Southern Methodist University football scandal

Southern Methodist University football scandal

The Southern Methodist University football scandal was an incident in which the football program at Southern Methodist University was investigated and punished for violating numerous NCAA rules and regulations. The most serious violation was the maintenance of a slush fund used for "under the table" payments to players from the mid-1970s through 1986. This culminated in the NCAA handing down the so-called "death penalty" by canceling SMU's entire 1987 schedule. SMU opted not to field a team in 1988 as well due to the severity of the penalty. To this day, it is the most severe penalty ever handed to a major American collegiate athletic program.


The SMU Mustangs were one of the most storied programs in college football history. They had won the 1935 national championship (as determined by the Dickinson System), 10 Southwest Conference titles, and 11 bowl appearances. They also had one Heisman Trophy winner (Doak Walker, in 1949). and numerous All-Americans. From 1980 to 1985, SMU enjoyed its most successful era since the late 1940s and early 1950s. They posted a record of 55-14-1 and won three SWC titles. They nearly won their second national title in 1982 and were the only undefeated team in the nation. However, a tie against longtime rival TCU in the last game of the season denied them a shot at the title.

This success came at a price, however. SMU was the second-smallest school in the Southwest Conference, with a total enrollment of just over 9,000 students; only Rice was smaller. From the 1950s onward, SMU found it difficult to compete against schools that were double (or more) its size. Prior to the 1980s, SMU had tallied only two winning seasons since 1949. The effort to keep up with the bigger SWC schools resulted in SMU straying very close to the ethical line, and in some cases going over it.

As a result, SMU's football program was under nearly constant scrutiny from the NCAA from 1974 onward. SMU was slapped with probation five times between 1974 and 1985. Overall, SMU had been sanctioned seven times in its history, more than any Division I-A program. In 1985, it had been placed on three years' probation for recruiting violations involving an assistant coach and several boosters. As part of the penalty, the Mustangs were banned from bowl games in 1985 and 1986, and banned from live television in 1986.

Violations revealed

However, in June 1986, John Sparks, a producer at the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex's ABC affiliate, WFAA-TV, got a tip about even more wrongdoing at SMU. Sparks' digging eventually led him to David Stanley, who had played linebacker for SMU during the 1983 and 1984 seasons. Stanley claimed that SMU athletic officials paid him $25,000 to sign with SMU in 1983, and continued to pay him monthly while he played for the Mustangs. More seriously, the payments had continued after SMU had been slapped with its latest probation. This was critical, as the NCAA had adopted new rules to deal with repeat offenders. Most notably, if a school had been found guilty of two major violations within five years, it could be barred from competing in the sport involved in the second violation for up to two years. This new power quickly became known as "the death penalty."Taafe, William. [ Daring to take on the home team] . "Sports Illustrated", 1987-03-09.] While the NCAA had always had the power to shut down a program, it now had specific instances where it either had to do so or explain why it didn't.

WFAA was taking a calculated risk in investigating SMU, as the school's alumni have long dominated Dallas' business and social scene. For example, the "Dallas Times Herald" suffered serious losses in advertising revenue when it broke a 1983 story about serious recruiting violations. Although the paper was vindicated when the story led to SMU being placed on probation, the lost revenue never returned, and was a factor in its closure in 1991. Nonetheless, Sparks and the station's sports director, Dale Hansen, pressed on.Taafe, William. [ Daring to take on the home team] . "Sports Illustrated", 1987-03-09.]

On October 27, Hansen confronted athletic director Bob Hitch, head coach Bobby Collins and recruiting coordinator Henry Lee Parker with Stanley's allegations. He then dropped a bombshell--he'd obtained several letters containing payments to Stanley's family that had been postmarked in October 1985. A handwriting expert had confirmed that the envelopes had been initialed by Parker. Even in the face of this evidence, Hitch, Collins and Parker denied everything. For example, when Parker was shown an envelope that had contained a $350 payment, he initially said it was his, but immediately backtracked and said, "No, this is printed ... I don't write that way." [ Scorecard] . "Sports Illustrated", 1986-12-01.]

