SMU Death Penalty- Remembering That Day, 25 Years Later

by Dan M | Posted on Saturday, February 25th, 2012


Supporters of the SMU football program that were there for the announcement of NCAA sanctions on the program 25 years ago remember the day as cold, rainy and blustery on the outside, and extremely warm on the inside.   The combination of the crowd and the tension made it hot in the room where NCAA lead investigator David Berst came to announce the sanctions.  Reports in that morning’s local newspapers speculated what penalties would be announced.  They were the recommendations of Berst, and they did NOT include the suspension of play for the football program.  

There was hope that football would survive, retaining most of the current players and would be reasonably competitive in a few years.   That hope was quickly dashed when Berst took the podium to speak.  He announced the penalties, which provided for the suspension of play in 1987 and a reduction of the schedule to seven games in 1988, all of which were to be played on the road.

The combination of the heat and the tension proved problematic for Berst.  He fainted and fell to the floor as he left the podium.

For many SMU supporters there was a feeling of sadness.  Long time trainer Cash Birdwell wept openly.  There was also a sense of frustration with the NCAA – why us?  Even the most ardent fan at the time didn’t dispute that SMU had been involved with serious violations.  As one put it though, “It was like doing 80 along with everyone else on the highway in a 70 MPH zone.  You wonder why you’re the only one that got pulled over by the policeman.”  Other schools were committing the same type of violations.  The media had documented the transgressions.  Any number of schools could have been penalized severely.  Most received much lighter penalties or none at all.

One of the stranger sights of the day, and one the NCAA most likely did not anticipate, was the number of recruiters from other institutions that were on campus for the news.  They descended upon the Hilltop like buzzards, to pick at the carcass of the SMU football program.  The better players were besieged with offers from other schools, and the irony was that many of those schools were offering the same illegal benefits for which SMU had just received the harshest penalty ever assessed by the NCAA.

What proved more problematic for SMU football though was the school’s reaction to the penalty.  President L. Donald Shields resigned in November 1986, citing health reasons.  This was shortly after Dale Hansen’s Channel 8 report brought the subject not only to light, but to a full crisis.  Dr. William Stallcup, a professor in the geology department was named interim President.  One supporter characterized him as a terrific professor and a likeable guy, but he was no administrator.

There was a leadership void, and the faculty stepped in to grab the reins.  Academia was going to run the show.  There was definitely a negative bent toward the role of football in the University, and this was ironic.  The team prospered in the early 80’s, winning at least 10 games each season for four consecutive seasons at a time when teams played an 11 game schedule and there were no conference championship games.  Academia was a beneficiary of the note the football program brought to the University, as the number of endowed chairs at the University DOUBLED.  The academics were literally biting the hand that was feeding them.

Eventually, Dr. A. Kenneth Pye was hired as the new President.  He proved to be a disastrous choice.  Many alumni now feel the new regime was more of a problem than the NCAA sanctions.  As one put it, “The Pye penalty was worse than the Death Penalty.”

One of the first things Pye did was cancel the 1988 season.  Many if not most of the players would have stayed had there been just one season of football lost.  When SMU chose to extend the penalty to the second year, most players had no choice but to transfer.  They of course were the best players, such that when the program restarted in 1989, it did so from basically ground zero talent-wise.  Football was so pitiful in the beginning, that at one point there was strong consideration to giving up the school’s status as a 1-A football program.

SMU’s Board of Trustees was no help.  Dr. Pye left a position at Duke University to take the presidency at SMU.  He loaded the board with cronies from the east coast, who by and large had no sense of the university and its culture or history.

The administration then put even more stringent reins on the football program.  For example, prospective players had to apply to SMU and be accepted prior to being allowed an official visit to the school.  It took 20 years to undo the harm of regulations such as these.
Another costly decision was to return to an updated Ownby Stadium on campus when play resumed in 1989.  It might have been state of the art in 1935 when SMU went to the Rose Bowl, but even updated, it was vastly inferior to the standards of the late 1980’s.  One of the most pitiful sites was the proud University of Texas football team playing in Ownby.  The Texas players were forced to dress in Dedman Center, then walk in uniform across Airline to enter the stadium.  When the Southwest Conference ultimately broke up, the inferior football facilities was a significant reason why SMU got left out in the cold in conference realignment.

By the early 1990’s, fund raising became almost impossible.  Mustang Club members involved had trouble getting boosters to even accept their calls.  When calls were accepted, the supporter was more likely to give the caller an earful than make a donation.

There were certainly poor hiring decisions in the football program along the way.  SMU’s football fortunes didn’t turn around until June Jones arrived, the fifth head coach since the sanctions were levied.  He led the team to a 7-5 record in 2009.  That garnered an invitation to the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl, in which SMU handily beat Nevada for their eighth win.  That was 25 years between bowl appearances for the school.  Many thought at the time the sanctions were levied that the NCAA had killed the program.  They almost did.  It took more than 20 years for SMU to get rid of the damage done that day in 1987.

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  1. […] 25. 2012, the 25th anniversary of the announcement of the “death penalty” for SMU, Dic Humphrey of Sports Page DFW remembered the day the penalty was announced: Supporters of the SMU football program that were there for the announcement of NCAA sanctions on […]