DALLAS — The strange, sad story of an offensive lineman with a bad knee led to the NCAA's decision to hand the Southern Methodist University football program one of the stiffest penalties in NCAA history.
It was Sean Stopperich, a former high school star in the Pittsburgh area, and his family who told the NCAA of receiving $11,020 in cash from an SMU booster or boosters during an eight-month period in 1984, according to a source close to the case.
The Stopperich allegations were the most telling part of the violations determined by the NCAA Committee on Infractions, endorsed by the NCAA Council and announced a week ago by the NCAA.
The NCAA deletes names from its announcements, however, the source confirmed that the journey into the Sun Belt by Stopperich and his family is the story behind what the NCAA publicly calls "violations in the recruitment and subsequent enrollment of Prospect No. 1."
The NCAA has placed SMU on three years probation with sanctions that include a loss of 45 scholarships--all scholarships in 1986 and 15 (of the possible 30) in 1987--and no bowl appearances after the 1985 and 1986 seasons.
The most critical violation found by the NCAA involves a "representative of the university's athletic interests" visiting a recruit and the recruit's family at a hotel near the recruit's home on Feb. 5, 1984, four days before the signing date.
During the visit, the NCAA found, the representative gave "at least $5,000 cash" to the family and promised to provide help in the father's search for a job in Dallas, a rent-free apartment near the job and a $300 monthly cash allowance for the athlete while he was enrolled at SMU. The promises were made in exchange for family members' signatures on a postdated letter of intent, the NCAA found.
These violations--and a web of others that followed after the player signed with SMU--were documented by the NCAA, according to the source, for SMU's recruitment of Stopperich, an All-America offensive tackle at Canon-McMillan High in Canonsburg, Pa.
Stopperich made an oral commitment to attend the University of Pittsburgh about two weeks before the signing date. Then he made a sudden switch to SMU.
"After I decided on Pitt, I started going up there and working out with the guys," Stopperich said last August. "I had always been a Pitt fan, and I thought it would be great. But after a week, I just had the feeling I didn't belong there. I really wanted to be at SMU. So the day before signing date, I called Coach (Bobby) Collins back and said I was still interested. They came back up, we talked it over and I decided on SMU."
A year ago, Collins hailed the signing as a coup for SMU. "It's that kind of thing that will enable us to stay on top," he said. "We seem to have that type of appeal nationally that enables us to go into competitive areas and recruit the top players in the country. Basically, we are still a Texas football team. But signing kids like Sean makes it much more possible to go outside Texas and have success again next year."
Dallas gave the Stopperich family an escape from hard times in Pittsburgh. Last summer, Sean, his parents and his sister pulled up roots and moved south. They lived in an apartment near Dallas. Sean's father, Carl Stopperich, had lost his job in a steel mill, but he found work in Dallas restoring buildings--cleaning carpets after fires and so forth--and enrolled at North Texas State.
"We planned on staying," Sean's mother, Sophia Stopperich, said recently. "We had no intention of leaving."
But somehow their new life soured. In September, Sean withdrew from SMU and returned to Pittsburgh.
He had become discouraged by a knee problem that required him to wear a heavy brace, Collins said at the time, the result of surgery after his junior season in high school. "He was highly recruited, and things just weren't working out the way he had hoped they would," Collins said then. "The knee wouldn't allow it. We were hoping he would stick around and give it a chance, but he didn't."
Soon after Sean went back to Pittsburgh, his family followed. The NCAA was right behind them.
The Stopperich interviews in the fall of 1984 were a major break in the NCAA's preliminary inquiry into the SMU football program, an inquiry that was a year and a half old at the time. NCAA investigators left Pittsburgh with four to five legal-size pages of information, according to sources familiar with the investigation, information that would spill onto the front pages of the nation's sports sections.