They stood in the drizzle outside Ownby Stadium on the campus of Southern Methodist University last Thursday afternoon. Scores of them had descended in a hungry flock—like "vultures." said SMU linebacker Ricky Ro-den—to pick the Mustang football program clean of its 56 remaining scholarship players. "Everybody's trying to get a good piece of meat." said fullback Jed Martin angrily.
They were recruiters. More than 100 of them from such schools as Oklahoma. Alabama. Penn State and even Northwestern had hurried to the SMU campus in Dallas a day after the NCAA pronounced the "death penalty" for the Mustangs' recidivist football program. The ruling bars SMU from all competition in 1987 and saddles it with other sanctions through 1990. In a surprisingly bold stroke, the NCAA had effectively demolished one of the nation's most glorious—and historically corrupt—football teams. It had also sent a stern message to all who cheat in college athletics.
Never before had the NCAA suspended a football program. But SMU had gone out of its way to be the first. Not only had the Mustangs been caught breaking NCAA rules for a record seventh time—an unnamed booster had been found to have paid 13 Mustang players $61,000 from a slush fund with the approval of key members of the SMU athletic staff—but the infractions had also occurred while the program was already on three years' probation for recruiting violations cited in 1985.
The latter fact was crucial: In June 1985 the NCAA membership had voted 427-6 (SMU was one of those opposed) to require a one-or two-year death penalty for any school found guilty of NCAA rule violation infractions twice in the same sport within a five-year period. SMU, which will be allowed to play a limited, seven-game road schedule in 1988 (assuming it is able and willing to field a team), might have received the full two-year suspension if it hadn't cooperated so thoroughly with the NCAA investigation. "In reality, of course, this is a five-or six-year penalty," said Wisconsin law professor Frank Remington, the head of the NCAA Infractions Committee, which ruled in the case. "It will take at least that long for SMU to rebuild its program."
This was not the first death penalty ever handed out by the NCAA. Kentucky's basketball program was shut down for the 1952-53 season because of booster payments to athletes, and the basketball program at Southwestern Louisiana was suspended for two seasons (1973-75) because of more than 100 NCAA violations involving recruiting and academics. "The committee has always had the authority to shut down a program." said Remington. "The difference is that now, not only can we use it, but in certain instances we have to—or explain why we didn't."
As the visiting recruiters wooed and wheedled, there seemed little question that they would drain SMU of its players in no time. The NCAA had ruled that SMU players could transfer elsewhere and play football immediately, although the Southwest Conference had the option of enforcing a two-year loss of eligibility for transfers within the conference. The SWC announced Monday morning that it would not invoke the option. Among the SMU players who would have played next fall are at least 12 blue-chippers who could help immediately at another school "I haven't heard of one teammate who's staying" said senior quarterback Bob Watters Added his backup sophomore John Stollenwerck, "Everybody's trying to eel out now."
There were plenty of enticements to go. as recruiters stretched the limits of both salesmanship and common decency. By 8 a.m. on Thursday a line of them already stretched out the door of the SMU football office, where they were seeking help in locating potential recruits, and by midafternoon they were buttonholing Mustang players wherever they could find them, trying to talk them into transferring. The scene was both bizarre and tawdry: Players and recruiters huddled in dank corners under the stadium stands or at the misty edges of the parking lot or in the empty locker room Every new face was greeted with blunt questions about height weight position speed and strength But as too often happens with SMU football the situation soon grew out of control By Friday afternoon more than 180 coaches had arrived and there were indications that more than a few of them had already broken NCAA rules by recruiting on campus for more than one day and visiting individual athletes more than once Some were rumored to have contacted SMU players even before the Wednesday morning announcement, another violation. When The Dallas Morning News asked defensive tackle Robert McDade on Wednesday morning if he had talked with other schools, he replied, "I won't say. But you can quote me that I'm not worried."
The death penalty was announced in a charged, tense campus meeting room packed with reporters. Both SMU officials and NCAA enforcement director David Berst had asked the Infractions Committee not to suspend SMU's program but rather to impose more limited sanctions. But Berst. standing beside SMU faculty representative Lonnie Kliever and interim university president William Stallcup. announced the committee's decision: no football in '87. only seven games in '88. no television or bowl appearances until 1989 and restrictions on off-campus recruiting and the number of assistant coaches until 1989 SMU which signed no high school players to letters of intent this winter will now be allowed only 15 football scholarships per year (instead of the normal 25) through the 1988-89 academic year.
