit less successful football program.  With a $2,000,000 annual contract, Jones is now the highest paid coach in the Conference USA.  But if he can resurrect SMU into a respectable program, then he’ll be worth every single penny.

Aside from a well-known coach, Southern Methodist will need to rely on recruiting local talent.

As many already know, the state of Texas is a fertile crescent of high school talent.  In a state where it is not uncommon for over 10,000 people to regularly show up for Friday night high school games, it is correct in assuming that many put a strong emphasis on football.  While it is hard to argue which state has most talented pool of prospects, one cannot avoid the sheer size and population of Texas and the pipeline that teams create through effective recruiting.

Teams like Texas and Texas A&M have proven that schools in state don’t have to go outside its boundaries to build national championship contenders.   For an example of how important recruiting local talent really is to these schools, perennial powerhouse Texas only had 6 players from out of state on its 2007 roster.

Assembling top recruits may be especially difficult for SMU because it plays in the non-BCS Conference USA.  Although the current conference plays a few nationally televised games – including the conference championship game – few elite prospects are lured away from the six power conferences (SEC, Big East, Big 10, Pac-10, ACC, and Big 12).

SMU also has to deal with being a private institution that has a smaller enrollment and slightly more stringent academic standards in some cases.  Over the past few decades, there have only been a few perennially successful private schools in the Football Bowl Subdivision, including USC, Notre Dame, Miami, and Boston College.  Schools like Texas Christian, Northwestern, or Wake Forest may show flashes in the pan every now and then, but remaining as an elite contender has been another story.

With all of the road blocks in front of them, June Jones is up to the challenge.  With a high profile and proven track record as an offensive guru, more recruits will eventually come.  Jones already has a record-setting junior quarterback in Justin Willis.  Jones will be able to recruit talented skill players around him, as he has done at his other schools.  In a year or two SMU should be able to compete in the Conference USA.  But can the school ever reach the level of success it had in the 80s?

Let’s just say for now, Coach Jones should be happy with a winning record and no new violations.
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