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Original Issue

The Loneliest Losers

Fifteen years ago SMU's powerhouse football program was obliterated by a pay-for-play scandal and the NCAA's first "death penalty." Since then 20 other college programs--including Alabama football this year--have qualified for the ultimate sanction, but all have been spared. Why hasn't the NCAA dropped the death bomb again? Much of the answer lies in the athletic rubble at SMU.

Briefly in September there were signs of life. For Southern Methodist's first two games of the season, home dates against Navy and Texas Tech, Gerald J. Ford Stadium was filled nearly to its capacity of 32,000. "Just like college football is supposed to be," says Jim Johnston, SMU '66, once a lineman and now a big donor in a luxury suite. But the Mustangs were defeated in both games, signaling another lost season in Dallas, and then dropped five more. When SMU finally won a game, defeating Louisiana Tech 37--34 on homecoming in mid-October, fewer than 15,000 fans were on hand, docile observers sitting under an angry gray sky. "Nobody wants to watch a loser," says Mustangs senior linebacker Vic Viloria.

Fifteen years have passed since the NCAA punished SMU for an elaborate pay-for-play scandal by hammering the football program with the "death penalty," shutting it down for a full season and crippling it so badly that the school decided on its own not to play the following year as well. The program still hasn't recovered.

First-year man Phil Bennett is the fourth coach hired to pull SMU out of the abyss, but the task remains daunting. SMU plays in the Western Athletic Conference, whose schools--Fresno State, Hawaii and Nevada, to name three--have no cachet in tradition-mad Texas. Many of the 81 Mustangs on scholarship are marginal Division IA players, and Bennett sells the future. Says sophomore defensive tackle Allan Adami, "I have no doubt that we're going to be better next year and the year after." A decade and a half has passed, and all that's left to hold is hope.

Late in the afternoon of Nov. 17, 2001, five members of the NCAA's Division I Committee on Infractions sat around a table in an Indianapolis hotel, considering the appropriate penalty to levy against Alabama's football program, which the committee had already found guilty of major rules violations. Colonial Athletic Association commissioner Tom Yeager, chair of the committee and a former NCAA enforcement investigator, asked that summaries of similar cases be distributed for comparison, including the committee's 1987 action against SMU.

As Bennett sees it, the SMU case is the NCAA's Hiroshima. "It's like the atomic bomb," he says. "The NCAA did it one time and created devastation beyond belief--and it's never going to be done again."

It certainly appears that way. With violations that included payments totaling over $150,000 to recruits by three boosters, the Alabama case marked the 20th time (chart, page 72) since the SMU program was leveled that a school faced the maximum sanction and was given a reprieve. However, Yeager says, "Alabama came as close to SMU as anyone ever has. We seriously considered the death penalty." Instead, the Crimson Tide's football program was hit with a five-year probation, banned from postseason play for two years and docked 21 scholarships over three seasons, among other punishments. The NCAA contends that Alabama avoided the death penalty only by means of its own vigorous cooperation with investigators.

Such a show of contrition by SMU might have spared the Mustangs as well, but two decades ago the football program and its boosters were defiant, arrogantly looking down on their Southwest Conference rivals from their perch atop the college football world. In 1981 the Mustangs missed a perfect season by two points and finished No. 5 in the nation. The next year, fueled by the Pony Express backfield of Eric Dickerson and Craig James, SMU went 11-0-1 and defeated a Dan Marino--led Pittsburgh team on New Year's Day in the Cotton Bowl to end up ranked No. 2. The Mustangs played their home games at Texas Stadium, where in November '82 a near-capacity 65,000 spectators watched the regular-season-ending 17--17 tie with Arkansas. There were whispers then that the team's best players had been bought, but with nothing proved, Mustang nation rode on.

The current atmosphere couldn't be more different. After a 24-6 home loss to Nevada on Nov. 2, Bennett's team was 1-9, his program still suffering from the sanctions. It didn't help SMU that college football's seismic conference shakeout of the '90s killed the Southwest Conference and left the Mustangs with little choice but to join the WAC. To its credit, SMU built a $60 million campus football facility, including the striking boutique stadium, but it has been sold out only twice since opening three seasons ago.

In the NCAA Manual schools found guilty of major violations twice within a five-year period, not necessarily in the same sport, are called "repeat violators." In June 1985, when booster activity across the nation was running virtually unchecked, turning college football and basketball recruiting into a Wild West shootout for the best talent, the NCAA membership approved a special penalty for habitual offenders. According to the manual, the penalty includes:

(a) The prohibition of some or all outside competition in the sport involved in the latest major violation for one or two sport 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.

No games. No coaching. No athletic scholarships. The new rule was quickly given an everyday title: the death penalty. Two months after the NCAA implemented the rule, SMU's football program was placed on probation for the fourth time in 11 years, putting the Mustangs squarely in the NCAA's crosshairs. In the ensuing 18 months, SMU was found to have made approximately $61,000 in payments to athletes from funds provided by a booster, with the approval of university officials as high up as former--and future--Texas governor Bill Clements, who was then chairman of SMU's board of governors. The school refused to fully cooperate with the NCAA, and on Feb. 25, 1987, SMU was hit with the death penalty. "I'm not sure what else would have gotten the message across to those people," says Ohio Valley Conference commissioner Dan Beebe, who as an NCAA investigator in '85 led the inquiry into SMU.

