Guilty Party: SMU
The Crime: Simply put, players were being paid. But the scandal that many consider to be the most heinous in the history of college athletics is far more intricate than that, also involving red-handed politicians, red-faced school officials, shamed former coaches, and untold amounts in hush money.
At the time when the story broke in 1986, SMU—already punished five times between 1974 and 1985 as the most frequently-penalized program in Division I—was under three years’ probation for recruiting violations. But the magnitude of what was to come would blow the lid off things.
The chain reaction was initiated when an investigation conducted by a Dallas television station found that former SMU linebacker David Stanley had been paid $25,000 to sign with the school in 1983 and then received monthly payments during his playing career.
The NCAA launched a probe of its own, mainly in response to report submitted by an SMU faculty member that had found the school was paying its players. It was discovered that from 1985-86, 13 players were paid a total of $61,000 from a slush fund operated by a university booster, including monthly payments that ranged from $50 to $725, some of which had been made to then-current NFL players who were part of the SMU program years earlier.
SMU had been caught again, but this time was different. Because the fund was scheduled to be discontinued only after the 13 players had exhausted their eligibility, officials of the athletics department insisted on continuing to pay athletes even after the program had been put on probation in 1985.
The most infamous of those officials was Bill Clements, who in 1987 admitted that while serving as chairman on SMU’s board of governors, he helped approve the plan that kept the illegal payments coming. Clements, who became the Governor of Texas weeks after stepping down at SMU, would later say that the board’s decision was made in order restore integrity to the football program, but that doing so also required the school to honor its monetary commitment to the players and their families. He would also add that he didn’t come clean sooner because “there wasn’t a Bible in the room.”
The Sentencing: Not surprisingly, the NCAA wielded nearly all it had at SMU, enacting in February of 1987 what is affectionately known as its “death penalty.”
Because of its cooperation with the NCAA, SMU avoided being subjected to the fullest extent of the “death penalty,” but the damage was no less crippling.
In addition to having its current probation lengthened for another two years, SMU lost a total of 55 scholarships over four years, could not conduct off-campus recruiting for a period of nearly two years, and was allowed to hire only five full-time assistant coaches, four fewer than is typically allowed.
As far as the scandal’s main players, school president L. Donald Shields, athletic director Bob Hitch, and head coach Bobby Collins—all of whom, along with recruiting coordinator Henry Lee Parker, knew of the payments—didn’t stick around long enough to watch the dominoes fall. Shortly after the NCAA ruled on the scandal, Shields resigned and was quickly followed by Hitch and Collins.
A later report would detail how Hitch, Collins, and Parker were paid more than $850,000 to keep quiet, presumably by several board members in an attempt to cover up the involvement of their colleague, Clemens.
But the meat of the punishment was the cancellation of the two seasons following the NCAA’s ruling. As mandated by the NCAA, the entire 1987 season was wiped out, with only conditioning drills permitted during the calendar year. With no football to be played, every player on the roster was immediately granted a full release and freedom to transfer without losing eligibility, causing coaches from around the nation to descend upon SMU’s campus and participate in a recruiting sweepstakes.
Then, upon having its home games canceled for 1988, SMU declined to participate in its seven road games, citing an inability to field a viable team. Football would return to SMU in 1989, but the program that emerged was vastly different from the one that existed prior to the NCAA’s unprecedented actions.
The Effects: Nothing short of catastrophic. SMU was the recipient of the most brutal punishment in the history of college athletics, and it could have been worse.
Nonetheless, the Mustangs still haven’t fully recovered, and the severity of their crime has left an indelible impact on the game's geographic footprint, as well as the manner in which the NCAA handles such cases.
SMU was once a proud program. The Mustangs won the national title in 1935. Running back Doak Walker claimed the Heisman in 1949. And All-Americans weren’t uncommon for a program that boasted 10 conference championships and 11 postseason berths prior to the scandal. And after a lull that ran from the 1950s through the ‘60s, the Mustangs once again thrived, despite repeatedly coming under scrutiny for the program’s disregard for the rules.
Over the course of seven seasons during the 1980s, the Mustangs posted a 52-19-1 mark. Propelled by the Pony Express backfield of greats Eric Dickerson and Craig James, SMU went undefeated in 1982 but was denied a shot at a second national championship because of a tie with Arkansas to end the regular season.
Four seasons later, SMU’s dirty laundry was being aired, signaling the beginning of a dark age for Mustang football and the dawn of a seismic shift in the landscape of college football—one that has given the game the conference alignment it has today.
In the 20 seasons since the NCAA handed down its “death penalty,” SMU has won 66 of its 238 games, earned a bowl berth only once (2009), and fielded a winning team only twice (1997 and 2009). Only now, under head coach June Jones, does it seem the Mustangs are finally beginning to shed the crippling stigma of the scandal.
Speaking of crippling stigmas, that’s exactly what hovered over the old Southwest Conference in the wake of SMU’s missteps, which, incidentally, led to much of the conference realignment that dominated the mid-1990s.
Already one of the more crooked conferences in college football, the SWC didn’t completely disband until 1996, but its dissolution began when then-Arkansas athletics director Franks Broyles, disgusted by what was going on at SMU, moved the Razorbacks to the SEC within two years of the NCAA’s ruling.
Before long, SMU had joined Rice and TCU in the WAC, and fellow SWC castoffs Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, and Baylor had found far greener pastures in the Big 12. The shuffling ended when SMU, along with Rice, moved to Conference USA in 2005, where it joined old SWC rival Houston.