College Football: Ohio State, SMU & the Top Scandals in College Football History

David Luther@@davidrlutherFeatured ColumnistJune 6, 2011

College Football: Ohio State, SMU & the Top Scandals in College Football History

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    Since the Memorial Day announcement of Jim Tressel's resignation, it's been all scandal, all the time when talking about college football.

    When a scandal like this goes public, people often try and compare the current situations to past scandals. That doesn't always work well, as each scandal is different in its structure, reasoning and effect. They also always have a complete different cast of charioteers.

    It's clear that Ohio State's current scandal will change the face of college football, especially in the near future. But it's certainly not the first college football scandal, and it sadly won't be the last.

    Here's a look at some of the other top scandals in the history of college football.

(Dis)honorable Mentions

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    Here are a few of the pretty bad—but not quite top—scandals in college football. 

    UCLA: In the late 1990s, 19 Bruins players illegally obtained handicap parking placards by lying to the state. While these offenses are relatively minor misdemeanors (illegally obtaining or using handicap placards), the callousness of the players is nonetheless shameful.

    Oklahoma State: From 1977 to 1981, Dexter Manley attended Oklahoma State University and was pretty successful as a defensive lineman. He went on to an NFL career after college. But Dexter Manley was illiterate, yet shockingly was able to pass all of his supposed college-level classes at Oklahoma State and remain eligible.

    So much for being a student-athlete. To be clear, absolutely no one should ever blame Manley for this “scandal,” but Oklahoma State should be pretty embarrassed.

    Army: In 1951, the United States Military Academy expelled 90 cadets for cheating—and 37 of the expelled cadets were members of the football team. Cheating is also a scandal, but when it happens at the nation's premiere military academy, it's a scandal that transcends college football and becomes a national embarrassment.

    Michigan: During Rich Rodriguez's tenure at Michigan, he not only led the program to their worst record in their 131-year history, but he also was responsible from bringing the first-ever NCAA probation to the Michigan football program. Rich Rod wasn't fired for violating NCAA rules regarding practice. He was fired for having all of that extra practice amount to less than nothing on the field.

    Notre Dame: George O'Leary falsified his resume. Stupidly, the lies probably weren't anything that would have kept him from a head coaching position. O'Leary said he was a three-year letter winner at New Hampshire. He wasn't. O'Leary said he earned a master's degree from NYU. He didn't. Just as embarrassing is the fact that neither Notre Dame nor Georgia Tech caught the inaccuracies until after they hired him. O'Leary shouldn't have been the only one not to come out of this scandal without a job.

    Ohio State: This one isn't so much Ohio State's fault, as they kicked the kid off the team, and for good reason. But throughout Maurice Clarett's time at Ohio State, he was a problem. Aside from yelling at his coaches, he angrily admonished the university for not paying for his airfare to fly home and then accused the university of lying when they responded by saying they did not receive any of the necessary paperwork.

    Clarett then filed a false police report in which he reported over $10,000 worth of his property was stolen from a car he was borrowing from a local dealership and lied to the university and NCAA investigators. Oops. Ohio State expelled him soon afterwards. After becoming a resounding failure for the Denver Broncos, Clarett ended up in prison and now plays for the Omaha Nighthawks of the UFL.

Southern Methodist

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    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.

Ohio State, Part One

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    Woody Hayes: He can be summed up in two different was. First, one of the all-time greats at Ohio State. Second, a hot-head that was canned because he finally lost it and punched an opposing player in the throat on national television.

    While anyone is Columbus will tell you that Hayes is known for his on-the-field greatness, anyone outside the state of Ohio unfortunately remembers him as the coach at Ohio State who got fired for hitting some kids—many people forget that after hitting the Clemson player, Hayes also punched one of his own players in the resulting scuffle.

    Gone are the memories of the Ten Year War between Bo Schembechler and Woody Hayes which began after Bo's Wolverines topped Woody's No. 1 Buckeyes in Bo's first season at Michigan—one of the most stunning upsets in the entire series.

    Gone are the memories of 13 Big Ten championships and Rose Bowls. Gone are the memories of three national titles. All that remains is the angry man who finally snapped on the field.

    While hitting a player Is bad enough, Hayes was fired almost instantly because it wasn't his first example of a lack of anger management.

    In the mid-1950s, Hayes reportedly punched a reporter after a loss. At a Big Ten meeting, Hayes had to be restrained during an argument with Iowa's athletic director. In 1971, Hayes stormed onto the field to argue a call, and was ejected after throwing the flag into the stands, destroying yard markers on the sidelines, and tossing the down marker on the field. In 1973, Hayes shoved a news photographer. In 1977, the year before he was fired, Hayes aggressively confronted a camera man live on national television, after which he was fined and placed on probation by the Big Ten conferece.

