In 1987, Southern Methodist University (S.M.U.) experienced the most severe football punishment ever given by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (N.C.A.A.). Using its “death penalty” rule for repeat violators, the N.C.A.A. prohibited S.M.U. from participating in football during the entire 1987 season and allowed only seven games in the following 1988 season. The intention behind this penalty was to serve as a cautionary measure for other colleges regarding the consequences that come with repeatedly violating N.C.A.A. regulations. Due to their prior major violations with the N.C.A.A., S.M.U., which was already on probation, had no choice but to accept this harsh punishment (SMU Football Gets, 1987, p.1C).
Following the imposition of the ‘death penalty’, S. M. U. had to recover and reconstruct its sport, a process that continues today despite the passage of many years. To fully understand the magnitude of the Southern Methodist University football scandal and the 1987 ‘death penalty’, it is necessary to revisit 1981. At that time, Dallas, Texas was undergoing rapid expansion due to the thriving oil industry in its vicinity, which brought together Texas alumni in the city who engaged in spirited discussions about their alma maters and football squads.
In the southern region during that period, football was as significant as the weather. To form a successful team, alumni decided to “purchase” players for their colleges. S. M. U., being at the forefront of this practice, offered the highest payment to attract players. Ron Meyer, their head coach, was the first to personally approach top players for recruitment (Matula, 2010). Some of those personally recruited by Meyer included Eric Dickerson, a sought-after Texas running back, and Craig James, a highly demanded tailback.
According to Pomerantz (1982), the collaboration of the two resulted in the establishment of the “Pony Express”. Matula (2010) states that after signing day, the college achieved the most successful recruiting class in the history of S. M. U. In Texas, the Texas State Longhorns dominated college football and had maintained an undefeated status for years. The day when S. M. U. and Texas played against each other holds significance due to various reasons, one being that it marked the end of Texas Longhorns’ continuous winning streak.
It marked the beginning of S. M. U.’s aspiration to become the top football team in the years to come. Additionally, it also drew the attention of the N. C. A. A. towards S. M. U.’s football program, as stated by Matula (2010). Upon investigating S. M. U., the N. C. A. A. discovered twenty-nine violations of their constitution and bylaws. As a consequence, S. M. U. was placed on probation in 1981, which resulted in them being prohibited from appearing on televised air casts or participating in any bowl games. Meyers, aware that this was only the beginning of the N. C. A. A.’s revelations, decided to leave the S. M.U football program and instead coach for the New England Patriots in 1982.
Bobby Collins was appointed as the new head coach for the Mustangs. With the departure of the old coaches and arrival of new ones, there was a surge in public information and an escalation in the audacity of player acquisition. Sherwood Blout, a wealthy realtor and S. M. U. alumni, emerged as a prominent booster and heavily and boldly purchased players (Matula, 2010). In 1982, despite being on probation and ineligible for the Cotton Bowl, the Mustangs triumphed in college football, securing the title within their conference.
The papers awarded Penn State the National Championship despite S. M. U.’s undefeated record, prompting S. M. U. to name themselves national champions. Unbeknownst to them, this caught the attention of the Dallas Times Herald and The Dallas Morning News, setting off a newspaper war. Motivated by their pursuit of increased readership, the papers began investigating the college for any wrongdoing, putting S. M. U. in a challenging position. In addition to facing scrutiny from the media, S. M. U. also had to deal with the N. C. A. A.’s investigation prompted by other colleges’ complaints.
Thirteen reports came in from within and outside the institutions southwest conference when S. M. U. began expanding their recruiting efforts beyond state lines (Matula, 2010). One recruit, Sean Stopperich, hailing from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, initially had no interest in playing at the institution. However, he was tempted by the booster’s offer of money, which would help his family during their financial crisis. The booster took advantage of Stopperich’s family’s financial troubles in order to coerce him into signing what essentially was a professional contract with S. M. U.
Stopperich was given a signing bonus of $5,000 by the booster and provided his family with a rent-free apartment to help them move to Dallas. Additionally, the booster assisted Stopperich’s step-dad in finding employment after he lost his job. Despite these benefits, Stopperich felt unhappy and homesick and ultimately decided to return to Pittsburgh with his family due to his dissatisfaction with the situation. The N.C.A.A., suspicious of the circumstances, followed Stopperich back to Pittsburgh and conducted an interview where he truthfully disclosed the various violations that occurred during his recruitment and his family’s relocation (Matula, 2010).
With the NCAA asserting a tight grip on the university in 1985, Governor-elect and University Board Chairman Bill Clements, who had been aware of the illicit payments for years, convened a secret meeting to address the crisis and halt the financial support from boosters. While the boosters agreed to cease their contributions, they justified continuing payments to certain players due to ongoing contracts. In an effort to deceive the NCAA since the boosters were not fully cutting off the money flow, Clements prohibited nine boosters from the university and held them accountable for corrupting the sport.