On November 12, Hansen aired a 40-minute special report which was the first extensive report of Stanley's allegations. The report also revealed that Stanley had also talked to the NCAA, and an NCAA investigation was well underway.

Two days later, the "Dallas Morning News" (ironically, a corporate cousin to WFAA; both were owned by the A.H. Belo Corporation) revealed that starting tight end Albert Reese was living rent-free in a Dallas apartment. Even more alarmingly, the rent was being paid by George Owen, one of the boosters who had been banned from the athletic program for his role in the events leading up to the 1985 probation. Reese was suspended for the last two games of the season pending an investigation. [ Chronology of the SMU Investigation] . "The Washington Post", 1987-02-26.]

A slush fund

The revelations shook SMU to its core. On November 19, 200 professors submitted a petition calling for the "quasi-professional athletics" at SMU--including a ban on athletic scholarships. In addition, SMU Board of Governors chairman Bill Clements, who was due to leave his post in two months to take office as Governor of Texas, announced that the school would tighten its admissions standards for all athletes. He also said that school officials would drop football entirely if necessary to restore the school's integrity. [Bowen, Ezra. [,9171,963099,00.html Revolt in a Football Palace] . "Time", 1986-12-22.]

Eventually, the NCAA investigation revealed that from 1985 to 1986, 13 players had been paid a total of $61,000 from a slush fund provided by a booster. The "Times Herald" later identified the booster as Dallas real-estate developer Sherwood Blount, Jr., who played for the Mustangs from 1969 to 1971 (though according to Parker, other boosters were almost certainly involved). The players had received a total of $47,000 during the 1985-86 school year. Eight of those players were paid an additional $14,000 from September to December 1986. The slush fund was due to be discontinued when the 13 players had all left the school. These payments were made with the full knowledge and approval of athletic department staff. According to the "Morning News", Hitch knew about the existence of a slush fund as early as 1981, and was involved in the decision to continue the payments even after SMU was slapped with probation in 1985. The "Morning News" also said that Collins knew that certain players were being paid, but didn't know who they were.Sullivan, Robert; and Craig Neff. [ Shame on you, SMU] . "Sports Illustrated", 1987-03-09.]

At least two then-current NFL players were identified as receiving payments--New England Patriots running back Reggie Dupard and Tampa Bay Buccaneers cornerback Rod Jones. A third player, wide receiver Ron Morris, was drafted by the Chicago Bears. [Pompei, Dan. [ Bears ignore clouded past of No. 2 pick] . "Chicago Sun-Times", 1987-04-29.] By the end of the 1986 season, according to the "Times Herald", only three of the 13 players still had eligibility remaining. [ [ Booster linked to SMU graft] . "Chicago Sun-Times", 1987-02-21.]

Not long afterward, school president L. Donald Shields resigned. He was followed a few days after by Hitch and Collins.

The death penalty

Due to the nature of the violations, speculation immediately began about the possibility of SMU receiving the death penalty. The revelations came at a time of great concern over the integrity of college sports, and college presidents were showing an increasing willingness to rein in their athletic programs.

On February 6, 1987, SMU's faculty athletics representative, religious studies professor Lonnie Kliever, delivered a report to the NCAA which recommended an extension of the school's probation an additional four years, until 1990. During this period, the school would only be allowed to hire six assistant coaches, and only four of them would be allowed to participate in off-campus recruiting. It also recommended that the school's ban from bowl games and live TV be extended until 1989. During those two seasons, SMU proposed dropping two nonconference games from its schedule. SMU's cooperation so impressed the enforcement staff that it recommended that the Infractions Committee accept SMU's proposed penalties, with the exception of a ban on nonconference play for two years. [ SMU 1987 penalty announcement] ]

The committee, however, decided to take a different tack. On February 25, the committee unamimously voted to cancel SMU's 1987 football season, and voted only to allow it to play seven games (none at home) in 1988.Asher, Mark. [ NCAA cancels SMU's 1987 football] . "The Washington Post", 1987-02-26.]