The committee report noted that the penalties were designed "to compensate for the great competitive advantage that Southern Methodist has gained through long-term abuses and a pattern of purposeful violations of NCAA regulations." Stallcup expressed disappointment that the sanctions were so harsh but said SMU would not appeal.
The proceedings were momentarily interrupted when Berst. who had been. suffering from a cold, collapsed as he was stepping away from the lectern. Medics examined him and he returned to the press conference 15 minutes later.
Despite the ruling, several questions remained conspicuously unanswered. Because the Kliever-Berst investigative team promised immunity and confidentiality to those players, boosters and athletic department officials who provided information to them—"It was the only way we could get anybody to talk to us." said Kliever—no names could be released or blame ascribed. "You try to get the people involved to pay the price, but we didn't have any names." complained Infractions Committee member Thomas Niland Jr., the athletic director at Le Moyne College. "That bothers me."
Although the NCAA did not reveal any names, the Dallas Times Herald listed 10 former and 3 current players who it alleged received slush-fund money in 1985 and '86. Among those cited were McDade. running back Reggie Dupard of the Patriots and defensive back Rod Jones of Tampa Bay. Another was former SMU linebacker David Stanley, whose tale of booster payments prompted the NCAA to begin investigating SMU—yet again—last October and who went public with his allegations the following month (see box, page 22). McDade. Dupard and Jones all denied any involvement in the case.
Two other figures left under a cloud by the payment revelations were former head coach Bobby Collins and former athletic director Bob Hitch, both of whom resigned in December and have not yet been replaced. On Sunday The Dallas Morning News reported that sources told it that Hitch had had direct knowledge of slush-fund payoffs to SMU players as far back as 1981 and that he was involved in the decision to continue the payoffs even after the school received its 1985 probation sentence. Hitch, contacted Sunday by SI. refused comment. The Morning News also said Collins was not involved in payoffs but quoted one source as saying that the coach "was aware that something was going on but didn't know the players or the details " Collins had told Orlando Sentinel columnist Larry Guest "I guarantee you one thing:' I'm not a cheat."
As for the unnamed booster, the Dallas Times Herald, citing sources close to the SMU athletic department, identified him as Sherwood Blount Jr., a Dallas real estate developer and sports agent. Blount, who played linebacker at SMU from 1969 through 1971. is a flashy, self-made millionaire. He refused to discuss the issue with SI but warned the Times Herald: "Please make sure you're right, because I hold you personally liable if you print that. If you're wrong, we'll go to court and prove you wrong."
Henry Lee Parker, the SMU recruiting coordinator who also resigned in December, said he had no knowledge of Blount's role, adding. "If you believe he's the only person involved, somebody better go out and turn on the runway lights for Amelia Earhart."
The misplaced largesse of boosters has plagued SMU's football program for years. Directed under the NCAA's 1985 probation decision to take measures to put his house in order, then-university president L. Donald Shields ordered nine boosters. Blount among them, "disassociated" from the university's athletic programs. Nevertheless, booster payments to players of up to $725 a month continued to be made through last fall. "[The rule breakers] view the world differently, like the criminal element does." said SMU theology professor Leroy Howe president of the faculty senate which last December called for the abolishment of "quasi-professional athletics" at the school "The university has been consorting with both juvenile and adult delinquents They think the only thing wrong is getting caught."
To be sure, many SMU backers resented the NCAA's action. "My Lord, they killed the program." said ex-booster Jack Ryan, a Corpus Christi cattle rancher and one of those Shields singled out in 1985. "Why do they pick on one small school all the time?"
"The university uncovered all it could and didn't wait for the NCAA to do it, and for that we got hit as hard or harder than we could have if we hadn't helped.'' griped Ted Cox. former president of the Mustang Club, a booster group. "It's going to be 10 years before we're competitive again."
Across the nation, however, most athletic officials lauded the NCAA's decision. "If you don't get the clear, vivid picture now as to what's involved. I don't think you'll ever get it." said South Carolina athletic director Bob Marcum.
"We deserve everything that's being said and written about us because we were guilty of those accusations," Patriot and ex-SMU running back Craig James, who works in Blount's Dallas real-estate office in the off-season, told The Boston Globe.
