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The Rise and Fall of SMU Football: How the Death Penalty Forever Altered College Sports

In the unfolding of the current Michigan football scandal, the NCAA investigation into alleged in-person scouting violations and a sign-stealing scheme has shaken the college football landscape. The controversy, involving the suspension and subsequent firing of recruiting analyst Connor Stalions, revelations of ticket purchases, and implications of broader sign-stealing practices within the Big Ten, raises questions about the integrity of the game. As the Big Ten weighs potential sanctions on Michigan and Jim Harbaugh, parallels with the Southern Methodist University (SMU) death penalty case of 1987 emerge, highlighting the gravity of institutional misconduct. While the specifics differ, both cases underscore the impact of systemic rule violations on the sport, leaving the future of Michigan football and its consequences for the broader college football community uncertain. Below is summary of the SMU downfall:


In the early 1980s, the football program at Southern Methodist University was soaring to new heights. After years of mediocrity, the SMU Mustangs had rapidly emerged as one of the top teams in the nation, led by star running backs Eric Dickerson and Craig James. Dubbed the "Pony Express," Dickerson and James powered an explosive Mustangs offense that went 21-1-1 between 1980-1982. In 1981, SMU won its first Southwest Conference championship since 1948. The following year, the Mustangs completed their first undefeated regular season since Doak Walker roamed the backfield in the late 1940s, finishing 11-0-1 and ranked #2 in the country. As the 1982 season ended, SMU seemed destined to join the ranks of college football's elite programs.

Yet just a few years later, those lofty heights seemed like a distant memory. The once-mighty Mustangs had plummeted to the lowest of lows, their football program left in shambles after receiving the NCAA's dreaded "death penalty" for repeated and rampant recruiting violations. The effects were devastating not just for SMU, but for all of college football. This is the story of how a program's meteoric rise was followed by a catastrophic downfall.

The Mustangs' Swift Ascent

For decades leading up to the 1980s, the SMU football program lingered in mediocrity. After being a national powerhouse in the 1940s and 50s under Hall of Fame coach Matty Bell, the Mustangs sputtered through the 60s and 70s. Between 1960 and 1975, SMU managed just one winning season. Their facilities had fallen behind and they struggled to compete for recruits with conference rivals like Texas, Texas A&M and Arkansas.

Hired in 1976 after two losing seasons at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, head coach Ron Meyer aimed to revive SMU's dormant program through aggressive recruiting bordering on unethical. The Mustangs went just 2-9 in Meyer's first season, but the foundation was being laid for a swift turnaround.

The crown jewel of Meyer's dubious recruiting was running back Eric Dickerson from Sealy, Texas. Considered one of the top prospects in America, the 6'3", 215-pound Dickerson was a Parade All-American running back being heavily pursued by powerhouse programs like Oklahoma, USC and Texas A&M. After an intense recruiting battle, Dickerson committed to Texas A&M in early 1979, seeming to deliver a huge blow to Meyer's recruiting efforts at SMU.

But in a sudden, shocking twist, Dickerson backed out of his A&M commitment later that year and signed with the Mustangs instead. His last-minute change of heart sparked widespread accusations that Meyer had boosted SMU's offer to Dickerson with a brand new Pontiac Trans Am sports car. The car became famously known as the "Trans A&M" - a nod to the school Dickerson jilted.

Years later, the shady circumstances around Dickerson's recruitment remain mired in mystery. But the end result was clear: with Dickerson leading the way, SMU's fortunes on the football field rapidly turned around.

After winning just 2 games in Meyer's first season, the Mustangs improved to 8-4 in 1979 as Dickerson claimed Southwest Conference Newcomer of the Year honors. The team continued its rise in 1980, ending the season ranked #20 after an 8-3 campaign. In 1981, Dickerson's senior season, SMU finally reached the mountaintop, going 10-1 and winning its first SWC championship in 33 years. Though the Mustangs lost to eventual national champion Clemson in the Cotton Bowl, their resurgence was undeniable.

The 1982 season cemented SMU as a rising national powerhouse. Led by the "Pony Express" backfield tandem of Dickerson and fellow star Craig James, the Mustangs fielded an explosive, high-powered offense that led the nation in rushing. SMU completed its first undefeated regular season since Doak Walker was on campus back in 1949, going 10-0-1. Their only blemish was a tie against #5 Arkansas, after which they trounced four straight ranked teams - #9 Houston, #6 Texas Tech, #16 TCU and #8 Arkansas again in the Cotton Bowl rematch. SMU finished the season 11-0-1 and ranked #2 in the country behind only national champion Penn State.

After years stuck in neutral, the Mustangs under Meyer appeared ready to shift into overdrive and crash college football's exclusive club of perennial national title contenders. But major trouble was brewing beneath the surface.

Paying the Price for Success

SMU's sudden success drew increased scrutiny from media and the NCAA, particularly from the Dallas Morning News. When Ron Meyer left for the NFL in 1981 after revitalizing the program, the investigations only ramped up under new head coach Bobby Collins.

