The past lends context to the present and can — can — guide the future.
A place called Southern Methodist University and the 1980s influenced a landmark decision in college athletics last week. Even if only subliminally, SMU remains a cause for pause in that realm.
On Monday, the NCAA handed Penn State University football a batch of unprecedented penalties — a $60-million fine, a four-year bowl ban, a reduction in scholarships, and the vacating of 112 Nittany Lions victories from 1998 to 2011. The punishment resulted from a child sexual abuse scandal involving a former assistant coach, and a coverup that enabled it to continue by four top campus officials, including late coach Joe Paterno, according to a university investigation led by former FBI director Louis Freeh.
Initially, university board of trustees members were angered by the severity, and that Penn State President Rodney Erickson accepted the NCAA’s ruling without their consent. By Wednesday, the trustees learned their hallowed program’s fate could have been more harsh.
According to ESPN.com, the NCAA considered hitting Penn State with a four-year “death penalty.” Obviously, college sports’ governing body took seriously the reprehensible crimes by Jerry Sandusky, convicted in November, and the university brass’ decision to protect the status of their football program instead of young lives.
Only once, in 1987, has the NCAA levied its “death penalty” on a major-college football program. SMU felt its impact for decades.
“It was a different place, and a different time,” said Kent Johnson, a former Terre Haute resident who then was a young assistant sports information director at SMU — his first job out of college.
Johnson was in the room inside the SMU student center on Feb. 25, 1987, when the NCAA announced its decision on SMU’s fate, following an investigation of brazen violations by what had been a powerhouse Mustangs football program.
Though the consideration of handing Penn State the death penalty — which amounts to an indefinite shutdown of a program — triggered comparisons with SMU, Johnson emphasized that the two cases are “apples and oranges.”
By contrast to Penn State, the scandal at SMU involved an entrenched system of recruiting violations, and a slush fund used to pay players. NCAA crackdowns were not uncommon among schools in the now-defunct Southwest Conference, and SMU had both a track record of past violations and fresh evidence of continued cheating that came to light late in the Mustangs’ 1986 season. By the following February, people in and around the Southern Methodist athletic department realized the NCAA had stiff sanctions in mind given SMU’s “repeat violator” status.
Mustangs football lived fast and loose, along with the rest of the Southwest Conference. At the outset of the ’85 season, when Johnson began working in the sports information office, Sports Illustrated ranked SMU No. 1 in its preseason poll. A few years earlier, the Mustangs and their “Pony Express” — led by future Hall of Famer Eric Dickerson — flirted with a national championship. The limelight and the Southwest Conference were not strangers. The league featured eight Texas schools and Arkansas, and produced national championships and perennial bowl winners, but also rampant recruiting violations. Reports of players receiving cash, cars and apartments were not uncommon. Only three of the conference’s schools — Arkansas, Rice and Baylor — escaped NCAA probation in the ’80s.
“It’s almost comical how blatant it was,” said Johnson, now 52 and serving as associate athletic director of facilities and event operations at his alma mater — West Texas A&M University.
It all came crashing down in February 1987. The NCAA Infractions Committee sent its head of enforcement, David Berst, to the campus to announce the penalties. SMU insiders expected the NCAA to reduce player scholarships, and strip away its non-conference games and ban the Mustangs from postseason bowls, which would deeply impact the athletic coffers.
On Feb. 25, the SMU student center was packed with reporters from around the country. The room temperature rose by the second.
“The university president [L. Donald Shields] is sweating through his suit, he’s so nervous,” Johnson recalled last week in a telephone interview from Canyon, Texas.
Johnson, just 27 years old, dutifully found seats for the visitors and reminded them to stay quiet during the news conference.
About 15 minutes into the session, Berst began listing the penalties.
“When he said ‘suspension of football,’ there was an audible gasp in the room,” Johnson recalled.
SMU received the death penalty. The NCAA canceled its 1987 season. It also banned SMU from playing any home games in 1988. Probation would continue through 1990, and a ban from bowl games and live TV through 1989. They lost 55 scholarships through the next four years. Current players were free to transfer and be immediately eligible elsewhere. Nine boosters connected to the cheating were banned from contact with the program. Assistant coaching jobs were slashed to five from nine. Off-campus recruiting and visits to SMU by recruits were prohibited until fall of 1988.
The punishment prompted SMU to cancel its ’88 season also, figuring it would be impossible to field a competitive team.
After delivering the news, Berst fainted as he exited the room, and Johnson held the door as others carried out the NCAA official.
“It was surreal,” Johnson said, “because it had never happened before, and it will never happen again.”
His prediction relates to the fallout of the SMU decision. “I think even the NCAA was taken aback by the devastation, not just to the athletic department, but the university,” Johnson said.
Days after the decision, a “meat market,” as Johnson put it, ensued as coaches from around the country flocked to the Dallas campus to woo the blue-chip Mustangs players. Thirty-five of the 72 athletic department employees got laid off, including Johnson, who quickly landed a position at Tulane in New Orleans. The university struggled with its reputation and enrollment. When its gutted football program returned in 1989, SMU symbolically moved its home games from the NFL-caliber Dallas Stadium to Ownby Stadium, an old 23,000-seat park with wood bleachers.
On the field, SMU’s swagger was gone, too. In the 1990s, the Mustangs’ record was 31-76-3, and just 34-84 in the 2000s. They languished, Johnson said. Not until the past three seasons did SMU returned to bowl games and steady wins.
As for the untamed Southwest Conference, it folded by 1996.
The historic tension of that era taught Johnson “how to act in crisis situations,” as he continued a career in sports information and college athletics management. That path included work in NASCAR, at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and Indiana State University, where he served as SID during the Sycamores’ appearances in the NCAA basketball tournaments in 2000 and 2001.
The SMU legacy also served as a lesson to other programs.
“The majority of universities in the country have learned from what the Southwest Conference did, not just from SMU,” he said.
The key word in that sentence is “majority.”
Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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