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Life After 'Death'

SMU has never bounced back from NCAA's penalty to football program nearly two decades ago

December 28, 2005|Chris Dufresne | Times Staff Writer

DALLAS — Enter the trophy room at Southern Methodist University and feel what it must have felt to walk into a palace in which the royal family has hastily abdicated.

Monuments to a lost civilization stand and remaining artifacts tell of great triumphs, but Heritage Hall, as it is housed in meticulously kept, red-bricked Gerald J. Ford Stadium, is a mausoleum.

And it doesn't tell the whole story.

There is no curator to explain what happened after 1987, no cornerstone to commemorate the moment a government was toppled.

The words "death penalty" cannot be found in the written record and the acronym NCAA appears only in an exhibit honoring the basketball squad's 1956 Final Four run.

What you can find are the black, high-top cleats once worn by running back Doak Walker, the 1948 Heisman Trophy winner.

There is homage paid to Don Meredith and "Mustang Mania" heydays from 1979 to 1984, but no mention of homage payments.

You come across a newspaper account of SMU's 1935 national-championship season that ended on Jan. 1, 1936, with a 7-0 loss to Stanford in the Rose Bowl.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of SMU's only visit to Pasadena.

It seems unlikely that the school will pay another.

If the lasting image of SMU football remains the T-shirts with the picture of a deceased Mustang, on its back, legs pointed skyward, then it's fair to say the NCAA provided the buckshot.

Death came Feb. 25, 1987, when David Berst, then the NCAA's director of enforcement, reciting a litany of egregious infractions, announced that the football program would be discontinued for the 1987 season.

The school, on its own, elected not to play in 1988.

At one point during the news conference, Berst collapsed and had to be carried from the SMU student center, apparently having succumbed to the weight of this rendering.

"Maybe the legend's better than the real story," Berst, now a vice president of the NCAA, said recently. "It's hard to know what actually happened. I had a respiratory infection, but absolutely it was a very high-pressure situation for everyone."

The NCAA had only recently enacted a "death penalty" provision in which it could shut down a program for repeated violations.

The NCAA used it that once, on SMU, and has never used it again.

In 1982, riding the "Pony Express" backfield of Eric Dickerson and Craig James, SMU finished 11-0-1 and No. 2 in the country, behind one-loss Penn State.

The Mustangs posted a 51-5-1 record from 1981 to 1984.

Then, as Meredith used to sing on ABC's "Monday Night Football," they turned out the lights.

And the party was over.

Since returning to the field in 1989, SMU has gone 51-136-3 with only one winning season, 6-5, in 1997.

It appeared that fourth-year Coach Phil Bennett might be the latest SMU casualty before the Mustangs closed out a 5-6 season with three straight wins, probably saving his job.

Only three seasons ago, in 2003, SMU finished 0-12.

So, nearly two decades after the program was shut down, SMU football is still paying for its trespasses.

"It's like the nuclear bomb," Bennett said in his office. "I mean it really is. Nobody knew the devastation."

You didn't need a law degree to understand the background.

For years, in a hyper-competitive caldron of college football in Texas, top players were paid by boosters in a sophisticated and well-oiled system of compensation.

Periodic, if not inevitable, NCAA probations were seen as the price of doing business.

At SMU, a small private college in Dallas that took its football seriously, the sanctions kept piling up.

Few would deny SMU deserved to be punished.

"You can read the depositions, all the findings, we earned what we got," James, the former star tailback and now an ABC college football analyst, said. "It was rough. As a kid, you don't have a clue what was happening. That doesn't make it right. Everyone was doing it."

The bottom started falling out in 1985, when the NCAA sanctioned the football program for the sixth time since 1958.

Even fat-cat boosters and SMU officials knew it was serious this time, and they actually convened in March 1985 to figure out a way to "wind down" the payments to players.

The problem, as recounted in David Whitford's 1989 book on the scandal, "A Payroll to Meet: A Story of Greed, Corruption and Football at SMU," was that players on the SMU roster were still owed money.

It was at this 1985 meeting that SMU millionaire booster Sherwood Blount famously told his colleagues, "You've got a payroll to meet."

So the payments continued secretly.

The scheme unraveled in November 1986, when SMU linebacker David Stanley confessed to a Dallas television station that he had taken $25,000 from boosters.

More important, Stanley said he -- and, as it turned out, others -- had accepted money after the latest NCAA penalties had been rendered, which meant SMU was subject to the NCAA's "death penalty" provision.

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