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THE SMU SCANDAL : FACING*THE*DEATH*PENALTY : Southern Methodist, Trying Too Hard to Become No. 1, May Be the First School Suspended

January 11, 1987|CHRIS COBBS | Times Staff Writer

DALLAS — While the rest of the college football world frets over such fluffy matters as a playoff system, drug tests and the Boz, folks here are preoccupied with a real stomach-churning issue--capital punishment.

Southern Methodist University, the most flagrant sinner in college sports, is being fitted for a noose.

The institution that gave football Doak Walker, Don Meredith and Eric Dickerson is facing the athletic equivalent of the death penalty, a two-year suspension from football competition.

When it comes to being nabbed for cheating, SMU is without equal in the jurisdiction of the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. The school has been on probation six times since 1956, four times in the last 12 years. Most of the violations have involved offers of cash, cars and jobs from SMU boosters.

A rash of new allegations last fall raised the specter of the death penalty, and the NCAA is expected to rule next month. SMU has cooperated fully and has conducted its own internal investigation in the hope of avoiding the death penalty, according to Lonnie Kliever, the school's faculty representative to the NCAA.

There is pressure on the NCAA to come down hard. In an editorial, the New York Times called the SMU case "a fine first opportunity" for the NCAA to invoke the death penalty. If SMU escapes with its football program intact, other schools might get the idea that no misdeed is too flagrant.

"At stake is the principle of whether sanctions should be constructive and rehabilitative, or destructive and punitive," said a source close to the investigations. "Our society wants neat, clean decisions about right and wrong, such as the rather primitive notion that if you're caught with your neighbor's wife, you'll get stoned to death."

Even if the punishment is milder, SMU may have to settle for a reduced program--which could mean getting out of the Southwest Conference. The faculty has been up in arms and if it has any say, SMU may start signing pointy-headed intellectuals to do the blocking and tackling.

It appears certain that there will be less emphasis on athletics, with the result that SMU will find it harder to be competitive in the conference. SMU currently has no football coach and, until the mess is resolved, little chance of recruiting any prominent football talent this year.

The prospect of not being able to compete with the Aggies and Longhorns and Horned Frogs is a spooky one. It's almost as if someone proposed a ban on cowboy boots, chili and pickup trucks.

For some SMU alumni and followers who help drive a city with a freewheeling business culture that exalts being No. 1, trifling with the football program is like messing with the free enterprise system.

Dallas is hardly alone in its fixation with the bottom line, but there are some here who believe that SMU's problems are at least casually linked with the expectation of out-sized success.

Many, if not most, of the school's problems can be traced to overly aggressive alumni and boosters offering illegal inducements.

At the NCAA convention in San Diego this week, a proposal to ban contact with recruits by boosters was adopted. Such a ban, if it could be successfully enforced, seemingly would go a long way to preventing the troubles that seem to stalk SMU.

"This wouldn't guarantee the exclusion of boosters but it would put the burden on the schools to patrol this area," Kliever said. "It could be a useful step, but the question of how you make it operable needs some refinement."

A lot of refinement, suggested Walker, a former Heisman Trophy winner and SMU's biggest football hero.

"I think the answer is to penalize individual athletes who cheat, not an entire athletic program," he said. "You can't control the actions of the alumni. This sort of thing goes on everywhere. It'll get done (cheating) one way or another. I think it's a terrible thing to punish a school for the actions of boosters."

That view may not make him the champion of idealists who would sanitize college football, but it's a view grounded in reality, according to Hayden Fry, who formerly coached at SMU.

"The alumni, along with some of the folks who live in Dallas, want to identify with the school," said Fry, now the coach at Iowa. "On a coffee break, they might be sitting with folks who went to other Southwest Conference schools, and it gets right down to pride. They take it upon themselves to help recruit. Money, scruples and ethics are no object."

The SMU mess could be an example to alert other schools to the danger of overly zealous boosters, Fry said.

"You gotta be strong enough to correct what's wrong, and good enough to do what's right," he said, drifting toward idealism.

There have been a lot of wrongs to correct on a campus sometimes referred to as Southern Money University.

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