The first domino fell in 1985 when offensive lineman Sean Stopperich, whom SMU paid $5,000 to help recruit, became a key NCAA witness after leaving the team after one season. Stopperich had suffered a career-ending knee injury in high school and saw little playing time for the Mustangs. Disenchanted after a year in the program, he agreed to provide detailed testimony of Meyer and Collins' boosting payments and other improper benefits used to lure top recruits like Dickerson.

Later in 1985, SMU received its first wave of NCAA sanctions after multiple infractions were revealed. Athletic director Bob Hitch resigned in August 1985, no longer able to refute the mountain of evidence piling up. At season's end, the NCAA banned SMU from bowl games for two years and stripped them of 45 scholarships over two seasons.

But the worst was still to come. In early 1987, following another lengthy investigation, SMU's own internal inquiry revealed that boosters and staff had continued paying players, providing cash payments totaling approximately $61,000 to 13 football players between 1985-86. One player, linebacker David Stanley, confirmed he had received $25,000 during his four years at SMU.

Citing repeated lack of institutional control and ethical violations, the NCAA Infractions Committee dropped the hammer on the SMU football program, enacting its harshest penalty: cancellation of the entire 1987 season and all four of SMU's scheduled home games in 1988.

This sanction became infamously known as the "death penalty" - the NCAA's nuclear option for repeat violators under a new get-tough policy enacted in 1985. After announcing the penalty, NCAA Director of Enforcement David Berst even fainted at the press conference, underscoring the unprecedented severity of the punishment.

SMU had knowingly violated NCAA rules for years in pursuit of athletic success, and now the time had come to pay the Piper. Their football program was not shuttered permanently, but the damage would prove deep and long-lasting.

Crippling Effects of the Death Penalty

The immediate effects of the death penalty sanctions were devastating for SMU. Their football program was crippled for over a decade.

Under the NCAA's sanctions, all players were granted free transfers with no loss of eligibility. Unsurprisingly, most immediately announced plans to flee the sinking ship that was the SMU program. Over half the scholarship players on the roster transferred to other schools even before SMU formally canceled its 1988 season.

Combined with the year-plus ban on off-campus recruiting also imposed by the NCAA, this mass exodus of players left the Mustangs program barren of talent when play finally resumed in 1989. That year, new coach Forrest Gregg - a former star player at SMU in the 50s - inherited a ragtag roster mostly of freshmen and walk-ons utterly lacking experience or physical maturity.

Predictably, the results on the field were disastrous. The 1989 Mustangs bore no resemblance to the dominant, high-flying teams of the early 80s. They struggled to compete physically, suffering key injuries and enduring multiple lopsided losses. The first game back was a 59-6 thumping by #1 Notre Dame; weeks later came a 95-21 annihilation by Houston and Heisman winner Andre Ware. The Ponies managed just one victory all season, finishing 1-10.

With only limited scholarships available and a wrecked reputation, the team's lack of talent and depth continued for years after the death penalty. SMU would not post another winning record until 1997, more than a full decade of futility after being a top-5 program prior to the sanctions.

The devastation also extended off the field. Alumni support and ticket sales dried up along with the wins. From 1989 onward, home games were moved to SMU's tiny on-campus stadium, Ownby Field, because the larger Cotton Bowl was far too big for the miniscule fan interest. The death penalty had killed SMU football, and it would take decades to show any signs of life again.

Fallout for the Southwest Conference

Beyond SMU, the death penalty also hastened the demise of the university's Southwest Conference. The SWC in the 1980s was already on shaky ground with rampant ethics issues across the league, as seven of its nine teams were either under NCAA investigation or probation. But the SMU scandal proved a fatal blow to the conference's reputation and stability.

The first domino fell in 1991 when Arkansas departed the SWC for the SEC after the 1991-92 athletic season. While SMU's troubles were the last straw for Arkansas, the Razorbacks had long sought a bigger stage and more stable conference affiliation. Still, their departure left the SWC with only Texas-based teams and a highly uncertain future.

The final demise came swiftly between 1994-96. In March 1994, four SWC members - Texas, Texas A&M, Baylor and Texas Tech - accepted invitations to join the Big Eight and form the new Big 12 Conference starting in 1996. Left out in the cold were SMU, Rice, TCU and Houston, who frantically sought new conference homes as the SWC collapsed around them.

Both SMU's diminished stature from the death penalty sanctions and the larger forces chipping away at the SWC proved devastating. Unable to join the Power 5 ranks in the new Big 12 alignment, the Mustangs were condemned to a nomadic existence bouncing between mid-major conferences. After a brief stint in the WAC, SMU landed alongside previous SWC foes Rice, TCU and Houston in Conference USA, and later the American Athletic Conference, where they remain today.

Nearly 30 years later, SMU has yet to fully recover and regain national prominence. The death penalty, while not the only factor in the SWC's demise, critically wounded the Mustangs at the worst possible time and barred them from benefitting from conference realignment like their Texas brethren. For SMU football, the damage remains deep and lasting.

