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I served in the US Navy from 2002-08; four of those years were as a Nuclear Propulsion Operator aboard an aircraft carrier. I engage in political activism in various Democratic circles when I am able to. I have a cat, and I am an uncle.

All opinions that I express are my own and do not reflect the views of any organization that I represent.

Thursday, August 18, 2011


On my DVR is the ESPN 30-for-30 documentary Pony Excess. It tells the story about the dominance of the Southern Methodist University football team in the early 1980s followed by the NCAA issuing sanctions due to recruitment violations. In 1986, WFAA sports reporter Dale Hansen aired on his Sunday Night sports program a special highlighting that SMU was continuing to break the rules despite being on probation.

After an investigation following Hansen’s report, the NCAA released their findings resulting in the SMU football team being shut down for the 1987 season due to disobeying recruitment rules while on their most recent period of probation. The punishment for repeat violations of is highlighted in Bylaw of the NCAA Rules. Formally called the Repeat Violators Rule, it has taken on another name:

"The Death Penalty"

The scandal was a story that no one could make up.

The documentary looks at many factors of why the scandal happened.

You had a program that produced some well known NFL players but fell on hard times. After the Kennedy Assassination, Dallas for many years was viewed as the city that murdered a president. That stigma was lifted when the Cowboys became successful followed a boom in the oil and real estate industries in the mid-late 1970s.

The city of Dallas was once a two paper newspaper town with the Dallas Morning News and the now defunct Dallas Times Herald. Because of the sudden and rapid rise of SMU, both of these newspapers began to heavily investigate the program about how they got so good so quickly. Each paper was looking to trump the other with more damning allegations about SMU. The story was in their backyard. One Dallas sports observer said, “You could investigate SMU with a bicycle.”

SMU belonged to what was once considered one of the top football conferences in the nation: the Southwest Conference. This conference was comprised of: Texas, Texas A&M, Baylor, Rice, University of Houston, TCU, SMU, Texas Tech and Arkansas.

Some well connected SMU alums were tired of the mediocrity and constantly being at the bottom of standings every year. They were tired of hearing their Longhorn boss saying “We hooked you” or their Aggie accountant taking an “Aggie Gigged You Fee” or constantly hearing from their mechanic about “getting wrecked by Tech.” So, through the boosters they decided to pay high school football athletes to attend SMU for their services knowing that this was against the rules. Their rationale for going through with it: Well… the other schools are doing it too, so… hey, why not?

It also helped that the team relocated their home games to Texas Stadium to increase the allure of the program.

By 1981, SMU had a top squad ready to compete at the national level. With a 10-1 record, SMU claimed their first Southwest Conference Championship in 15 years. They were unable to participate in a bowl game that season because they were caught for some minor infractions that produced sanctions from the NCAA.

In 1982, SMU won another Southwest Conference Championship with a 10-0-1 record. The tie cost SMU a chance at a claim to the National Championship. Even though they won their bowl game and was the only team in Division I-A to finish the season without a loss, one-loss Penn State received the National Championship for the 1982 season.

The depth of the scandal came to light when SMU started to recruit players out of the state. Two players originally committed to attend Pitt but decided to attend SMU in 1983 at the last minute. After one semester at SMU, offensive lineman Sean Stopperich felt homesick and returned home to Pittsburgh. He later revealed that SMU not only paid him to play there, but SMU relocated his family to Dallas.

When these new allegations came to light, the NCAA issued new sanctions on the program for the 1985, 1986, and 1987 seasons. Meanwhile, the SMU board of trustees told the boosters that they were going to phase out the payments to players and in addition, placed the blame on this new scandal on the boosters.

Before their dismissal from being affiliated with SMU, the boosters reminded the board of trustees with a prophetic statement:

“You have a payroll to meet.”

It was only a matter of time before the scandal was revealed.

The scandal had reached the board of trustees and was about to reach the highest office in Texas state politics: The governor’s mansion.

The chairman of the board of trustees was Bill Clements who served as governor of Texas from 1979-83 and again from 1987-91.

I told you that you could not make this story up… a connection to the governor’s mansion…

While Bill Clements was on the campaign trail, in June 1986 information was given to a producer at WFAA that eventually led to a former player that was paid to play at SMU.

David Stanley, a linebacker for SMU from 1983-84, was kicked off the team and lost his scholarship for substance abuse. Eric Dickerson, who played for SMU from 1978-82 and at this time was playing for the Los Angeles Rams in the NFL, allegedly warned the university to not recruit this player because something about him did not sit right with Dickerson.

Stanley asked SMU to allow him to continue his education, but they declined. He felt that SMU went back on their word.

Stanley admitted to the NCAA and then to WFAA that SMU paid him $25,000 to sign with the university and paid him a monthly salary.

WFAA’s investigation eventually led to revelations of several letters from SMU to Stanley’s family. These letters were post marked October 1985, while they were on their current sanctions.

Dale Hansen confronted university officials about what was in the envelopes. Recruiting coordinator Henry Lee Parker, on television, admitted that the envelope was his… but then said this about the writing on the envelope:

“No, this is printed… I don’t write that way.”

It is always the details that catch up to you in something like this.

On 12 November 1986, eight days after Bill Clements won the gubernatorial race, WFAA aired a 40-minute special about these recent allegations that included interviews with Stanley and his family, investigators, and SMU officials. The NCAA was alarmed by these allegations.

Allow me to segue into politics for a bit, but Clements had escaped a major bombshell. Had this story been presented prior to 4 November 1986, there might have been a chance that he could have lost the election over helping SMU win football games… The election was within 250,000 votes, but how many Longhorn, Aggies, Tech, and Horned Frogs fans would have voted against him over that issue alone?

