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.