On This Date in Sports February 24, 1987: Death Penalty

In collaboration with the Sportsecyclopedia.com

 The NCAA hands out the harshest penalty it can apply to the SMU football program. Southern Methodist a power in the Southwest Conference s shutdown for the entire 1987 season, in what is called by the NCAA the “Death Penalty.” Also, losing all scholarships, SMU would miss the 1988 season as well as they were banned from television and home games. The “Death Penalty” left SMU in ruin as they had just one winning season over the next two decades. 

 

The Mustangs of Southern Methodist won a National Championship in 1935. They had sporadic success for much of the next four decades, but in 1980 under coach Ron Meyer rose to become a national power in the Southwest Conference. The Mustangs had potent backfield of Eric Dickerson and Craig James, that was nicknamed “The Pony Express.” However, with success came trouble as they were on probation and not allowed to play in a bowl game in 1981, after winning the conference title and holding the #5 ranking.

 

In 1982, Ron Meyer had left SMU to coach in the NFL with the New England Patriots, as Bobby Collins took over in Dallas. The Mustangs finished the season ranked #2, beating Pittsburgh 7-3 in the Cotton Bowl. The rise of SMU had the team playing their home games at Texas Stadium to accommodate the ticket demand. Success would continue over the next two years, as SMU went 49-9-1 between 1980-1984, which was the best record in the NCAA over those five years. However, at the same time, players were receiving payouts from boosters, leading the NCAA to put the program on probation again, stripping scholarships.

 

The loss of scholarships would create struggles for the football team as they posted back-to-back 6-5 seasons in 1985 and 1986. The latter coming within a year that the Mustangs we barred from playing on television. While the NCAA punished them, SMU continued to hide payouts in a slush fund that went all the way to the top levels of the Texas statehouse and Methodist Church. With continued flaunting of NCAA rules, the infractions committee began discussions of handing out the Death Penalty on February 6th, when the investigation was completed into SMU’s latest violations. The school tried to meet with the committee but was not invited to the discussions, as it was clear that the NCAA was getting set to drop the hammer. 

 

When the NCAA made its decision, it was clear that the message was sent as the SMU was banned from playing in 1987. In 1988, the ban continued as they were allowed to play on nine road games, a decision would be made by SMU not to field a team as they did not have enough players on the team, due to the continued scholarship ban. A scholarship ban, which was carried over to 1990. SMU was not allowed to play on television or play in a bowl game until after the 1990 season. All boosters involved in payouts were barred from contact with the football team. SMU had hiring limits for coaches and was not allowed to recruit off-campus until 1989. 

 

SMU resumed its football program in 1989, Coach Bobby Collins had been dismissed and never received another coaching job after the scandal. Now led by Forrest Gregg, the Mustangs posted a 2-9 record in 1989, losing to Houston 95-21 in one of the most humiliating losses in NCAA history. SMU posted a 1-10 record in their final year under probation as the NCAA’s penalties left their mark. 

 Life after death proved difficult for SMU as they had just one winning season over the next two decades. When the Southwest Conference merged with the Big 8 and became the Big XII, SMU was left without a conference, as they settled into the Western Athletic Conference and Conference USA. The Mustangs who were a power, playing at Texas Stadium now were not in a power conference and could not even sniff a bowl game until 2009 when June Jones took them to the Hawaii Bowl. After some success with Jones, SMU would move on to the American Conference, where they have resided since 2013. In 2019, SMU had its first ten-win season since the halcyon days of the Pony Express.