The football program felt it most. After two seasons off, the sport resumed in 1989 with alumnus and NFL Hall of Fame tackle Forrest Gregg as coach, but the Mustangs were saddled with onerous recruiting restrictions by the NCAA, most notably that no high school player could visit campus until he had been approved for admission.

Gregg won three games in two seasons. His successor, Tom Rossley, went 15-48-3 in six years, and his successor, Mike Cavan, went 18-28 in five seasons through 2001. After winning three Southwest Conference titles in the early '80s, the Mustangs went 0-24 against SWC rivals from '89 through '91. Following the '95 season the SWC disbanded, and SMU was not among the four Texas schools invited to join the Big 12. Everything turned on the '87 death penalty.

Since then 16 other schools in a total of 20 cases have been eligible for the death penalty. Kansas was the first, in 1988, for basketball violations. Texas A&M, Texas--Pan Am, Kansas State and Wisconsin each came before the committee twice as repeat violators. None received the death penalty. According to David Swank, a professor at the University of Oklahoma School of Law and chair of the infractions committee from '91 through '99, the case in his tenure that came closest to getting the death penalty was that of Oklahoma State's wrestling program in '92, for using camps for improper recruiting and for providing extra benefits. "Of course, a wrestling program can recover much more quickly than football," says Swank.

Along came Alabama. In 1995 the Crimson Tide's football program was placed on two years' probation for major infractions. (Among other violations, boosters had given $24,400 in loans to cornerback Gene Jelks, and defensive back Antonio Langham had played for the Tide after signing with an agent.) Alabama's five-year clock began ticking on Aug. 2, 1995. A basketball infractions case against the Crimson Tide was resolved in February 1999 with a finding of major violations, but no penalties were assessed because of the university's cooperation in the case. One year later NCAA enforcement staff members began investigating allegations of academic fraud and recruiting infractions in Alabama's football program.

Investigators found numerous violations, including an offer of $100,000 in cash and a sport utility vehicle by Alabama boosters to each of two high school coaches for delivering 6'6", 310-pound defensive lineman Albert Means of Memphis to the program. The NCAA also discovered payments totaling $20,000 by two boosters to recruit Kenny Smith, a defensive lineman from Stevenson, Ala. Investigators determined that at least two Alabama football coaches had had "frequent contact" with the boosters.

The money involved was more than was disclosed in the '87 SMU case, but, according to Yeager, "we never considered money amounts." Instead, Alabama avoided the death penalty, according to Yeager, by self-reporting many of the violations, cooperating with the investigation and proving, to the satisfaction of the infractions committee, that the violations were the work of "rogue" boosters and two assistant coaches and did not involve people in the highest levels of athletic and university administration, as had the Southern Methodist case. "SMU represented a broad-reaching conspiracy; this did not," says Yeager.

But if not Alabama, then who would ever receive the death penalty? If not a school that negotiated deep into six figures in the pursuit of high school talent and was nailed with its third set of major violations in five years, then who? "I can't say the death penalty will never happen again," says Kansas City attorney Mike Glazier, who has made a career of guiding universities through NCAA investigations. "I can say I don't expect it to happen again." Perhaps people in the SMU community are correct to surmise that the NCAA has seen the effects of the death penalty and determined that it works plenty well enough in mothballs and too well in actual practice. "When you see what has happened at SMU, how long it has taken them to recover," says Swank, "you say to yourself that we cannot impose this penalty except in the most serious of cases."

It is scant consolation at SMU that the Mustangs' football program is regarded as a living reminder of the worst-case scenario. But against this backdrop, SMU is trying to rebuild. Academic standards remain high, but football recruits no longer need be accepted before they can visit. University president Gerald Turner, who came to SMU from Mississippi in 1995, has overseen the construction of a mid-campus boulevard, a pedestrian walkway where fans can gather on Saturdays, as they do at the Grove in Oxford, Miss., "making the football game part of the campus experience," Turner says.

Bennett is a Texan to his core, a defensive end at Texas A&M in the '70s. He knows where to find players and how to talk to them. He will make the team better. "I had other job opportunities," says Bennett, who had been defensive coordinator at Kansas State. "I know what can happen here."

SMU has heaps of tradition. Doak Walker played for the Mustangs. So did Kyle Rote and Jerry Levias, the first black player in the SWC. Yet there is a ceiling. SMU needs to play in a conference with Southwestern flavor. "But that conference doesn't exist," says Johnston. The stadium is gorgeous but small-time, and Turner preaches a message of moderation that Bennett would have a tough time selling to blue-chip recruits. "I don't pretend that we're going to compete for the national championship," Turner says. "There's no reason why we should."

If the death penalty was intended to forever change a place, then it has succeeded here. SMU is chastened and fearful, with modest expectations. There is no place quite like it in college football. Probably never will be again.


COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES HOME ALONE Though Richard Bartel (13) led SMU to a homecoming win on Oct. 19, few were on hand to see it.

Given a REPRIEVE Since SMU got the death penalty in 1987, there have been 22 instances in which a school faced that same sanction. All received lighter punishment. Here are the 10 most notable cases.

DEFENDANT KANSAS Basketball, 1988

PRIMARY INFRACTIONS Improper recruiting inducements, contacts and entertainment

PROBATION: MAJOR PENALTY One year: no official visits by recruits; loss of scholarship

[DEFENDANT] MEMPHIS Football, 1989

[PRIMARY INFRACTIONS] Extra benefits; unethical conduct by student-athlete and coach

Five years: no bowl for two years; loss of scholarships

No games. No coaching. No scholarships. "I'm not sure what else would have gotten the message across."