Back to the story…

Prior to the 1986 season, the NCAA held a convention in New Orleans to discuss what to do about athletic programs that continue to violate the rules. After much discussion and debate, the Repeat Violators Rule was passed by an overwhelming majority. Only seven schools objected to its passage. One of the seven was SMU.

Bylaw of the Repeat Violators states (directly from the NCAA Rulebook, page 324): Time Period
An institution shall be considered a “repeat” violator if the Committee on Infractions finds that a major violation has occurred within five years of the starting date of a major penalty. For this provision to apply, at least one major violation must have occurred within five years after the starting date of the penalties in the previous case. It shall not be necessary that the Committee on Infractions’ hearing be conducted or its report issued within the five-year period. (Revised: 1/14/97 effective 8/1/97) Repeat-Violator Penalties
In addition to the penalties identified for a major violation, the minimum penalty for a repeat violator, subject to exceptions authorized by the Committee on Infractions on the basis of specifically stated reasons, may include any or all of the following: (Revised: 1/11/94)
(a)             The prohibition of some or all outside competition in the sport involved in the latest major violation for one or two sports 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;
(b)             The elimination of all initial grants-in-aid and all recruiting activities in the sport involved in the latest major violation in question for a two-year period;
(c)              The requirement that all institutional staff members serving on the Board of Directors, Leadership Council, Legislative Council or other cabinets or committees of the Association resign those positions, it being understood that all institutional representatives shall be ineligible to serve on any NCAA committee for a period of four years; and (Revised: 11/1/07 effective 8/1/08)
(d)             The requirement that the institution relinquish its voting privilege in the Association for a four-year period.

The press referred to these severe penalties by the name that has caught on: “The Death Penalty.”

On 25 February 1987, a cold and dreary day in Dallas, the NCAA released the results of their investigation.

The NCAA dropped the hammer on SMU. The football program was shut down for the 1987 season. The Death Penalty was enacted.

SMU would be allowed to return to the field in 1988, but they would only be allowed to play road games. The NCAA also released players from their scholarship commitments to SMU and allowed them to resume their college football career at another university. The administration felt that this was detrimental to their football program returning to the field of play. Instead of playing a limited schedule with a weak talent pool in 1988, they decided that it was in the best interest of the program to return to the gridiron in 1989.

The university took measures to ensure that when football returned in 1989 that the program was within the rules and regulations set by the NCAA.

After returning to the field, SMU embarked on a 20-year period of futility. A program that was once a powerhouse in college football was now irrelevant. There was hardly any mention of SMU in the Dallas-Fort Worth area sports scene. The team did not post a winning season until 1997. SMU did not play in a bowl game and win a bowl game until 2009.

The scandal impacted Governor Bill Clements who had to answer questions about his involvement. A few state legislators had called for his impeachment, but it never came to fruition; his political career was over. The SMU controversy was still on people’s minds when he came up for re-election in 1990. Instead of seeking a third term in Austin, he declined to run.

Because SMU did not exist for two seasons, it created a scheduling vacancy for the other teams in the Southwest Conference. It led to Arkansas leaving the Southwest Conference in 1991 for its current home in the Southeastern Conference. In March 1994, Texas, A&M, Tech, and Baylor announced that they were going to merge with Big 8 schools such as Oklahoma, Nebraska, and Oklahoma State and form the Big XII Conference. The other Southwest Conference schools were scattered among smaller conferences. After participating in the WAC, SMU settled into its present day home of Conference USA.

I support the idea that SMU was made an example because all the other programs were doing it too. That does not make it right though. Once SMU got busted, other programs were able to find ways to get around the rules so that the same fate does not happen to them. A lot of schools have done what SMU did and escaped with just probation for their actions.

The NCAA does not want to enact this penalty again because they saw what happened to not just SMU but the ripple effect that it had on the schools in the Southwest Conference. It was only a matter of time that the other Texas schools were going to join forces with Oklahoma and Nebraska, but the SMU scandal expedited the process of the breakup of the Southwest Conference.

This piece was written with the title of “Worse Than The Death Penalty” and the NCAA has discovered a way to punish a program without completely destroying it.

Instead of this “nuclear option” in their enforcement arsenal, they have discovered that they can have a program vacate victories. Scandals involving Ohio State and USC have resulted in those programs having to vacate many victories where violations occurred. USC had to vacate the 2004 National Championship and Reggie Bush returned his Heisman Trophy that he won in 2005. Ohio State’s wins for the 2010 season and their Sugar Bowl victory were vacated due to scandal involving players, such as quarterback Terrell Pryor, selling memorabilia off. The scandal was so damaging to the university that it forced head coach Jim Tressel to resign.

Even though schools like USC and Ohio State rely on their names for football recruiting, vacating victories and awards creates significant damage to the programs credibility. Such violations may cause a recruit to think twice before attending that university.

This piece was written with the recent scandals of USC and Ohio State in mind. During my writing for this piece, many other schools in other sports have been busted for violations. Recently, the University of Miami (FL) has been involved in a very serious scandal involving a booster who is currently serving a 20-year prison sentence for running a $930 million Ponzi scheme. The booster is claiming that over an eight year period he provided benefits to as many as 72 football players, several coaches were aware of the funding, and he paid players extra for outstanding plays and provided bounties for big hits.

There are talks that Miami may receive “The Death Penalty” due to these actions.

The question I ask is this: is the reaction of the scandal coming out of Miami due to the serious situation that is taking place at the university or like SMU, is the NCAA making an example out of the program due to the violations that are taking place at other well known universities?

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