    By the time the 1978 Gator Bowl rolled around, it probably didn't surprise anyone in the Ohio State athletic department that this time bomb finally exploded in a way that could no longer be explained away or dealt with by fines or probation.

    To Hayes' credit, he remained involved in the academic part of Ohio State University long after he had been fired as the head football coach.


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    The Pell Grant scandal was only one of numerous violations the University of Miami committed during the 1980s and 1990s, but it was the biggest.

    An official at Miami helped over 50 football players apply for and receive hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal Pell Grant money. Since the football players were all already on full scholarship, the full amount of the Pell Grant was paid directly to the player for whatever use the player wanted.

    The resulting NCAA investigation uncovered even more instances of improper benefits to players, compounding the problem and leading to a famous Sports Illustrated cover story entitled “Why The University of Miami Should Drop Football.”

Cam Newton & Cecil Newton

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    Let's start back at the University of Florida, shall we?

    Allegedly, Cam Newton stole a laptop computer, lied to police and the university about it, and then threw the computer out of a window in a pretty juvenile and stupid attempt to hide the evidence.

    If that wasn't enough, there were allegations that Newton cheated many times over his brief tenure at Florida.

    After the 2008 season, Newton transferred to Blinn College and led the team to an NJCAA National Championship, beating out Fort Scott Community College in the Citizens Bank Bowl, 31-26. Newton was named a JUCO All-American and was the top recruit—either high school or JUCO—for the 2010 season.

    About mid way through the 2010 BCS championship season at Auburn, allegations came to light that Newton's father, Cecil, had “shopped” Cam around, looking for money in exchange for him coming to play at a particular school.

    Mississippi State reported to the NCAA that Cecil Newton had told them that, “It would take more than just a scholarship” for Cam to come and play of the Bulldogs. The reported asking price for Cam Newton was between $100,000 and $200,000.

    Auburn maintained that they had never offered money to the Newtons, but in early December, Auburn and the NCAA declared Newton ineligible in response to the brewing scandal involving Mississippi State. However, Cam Newton was reinstated just in the nick of time for the SEC Championship Game—Cam never missed a single snap.

    Newton led the Tigers to an SEC title and BCS championship, while winning the Heisman Trophy.

    It's highly doubtful we've heard the last of this story.

North Carolina

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    At the start of the 2010 football season, there were many people who believed that North Carolina had assembled a defensive unit that could become one of the all-time great defensive teams in college football history.

    Almost the entire defense was comprised of NFL prospects, and therein lay the problem. An NCAA investigation found that as many of 13 players accepted money from NFL agents and/or were involved in cheating scandals to keep eligible.

    The college football world will now be left wondering, “What if...”


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    Barry Switzer won 157 games and lost just 29. He won 12 conference titles and three national championships.

    And he did it with players that had been paid.

    When the allegations came to light, things started to unravel quickly at Oklahoma. The quarterback was caught selling cocaine to an undercover federal agent. There was a shooting involving two OU players—one the victim, the other the suspect. Three players were accused of rape.

    Perhaps the last straw was a Sports Illustrated cover that read, “Oklahoma: A Sordid Story.” The subtitle was even more damning. “How Barry Switzer's Sooners Terrorize Their Campus.”


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    Charley Pell was one of the more infamous coaches ever to grace Gainesville.

    The violations are too numerous to discuss in detail—there were 107 violations in all—but the repercussions were swift and painful.

    Pell was obviously fired, and the University of Florida suffered through seasons on probation, loss of scholarships, postseason bans and even a ban from televising games.

    But what makes this scandal an important one is perhaps what happened after all was said and done.

    Within a relatively short period of time, Steve Spurrier regrouped, hunkered down and built Florida back into a national powerhouse in college football.

    USC and Ohio State fans, take note. If it can happen in Gainesville, it can happen in Los Angeles and Columbus too.

    While he may be remembered as a coach for the NCAA violations, it's important to note that Pell's legacy at Florida extended beyond the field.  After a failed suicide attempt after being fired by Florida, Pell was treated for depression and went on to become a spokesman for the affliction, helping to eliminate the stigma of clinical depression.

    Pell also led some amazing fundraising campaigns while at Florida, which led to a massive expansion of athletic facilities at Florida, helping the Gators to victories long after he had left the university.


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    After an investigation that never seemed to end, the NCAA finally lowered the hammer on USC.

    The University of Southern California heard the NCAA speak those dreaded words, “lack of institutional control,” and the rest was history.