The full list of penalties:

*The 1987 season was canceled; only conditioning drills would be permitted during the 1987 calendar year.
*All home games in 1988 were canceled. SMU was allowed to play their seven regularly scheduled away games so that other institutions would not be financially affected.
*The team's existing probation was extended until 1990. Its existing ban from bowl games and live television was extended to 1989.
*SMU lost 55 new scholarship positions over 4 years.
*SMU was required to ensure that Owen and eight other boosters previously banned from contact with the program were in fact banned, or else face further punishment.
*The team was only allowed to hire five full-time assistant coaches, instead of the typical nine.
*No off-campus recruiting would be permitted until August 1988, and no paid visits could be made to campus by would-be recruits until the start of the 1988-89 school year. [ SMU death penalty announcement] ]

The committee praised SMU for cooperating with the investigation, saying that Kliever's efforts "went far beyond what could fairly be expected of a single faculty athletics representative." It also praised SMU's stated intent to operate within the rules when it returned to the field. This cooperation saved SMU from the full "death penalty"; had this happened, SMU would have had its football program shut down until 1989, and would have also lost its right to vote at NCAA conventions until 1990. However, it said that it felt compelled to impose the "death penalty" in order to "eliminate a program that was built on a legacy of wrongdoing, deceit and rule violations." SMU's record, the committee said, was "nothing short of abysmal," and the school had made no effort to reform itself over the past decade. The committee also found that SMU had gained a "great competitive advantage" over its opponents as a result of its cheating, and the "death penalty" was one way of rectifying this advantage. David Berst, the chairman of the Infractions Committee, said years later that the Mustang football program was so riddled with corruption that "there simply didn't seem to be any options left."McCullough, J. Brady. [ Once-powerful SMU program still struggles to regain relevance] . "The Kansas City Star", 2007-09-27.]

No football in 1988

As a result of the "death penalty," a full release was granted to every player on the team, allowing them to transfer to another school without losing any eligibility. Most immediately announced they were considering going elsewhere, and 250 recruiters from 80 schools descended on the campus. Combined with the year-plus ban on off-campus recruiting, this led to speculation that SMU's football team would stay shuttered in 1988 as well. Indeed, as early as February 27--two days after the sanctions were announced--school officials expressed doubt that SMU would have enough players to field a viable team in 1988. [Jenkins, Sally. [ SMU May Sit Out Through '88; Inability to Compete Under Sanctions Is Cited] . "The Washington Post", 1987-02-28.] That day, acting athletic director Dudley Parker said that the football team would not return in 1988 "unless we can really have a team" rather than merely "a bunch of youngsters (who) aren't capable of competing." [ [ SMU considers scrapping its 1988 football season, too] . "Chicago Sun-Times", 1987-02-28.]

On April 11, 1987, SMU formally canceled the 1988 season as well. Acting president William Stallcup said that under the circumstances, SMU could not possibly field a competitive team in 1988. The only way SMU could have returned that year, Stallcup said, was with "walk-ons and only a handful of scholarship athletes and continuing players." Under these circumstances, Stallcup and other officials felt the players would have faced "an undue risk of serious injury." [Frank, Peter. " [ '88 football season canceled by SMU] . "New York Times", 1987-04-11.] By this time, more than half of the Mustangs' scholarship players had transferred to other schools. Also, according to SWC commissioner Fred Jacoby, there wouldn't have been nearly enough time to find a coach, and the school still didn't have a permanent replacement for Hitch. [ [ SMU cancels '88 season] . "The Washington Post", 1987-04-11.]

Collins was not sanctioned by the NCAA for any role in the events leading up to the "death penalty," though the final report criticized him for not providing a convincing explanation for why players were still being paid after the school assured the NCAA that the payments had stopped. Nonetheless, his reputation was ruined. Aside from being a finalist for an opening at Mississippi State in 1990 (which eventually went to Jackie Sherrill), [Reed, William F. [ What Price Glory?] "Sports Illustrated", 1990-12-24.] he has never been seriously considered for an opening at any level of college football.