Impact on College Sports

Beyond the rubble left behind in Dallas, the severity of SMU's sanctions sent shockwaves across college sports that are still felt today. The NCAA had made clear there was a real price to pay for repeat, egregious cheating, and no program wanted to risk being the next to incur the wrath of the death penalty.

Since that time, no other Division I athletic program has received a similar "death penalty" for violations despite rampant cheating issues across sports. Most notably, the Baylor football program in the mid-2010s, with severe transparency issues and unethical leadership under Art Briles, seemed a prime candidate for such sanctions. Yet while Baylor faced heavy penalties including probation, scholarship reductions and forfeited wins, its seasons continued uninterrupted.

Critics contend that the NCAA has gone increasingly soft on enforcement, failing to hand down sanctions with enough teeth to truly deter cheating. But regardless of motives, the SMU case and its devastating aftermath remain the gold standard that no punishments have approached since. Nearly four decades later, the NCAA seems extremely hesitant to ever again impose such crippling sanctions. SMU's cautionary tale remains unmatched as the most damaging punishment in college sports history.

In a peculiar sense, the deterrent effect of SMU's death penalty also accelerated the arms race in top-level college athletics. With no program willing to risk outright season-cancellation-level sanctions, the advantages of illegal booster payments evaporated. In response, top programs sought any edge they could find through more legitimate means - pouring millions into facility upgrades, high-priced coaches and other expenditures to separate themselves from the pack.

Schools like SMU without major conference television revenues or wealthy alumni donor bases found themselves at a distinct disadvantage in the rapidly escalating arms race. The Ponies simply lacked the financial resources to ever regain elite status post-scandal in an environment where on-field success demanded ever-higher investments.

30 years later, the fallout of SMU's transgressions continues to shape college sports. The "death penalty" endures as the most severe cautionary tale in NCAA history, deterring even widespread repeat violators from suffering a similar fate. In that sense, SMU's obliterated football program gave its life in the name of scaring other schools straight. The threat of another nuclear option may be the only reason SMU's sanctions have gone unmatched for so long.

While shortcomings certainly remain in ethics and enforcement, massive penalties like those dealt to SMU remind member institutions that for all the NCAA's faults, outright destroying a marquee athletic program remains within their powers. For a sports giant built on antiquated amateurism notions, the death penalty, for all the controversy around its implementation, provided a certain idealistic statement against the win-at-all-costs mentality. Few punishments could ever send such a strong message that ethical lines, no matter how flawed the NCAA itself may be, ultimately need enforcing when crossed repeatedly.

Infamy and Aftermath for SMU Football

Over three decades later, the rise and tragic downfall of SMU football remains one of the most shocking tales college sports has ever witnessed. A program that seemed on the verge of national glory was reduced to rubble practically overnight, and has never fully recovered its former status even today.

The meteoric ascent under Meyer and Collins, fueled by boosters' pockets and highly questionable recruiting tactics, proved a case study in how fast ill-gotten gains can disappear. In brazenly pursuing instant success and star talent through unethical means, the Mustangs sowed the seeds of their own demise once caught red-handed. Not even SMU's relative cooperation in the 1987 investigation was enough to avoid the NCAA's version of the death sentence.

Few punishments in college sports history could ever send such a strong message that the risks of cheating outweigh the rewards. Despite reforms, college football remains littered with competitive and financial imbalances that incentivize rule-breaking. But SMU's shattered program showed that even success bought through violations will be fleeting once uncovered. No accolades or competitive heights could survive the NCAA's hammer dropping. In theory, the death penalty's deterrent effect remains as compelling as ever.

Beyond the cautionary tale, SMU's infamy also leaves behind a changed landscape where cheating's risks are clearer than ever before. Even with enforcement improvements needed, the NCAA undoubtedly bears the imprint of the SMU scandal. Such an earth-shattering penalty shaped member schools' understanding of what, in theory, could still happen today. Though the NCAA's bite may have dulled lately, the bark left by SMU's case still echoes.

For SMU, the after-effects remain tangible in the Mustangs' perpetual struggle to recapture past glories. NCAA sanctions barred them from reaping the benefits of conference realignment, and resources have paled next to regional rivals like TCU. Gifted offensive recruits like Dickerson, who fueled SMU's rocket-like ascent, remain hard to find and even harder to hold onto.

Nearly four decades later, the Ponies have yet to so much as win their conference since the 1987 death penalty. Consistent success seems further out of reach every year, especially as competitors' advantages compound. For a program that once reached rarified heights, the fall from grace and long, winding road back remains jarringly incomplete.

The meteoric rise and tragic fall of the SMU football program is forever etched into college sports lore. Its lingering legacy is an understanding that even amid tangled rules and uneven play, actions have consequences when ethical lines are crossed repeatedly. In theory if not always execution, the NCAA retains its nuclear option to deter rampant repeat offenders. That ideal endures from the rubble and dust left behind by SMU's self-destruction. The death penalty lives on both as a fearful legend and a statement that, for schools teetering on the edge, something indeed remains too big to survive.


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