    USC lost all of their victories from the 2005 season, and two from the 2004 season, plus the 2005 Orange Bowl, which was that season's BCS championship game. USC will also be prohibited from participating in any postseason games during the 2011 season, including a potential berth in the Pac-12 Championship Game. USC also loses 30 total scholarships to be spread out over three years.

    USC filed an appeal to all of the sanctions—perhaps the most severe sanctions handed down by the NCAA since SMU's death penalty—but the appeal was denied in May of 2011.

    All of this came about from Reggie Bush and his family receiving gifts from agent Lloyd Lake in excess of $290,000.

    The “lack of institutional control” finding comes from USC's either inability or refusal to keep tabs on Bush's relationships with agents or others who showered him and his family with gifts. It's also stems from the combination of the investigation of USC's basketball program, in which the NCAA also found violations.

    USC's head coach, Pete Carroll, left USC right before the sanctions, causing some to compare him to a rat leaving a ship he knew was about to sink.

    USC has also rightly separated itself from any recognition of Reggie Bush, returning USC's copy of the forfeiting Heisman Trophy and removing all jersies and likenesses or mentions of Reggie Bush from the athletic facilities.

    The status of USC's 2004 BCS championship has yet to be decided. The BCS has previously said that their determination of the status of the championship would not come until after USC's appeal had been heard. Since that appeal is now rejected, one would assume that the BCS is ready to issue their determination, and that BCS trophy will likely need to be returned.

    UPDATE: The BCS announced on June 6, 2011, that it was indeed stripping USC of their 2004 BCS National Championship.

Ohio State, Part Two

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    In Jim Tressel's 10 years at Ohio State University, he established himself as one of the premiere coaches in the nation.

    Just look at these accomplishments.

    Ohio State under Tressel won at least a share of seven Big Ten championships, never missed a bowl game, appeared in a record eight BCS bowls (not even a team from the “mighty SEC” can claim that kind of a record) including the current six straight, won five BCS bowls, including a BCS championship in 2002, posted a 66-14 conference record, and was 106-22 overall.

    That's pretty darned impressive.

    Problem is, no body can now say for sure that all of that was on the level.

    Jim Tressel was forced to resign last month. Yes, forced. Even if Ohio State University president E. Gordon Gee and athletic director Gene Smith were too slimy themselves to tell him he had to go (Gee infamously said at a press conference that he hoped “the coach doesn't dismiss me!” when asked if he though about dismissing Tressel), it was becoming more and more clear to everyone outside of the superiority complex bubble of Columbus that Tressel's position at Ohio State was untenable.

    While the controversy began when Tressel lied to the NCAA about a relatively minor matter for players receiving improper benefits (tattoos for memorabilia), it seemed to explode after a Sports Illustrated article linking Tressel to more than just a small handful of questionable behavior at Ohio State.

    Never mind the free tattoos in exchange for jerseys and other OSU trinkets from players. Never mind the fact that Terelle Pryor seemed to drive a new sports car every other month. Never mind the rigged raffle he ran as an assistant at Ohio State in the 1980s. Never mind all of the other seemingly minor violations that Tressel was either aware of or personally involved.

    The biggest problem was Tressel.

    It's highly likely that if Tressel had told the NCAA everything he knew about the tattoo scandal when he was first approached, then Tressel himself would have served his original two-game suspension, and all would have gone on as it did in the past.

    But Tressel committed the ultimate sin in the eyes of the NCAA—he signed his name to a paper stating he had no knowledge of any type of incident, when it could be proved that not only he knew but was actively involved in covering.

    Tressel's persona of “Mr. Integrity” and “The Senator” has now been proven as unequivocally false. Even Tressel's public statement about his resignation is another example of Tressel trying to keep that facade intact. If you read his statement, in Tressel's eyes, he's selflessly falling on the sword, sacrificing everything for the good of Ohio State.

    If that were true, Tressel wouldn't have been so shady in the first place.

    The billboard erected outside of Ann Arbor says it best: “Liar, Liar, Vest on Fire!”

    Tressel is now in the same category as Hayes. He was a very successful coach that led a very successful program who will be remembered (outside of Ohio) only for how it ended.

    Don't for a second blame the players. These are young men, many of whom come from abject poverty. They have a God-given talent for football, and they're (supposedly) using that talent to get an education that would otherwise be unavailable to them. These kids from impoverished lives can possibly be excused for making a few stupid decisions, can't they? Breaking the rules should have consequences, and the players who broke the rules have been and will be punished accordingly. But they're not to blame for Ohio State's downfall.

    Hopefully, after a few years of sanctions (which are sure to be harsh), Ohio State fans will keep in mind that there's only one person to blame: Jim Tressel, the liar.

    And, by the way, Gordon Gee and Gene Smith should be fired, too.