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The Loneliest LOSERS
Tim Layden
November 18, 2002
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
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November 18, 2002

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

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(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.

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