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Condoned SMU Payoffs to Players : Even Governor Caught in Texas Grid Scandal

March 11, 1987|J. MICHAEL KENNEDY | Times Staff Writer

AUSTIN, Tex. — In Texas, football and scandal are close personal friends.

The competition among universities to lure and keep star players is so fierce that having a Southwest Conference school on probation or under investigation is the rule rather than the exception. As a result, most football tempests blow up and blow over as quickly as a Texas gully-washer.

But the scandal at Southern Methodist University in Dallas--holder of the harshest football sanctions ever dealt to a school--has grown stormier each day as more damning news unfolds about boosters with ready checkbooks, coaches willing to condone rule-breaking and a board of governors that did not stop the payoffs even after the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. ordered the board to do so.

The trail leads all the way to the state's seat of government. On Tuesday, after a week of intense pressure, Bill Clements, the newly elected governor of Texas and before that the president of SMU's 21-member board of governors, issued a three-page statement about his role.

Yes, said Clements, he had found out about the illegal payoffs to SMU players in 1984, when he was president of the university's board of governors.

Yes, he could have blown the whistle, but didn't.

Best Way to Proceed

Yes, he and a small group on the board had decided that the best way to proceed, despite the NCAA order, was to keep paying the players while at the same time trying to phase out such practices.

And no, he was not going to name those on the board, some of the richest and most powerful of the Dallas elite, who had decided to keep on cheating.

Clements said he had believed that keeping up the payments was "in the best interest of SMU, the Dallas community, the players and their families."

Others, including former Gov. Mark White, called the payoffs "hush money," designed to quiet players who might have blown the whistle if their under-the-table payments from the school's boosters dried up.

But Clements now was penitent.

"The decision to phase out the system of payments of SMU players was wrong," Clements admitted. "In hindsight, it is clear we were wrong. SMU is the victim of a system that should have been stopped immediately."

Leroy Howe, the president of SMU's faculty senate and a professor of theology, said late last week that he believed the running of the school had been taken over by the Dallas businessmen who made up the board of governors, and that within that circle was a smaller one that actually decided how the university was going to be run. That group, he said, forgot the purpose of the university, replacing it with the win-at-any-cost attitude that had been the cornerstone of their own successes.

'Might Makes Right'

"It does look like we are about to get an undeniable and blatant confirmation of what people have been saying for years, that governing the university has evolved to three or four of the most powerful men in Dallas," he said. "You had a situation here where might makes right. The university community has been betrayed.

"I think the corporate mentality naturally inclines them to feel they own the university," he said. "That's the way they built their businesses."

In his statement Tuesday, Clements, a Dallas oilman, insisted: "This is not an SMU problem. It's not a Southwest Conference problem. It's a national problem."

Caught in the Middle

A national problem it may be, but certainly it is a problem across Texas, where the Republican governor, who campaigned on a platform of honesty in government, finds himself squarely in the middle of its latest twist.

Of the eight Texas schools in the Southwest Conference, seven are now on probation or under investigation by the NCAA. Only Houston's Rice University, which rarely wins any sporting event, is free of sanctions.

Last Tuesday, the football program at Texas Tech University in Lubbock was given one year's probation. The University of Houston is now undergoing an internal investigation to determine whether the former football coach improperly paid his players with money supplied by the school's boosters.

Leads All-Time List

But over the years, scandal has been most prevalent at SMU, which, with seven NCAA probations, leads the all-time list of sports transgressors. On Feb. 25, it was dealt the NCAA's harshest sanctions in history, including the elimination of the 1987 football season.

While SMU was already on probation for other infractions, the NCAA said, 13 football players had been paid $47,000 during the 1985-86 academic year, and another $14,000 had been doled out to eight student athletes from September to December of 1986. The payoffs to the players came almost two years after Clements and other unnamed members of the board of governors knew that the rules were being broken.

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