The “Naughty Nine” were given this nickname by newspapers (Matula, 2010). The N.C.A.A. felt that the Clemens betrayal came too late and had already gathered evidence of other violations, such as Stopperich’s confession of living rent free and receiving a signing bonus. As a result, the N.C.A.A. was prepared to impose severe penalties on S.M.U., similar to past penalties (Matula, 2010). These penalties included a one-year ban on awarding scholarships and a limit of fifteen scholarships the following year. Additionally, S.M.U. was prohibited from appearing on television and participating in bowl games (“SMU Football Gets,” 1987, p. 1C).
The N. C. A. A. convened an emergency conference to address cheating in colleges and implemented a new rule known as the repeat violator rule (Matula, 2010). Commonly referred to as the “death penalty,” this rule applies to schools already on probation for major violations, imposing further penalties if they are found guilty of any other violations within five years (Asher, 1987, p. A1). In 1986, S. M. U. faced severe consequences when David Stanley revealed in a televised interview that he and his mother had received $52,000 from university officials (Hayes, 1986, p. 1. 17). Stanley had been one of the line back recruits in 1983.
During his sophomore year, he acknowledged developing a recreational drug issue which eventually led to addiction due to his limited playing time. Upon learning about Stanley’s drug problem, the university sent him to a rehab center. After successfully completing treatment, he attempted to return to S. M. U. for football, but Coach Collins used this opportunity to dismiss him. Following this, Stanley approached the university with the intention of completing his degree, as he was near completion. However, the university refused his request to return. In response, Stanley exposed the long-standing scandal (Matula, 2010).
According to an interview, Stanley revealed that he was given $25,000 upon signing with S. M. U. Subsequently, he and his mother received an additional $750 per month until December 1985. This period spanned four months after the N. C. A. A. imposed probation on the football program (Hayes, 1986, p. 1. 17). During the television broadcast, envelopes displaying the S. M. U. insignia and the initials of assistant athletic director Henry Lee Parker were displayed, allegedly containing money from the university. A handwriting expert confirmed that the writing on the envelope dated December 1895, which fell within the probation period, matched a note written by Parker, thus confirming their authenticity.
Parker denied the allegation (Hayes, 1986, p. 1. 17). Following the broadcast of the interview, N. C. A. A. conducted an investigation at S. M. U. and discovered a lengthy roster of players who were receiving payment to participate. On February 25, 1987 (Matula, 2010), Southern Methodist University was officially subjected to the implementation of the “death penalty.” As a result, S. M. U. President L. Donald Shields retired citing health reasons, while football coach Collins and Athletic Director Bob Hitch resigned under the mounting pressure (Asher, 1987, p. A1). Consequently, S. M. U.’s “death penalty” led to the cancellation of their 1897 football season and restricted their 1988 season to merely seven games, with none being played on their home campus.
S.M.U. received the harshest punishment ever given by the N.C.A.A. They had the choice to challenge their penalty within fifteen days, but they announced to the media that they would accept it gracefully and not seek an appeal (“SMU Football Gets,” 1987, p. 1C). The individuals behind the illegal monetary contributions were not revealed to the public. This caused discontent among numerous students and faculty members at the university, leading to widespread demonstrations demanding transparency regarding those implicated in the plot.
The football team players had different priorities. Some stayed on campus to complete their degrees, while others solely focused on playing football and drew interest from other colleges, leading them to leave the university (Matula, 2010). In 1987, S. M. U. did not have a football team; in 1988, the university decided not to participate in seven games they had the chance to play, canceling yet another season. The team resumed in 1989 but needed a coach who was determined and prepared for the upcoming challenges.
The university selected former Green Bay Packer coach Forrest Gregg to rebuild the team according to the new guidelines. Unfortunately, they faced challenges in recruiting top players, resulting in a small and less skilled team (Matula, 2010). From 1989 to 2008, the Mustangs had only one successful season and were seeking their fifth head coach. The arrival of Athletics Director Steve Orsini in 2006 led to collaboration with Eric Dickerson to restore the football team.
The alumni and their families were brought into the stands, given permission to attend practices and contribute, and football renowned June Jones was hired as head coach. Known for his ability to transform talentless teams into something worth watching, Jones played a significant role in lifting the “death penalty” imposed on S. M. U. and leading the team to its first bowl game in many years (Matula, 2010).
- Asher, M. (1987, February 26). NCAA Cancels SMU’s 1987 Football. The Washington Post, p. A1. Retrieved from LexisNexis Academic database.
- Hayes, T. C. (1986, November 15). S. M. U. Football May Face 2-Year Ban. The New York Times, p. 1. 17. Retrieved from The New York Times database.
- Matula, T. D. (Director). (2010). Pony Express [Television series episode]. In DLP Entertainment, ESPN Films, & TEN100 (Producer), ESPN: 30 for 30. ESPN Plaza, 935 Middle St. Bristol CT 06010: Entertainment and Sports Programming Network.
- Pomerantz, G. (1982, October 20). Dickerson: One-Half of ‘Pony Express’ in Full Gallop to Heisman. The Washington Post, p. D4. Retrieved from LexisNexis Academic database. SMU football gets ‘death’//
- NCAA cancels ’87 season. (1987, February 26). St. Petersburg Times, p. 1C. Retrieved from LexisNexis Academic database.