"A payroll to meet"

On March 3, 1987; Clements admitted that he and the other members of the SMU board of governors had approved a secret plan to continue the slush fund payments to players Clements said that the board agreed to "phase out" the slush fund at the end of the 1986 season, but that it felt duty-bound to honor prior commitments to the players. He later said he hadn't told the truth about the payments sooner because "there wasn't a Bible in the room."Wangrin, Mark. [ 20 years after SMU's football scandal] . "San Antonio Express-News", 2007-03-03.]

A week later, Clements apologized for his role in continuing the payments. He said he'd learned about the slush fund in 1984, and an investigation by the board of governors revealed that players had been paid to play since the mid-1970s. Clements said that rather than shut the payments down immediately, the board "reluctantly and uncomfortably" decided to continue paying players who had already been guaranteed payments. However, he said, in hindsight the board "should have stopped (the payments) immediately" rather than merely phase them out. [Munoz, T. James. [ Clements apologizes for SMU role; governor fails to name others involved in football payments] . "The Washington Post", 1987-03-11.]

A few months after Clements' admission, the College of Bishops of the United Methodist Church released a report detailing an investigation of its own into the scandal. It revealed that Clements had met with Hitch in 1985, and the two agreed that the payments had to continue because the football program had "a payroll to meet." Also, the report revealed that Hitch, Collins and Parker were each paid $850,000 in return for their silence on the matter This was a sharp contrast to Clements' public statements immediately after the scandal broke (see above).


SMU returned to football in 1989 under coach Forrest Gregg, a former star lineman with SMU and the NFL's Green Bay Packers. He'd been hired in the spring of 1988, and inherited a team made up mostly of freshmen. Gregg's new charges were mostly undersized and underweight; he was taller and heavier than all but a few of the players on the 70-man squad. By nearly all accounts, it would have been unthinkable for SMU to have allowed such a roster to play a competitive schedule in 1988. [Woodbury, Richard. [,9171,968906,00.html Rebuilding a Shattered Team] . "Time", 1988-11-04.]

The Mustangs have never really recovered from the scandal. Due to the loss of 55 scholarships over four years, they would not have a full complement of scholarships until 1992, and it would be another year before they fielded a team entirely made up of players unaffected by the scandal. Since 1989, SMU has had a record of 58-153-3, and has had only one winning season, in 1997. It has come close to going to a bowl game on two occasions--in 1997 and 2006.

The fallout from the "death penalty" was not limited to SMU. The Southwest Conference already had a dubious reputation due to the number of NCAA violations at its member schools (at one point, only three of its nine members weren't on probation), and the discovery of the scandal further tarnished the conference's image. The scandal was one of many factors behind the SWC's ultimate dissolution in 1996. SMU moved initially to the Western Athletic Conference. The Mustangs eventually transferred to Conference USA along with Rice in 2005, joining former SWC rival Houston, which was a C-USA charter member.

The effect the "death penalty" had on SMU has reportedly made the NCAA skittish about issuing another one. Since 1987, 29 schools have committed two major violations within a five-year period, thus making them eligible for the "death penalty." However, the NCAA has only seriously considered shutting down a sport only three times: against Kentucky's basketball team in 1989, against Alabama's football team in 2002 and against Baylor's basketball team in 2005. In 2002, John Lombardi, then president of the University of Florida and now president of the Louisiana State University System, expressed the sentiment of many college officials when he said:

In its investigation of Baylor basketball, the NCAA found that the Bears had engaged in violations as serious as those SMU had engaged in almost 20 years earlier. However, it praised Baylor for taking swift corrective action, including forcing the resignation of coach Dave Bliss. According to the committee, this stood in marked contrast to SMU's behavior; as mentioned above, SMU officials knew serious violations were occurring and did nothing to stop them.

Clements faced calls for his impeachment as a result of admitting his role in the payments; two state legislators argued that he would have never been elected had he honestly addressed his role in the scandal. While none of these efforts went anywhere, the scandal effectively ended Clements' political career; he didn't run for reelection in 1990.


External links

* [ SMU Video Archive Series] Former biology professor and interim SMU president William (Bill) Stallcup describes the impact of and details about the SMU football team's 'death penalty'in this [,15 video-based oral history] .

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