The future of SMU football looks terribly bleak. By next fall, assuming most of the current players transfer, the team will consist of 15 freshmen, a handful of veterans and several dozen walk-ons. As a result. SMU may decide to pass up the '88 season entirely. "The [NCAA] penalties and restrictions raise the possibility that we might not be competing on even a limited basis soon." said Kliever.
The financial impact of the suspension is hard to pinpoint. If SMU's football program were free of all sanctions. it would turn a single-season profit of roughly $1.2 million, including TV and bowl revenue. But denied those revenues last year, the program barely broke even. Presumably that would have been the case with this year's team. However, the football team does draw sizable donations from boosters: Mustang Club donations accounted for 23% of SMU's athletic income last year. If those donations drop, the SMU athletic department, which operated some $1 million in the red last year, could find itself with a huge deficit—perhaps large enough to force cutbacks in minor sports.
SMU's suspension dealt another blow to the badly bruised Southwest Conference as well. The loss of one conference member may seem problem enough, but with SMU suspended. TCU on probation and Texas Tech. Texas. Houston and Texas A & M all under NCAA investigation, it is possible that in the near future six of nine SWC football programs will be serving NCAA penalties at the same time, leaving only Rice. Baylor and Arkansas to compete for the league's Cotton Bowl berth.
SMU's latest football violations have even endangered the school's accreditation and funding (less than SI million) from the United Methodist Church. which has sent two special review teams onto campus during the last year. The church, which owns SMU lock, stock and shoulder pads, has asked SMU to deal with a number of problems in areas ranging beyond athletics. It could decide to put SMU on public probation or even to remove it completely from the list of Methodist-affiliated universities. "Its continued listing depends on its response to the concerns we have." said Roy Shilling Jr.. president of the church's accreditation body. "The fool-ball violations are a matter of great embarrassment and regret to everybody."
The people most unfairly hurt by the sanctions were the players who weren't involved in any wrongdoing. Tackle David Bryan said. "I was shocked when I learned it [the paying of money] was still going on." Added Bryan sadly. "I never thought my days at SMU would end like this." Two others who said they were not involved in any improper payments. Walters and Stollenwerck. sat at a Dallas burger joint last Friday, pondering their future.
"I was going to pay my fraternity dues next week." said Walters. "Then I said, why do that? All of a sudden, poof!—I'm gone. I've disappeared."
Stollenwerck. the son of a prominent Dallas attorney, is a third-generation SMU quarterback. While he plans to transfer, he hopes to return to SMU someday to attend law school. "It's devastating to my dad." he said. "My family had such a long line here. My grandfather was the quarterback for the first SMU Southwest Conference championship team [in 1923]. I get the feeling it was started with him and it's ending with me."
Watters grew up on the poorer side of Dallas and claims to have a first-hand understanding of improper recruiting inducements. "Texas Tech coaches offered to sell my tickets to alumni at $100 apiece." he said, repeating charges he has made to NCAA investigators. "They offered to set up a job for a girl I was dating in high school, and a place for me to live. It looked awfully good, but not good enough to make me go out to Lubbock to play football." A Texas Tech spokesman declined to comment on Watters' charges.
Watters doesn't understand why some of his teammates gave in to their greed. "There were no team meetings or anything to tell one another to stay clean." he said. "It was pretty much taboo to even talk about things like that. But we all figured, no way is anybody going to be that foolish to lake money now."
And yet it happened. Only time will tell if last week's death penalty will help deter similar behavior in the future. "I feel personally that the alumni are the biggest villains." said Watters.
"They were trying to buy us a better program." said Stollenwerck. "They bought us no program."
Berst (left) explained the NCAA decision as SMU's Stallcup and Kliever listened.
Players without a team (clockwise from top left): Jeff Jacobs, Stollenwerck, Watters, Dave Richards, Erik Mays and Mark Vincent.
When Watters and SMU lost to Arkansas in the '86 season-ender, their fans suspected they were seeing their last game for a while.
A MUSTANG ROUNDUP
Collins (left) and Hitch had split, and Watters (top), Cobby Morrison (below left), McDade, Stollenwerck and Richards discussed doing the same with some of the coaches from other schools who flocked to the Dallas fire sale.
JOHN HALL/DALLAS TIMES HERALD
Blount took issue with a "Times Herald" report that he made payments to SMU players.
Berst collapsed after making the announcement that SMU's football program had, too.