We'll start with perhaps the best known—and worst—college football scandal of the last century.
The story basically revolves around paying recruits and players. Certainly not unique to SMU (Pat Dye and Auburn were guilty of this sin over Dye's decade-plus as head coach), the scandal at SMU took on a new life of it's own during and after the NCAA investigation.
In the early 1980s, SMU was the target of an NCAA investigation after numerous reports of paying recruits and active players surfaced.
Between the mid 1970s and the mid '80s, SMU was placed on probation five times for various violations of NCAA rules.
SMU explained this away as they needed to skirt the rules as best they could because they were one of the smallest schools in the Southwest Conference. It seemed to pay off as SMU played in front of sell-out crowds, and was winning SWC championships, and nearly won a share of the national championship in 1982.
But by the time 1986 rolled around, SMU could no longer keep a lid on the secrets.
An ABC affiliate's reporter in Dallas broke a story about David Stanley, who claimed he had been paid by SMU to play football. The important part of the story was that SMU's payments to Stanley occurred after SMU had yet again been placed on probation.
At the time, the Dallas area business world was run almost exclusively by SMU alumni. Any media outlet that dared cross SMU ran the risk of alienating the SMU alumni base—which was responsible for millions of dollars annually in Dallas-area advertising revenues for local media.
SMU denied any wrongdoing, and certainly denied paying Stanley—and they denied involvement on camera. The reported then pulled one of the greatest “gotcha” moments in television history. He pulled out from his briefcase letters and envelopes on SMU Athletic Department stationary and envelopes, with October 1985 postmarks. The letters were analyzed by a handwriting expert, and it was shown that the handwriting belonged to SMU recruiting director Henry Parker.
How dumb do you have to be to break the rules, in writing, on university letterhead?
Parker still denied involvement, even while looking at his own handwriting while on camera.
As the investigation continued, it was discovered that Stanley was just the small tip of a very large iceberg. The university had established what amounted to a shadow football budget, and that money was used for everything from paying rent for players, buying cars and houses for players and their families, to outright cash payments to players directly.
When the NCAA discovered the slush fund, SMU said that it was being phased out, but they had to continue paying 13 of their current players, because they were under contract!
After the severity of the violations in the early and mid 1980s, and the fact that they occurred while SMU was already on probation, the NCAA took the extraordinary step of cancelling SMU's entire 1987 season and cancel all SMU home games in 1988. In doing so, the NCAA also stated that SMU's program was “built on a legacy of wrongdoing, deceit and rule violations.”
After all SMU players were released and allowed to transfer without penalty or waiting periods, every major team in the nation sent recruiters to Ft. Worth. SMU had no choice but to cancel the 1988 season, and there was no team left to field in the year after the canceled 1987 season.
In addition to the 1987 “death penalty,” SMU lost 55 scholarships total through 1990, suffered through a bowl ban through 1989, SMU could not televise games through 1989, SMU's probation was extended through 1990, SMU lost four assistant coaching positions, SMU could not recruit off-campus until 1988 and they could not pay for on-campus recruiting trips until 1988.
As a result, since the 1989 season, SMU has won just 74 games. They've lost that many, plus 100 more.