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The History of College Football Recruiting Cheating- Part 7

I'm concerned that this review of cheating in recruiting is too Southwest-centric. I'm sure the SEC is full of great cheating lore and examples; it's just that the SWC cases are so much more...blatant. You have the combination of a rich talent pool fished by several programs, along with fiercely competitive boosters loaded with cash. It was a volatile situation.I suspect there is no better case study than SMU. I can think of no program that cheated more brazenly, successfully (for a time), and recklessly. It didn't just start in the late '70s. SMU is on the NCAA infraction books almost from the opening pages, up until the Death penalty finally shut it down. SMU was put on probation in the '50s (coach Bill Meek) for giving players jobs they weren't qualified for and providing recruits with illegal benefits. It was put on probation again in the early '60s (coach Hayden Fry) for more of the same. In the early '70s, the NCAA penalized the Mustangs (coach Dave Smith) for paying players for big plays in games and practices, and for coaches purchasing their game tickets at inflated prices (sadly, by this time the open market was not valuing SMU tickets at a premium). The 1974 probation was extended one year for unsatisfactory institutional response. The NCAA got them again in the early '80s (coach Ron Meyer) for still buying tickets, and for illegal recruiting benefits provided by boosters. In this report, the NCAA expressed frustration that SMU was still committing violations so soon after the last penalties.

In the mid-80s, SMU was busted (coach Bobby Collins), again, for even worse violations. The Ponies were caught paying bonuses for recruits, and having players on $300/month salaries. The NCAA hit them hard, and SMU pledged to disassociate the culpable boosters and to curtail the payments. The Mustangs did neither, and the NCAA gave them the Death Penalty, shutting down the football program for one year (SMU extended it a year to help recover).

Basically, for less than 30 years SMU maintained a culture of buying recruits, through all coaching regimes, despite whatever notoriety it gained, or punishments levied. How could this happen at a proud academic institution (SMU is a fine school), a church-sponsored university, no less? Let's look a little deeper.

SMU is a nice private liberal arts school in Dallas. Dallas has only recently had any kind of public university, so for all of its history SMU has been the city's flagship. The Methodist church helped found it, but has historically only been one facet of its governance. The civic leadership sponsored the school, looking out for its interests, until the city government was reformed in the '70s.

The culture of the school has been exclusive for several decades. Tuition is high, students are typically affluent, and per a business school dean, the #1 reason for students transferring is that they didn't get into the fraternity or sorority they wanted. Enrollment today is more than Rice's, and significantly less than Baylor's.

Dallas, of course, is football-crazed. There has been a lot of talent generated by the HS programs in the area. Traditionally, with the exception of the Pony Express era, SMU's strategy was to use the Dallas talent as a foundation. Before the institution of the NCAA recruiting rules, the Mustangs were a traditional powerhouse. They recruited very effectively (from 1949 to 1960, 26 Mustangs were drafted by the NFL, more than OU's 22 or UT's 17), gaining elite talent like NFL HOFers Doak Walker, Forrest Gregg, and Raymond Berry, as well as other future pro stars like Kyle Rote and Don Meredith. Life was good for SMU football players, since having a top football program was important to the Dallas businessmen who were the primary SMU boosters. SMU football was played in the Cotton Bowl (known as the "House That Doak Built", referring to three-time All-American and Heisman winner Doak Walker), and the support was so great that the stadium had to be expanded to hold over 60,000.

Then, two things happened. The NCAA passed legislation in the '50s that put limits on what could be offered recruits, and professional football came to Dallas, and played in the same stadium that the Mustangs did- the Cotton Bowl. Neighboring schools UT and OU targeted the same recruiting area that SMU did, and they were on TV more often (this was the era where there were limits to how often a school could be on the one network that showed the games). SMU crowds dwindled as the local football fan with no reason for an SMU affiliation defected to the Cowboys. Attendance in the '60s dropped to half of what it was 20 years earlier, and that was with the city of Dallas growing exponentially.

This all had an impact on SMU's appeal to recruits. Also, don't downplay the cultural disconnect between the campus culture and the rural kids and inner city youths that SMU targeted. SMU was not the only program struggling with this transition. Very similar stories were playing out at Rice, TCU, Tulane, and Northwestern for almost the same reasons. SMU's AD was structured differently than those schools, though, and they weren't going to be brought down by these market forces.

Rather than slip into insignificance, the boosters driving the SMU program decided that an SMU athletic scholarship would be augmented to be similar in value to any other program's. Remember, these were boosters, and they may have felt more loyalty to the program than to the school. They were allowed to help recruit, and the only check on their actions were the limits given them by the coaching staff...who were the same guys giving them the names of the recruits. Through the '60s, '70s, and '80s, the school itself was not too interested in regulating the Athletic Department. Perhaps it was because they realized how big of a crisis athletics were in.

Ron Meyer was hired in the late '70s. He was very ambitious, and decided he would bring in as much talent as he could and deal with the consequences later. His arrival coincided with a new marketing plan, "Mustang Mania", and many in the press bought the idea that the marketing campaign was responsible for the quantum leap in recruiting.

Unfortunately, by any marketing metric, Mustang Mania was not a success. SMU moved to Texas Stadium, and couldn't come close to filling it unless they were playing the Longhorns. In 1982, when SMU finished #2 in the country, they averaged only 40K in attendance, even with Heisman candidate Dickerson paired with Craig James.

Make no mistake- under Meyer SMU ramped up the cheating, and it worked amazingly well. The book, "A Payroll to Meet", lays out in detail how the SMU staff expanded their recruiting to Houston, and actively entered bidding wars against any and all. They won most of them, and the Mustangs got very good, very fast. From 1981 to 1987, 26 Mustangs were drafted, with four in the 1st round. These rosters had players like Eric Dickerson, Craig James, Micheal Carter, Jerry Ball and Wes Hopkins.

The other SWC programs were upset, and got the athletes that turned down SMU offers to report the Ponies. This started the NCAA investigation. The way these things work is that a report is made to the NCAA, they investigate enough to establish whether there is something to it, and they then give their findings to the offending school for a response. Typically, the school will start an "internal investigation", which 30 years ago meant the AD would figure out what they could hide and what they couldn't. They would deny what they could, and fess up to what couldn't be proven.

These violations resulted in the 1981 probation, where SMU was not eligible for the SWC championship or post-season. This didn't affect Meyer, who bolted to the NFL, nor SMU, who hired Collins to replace him and kept on buying recruits.

There are some amazing stories from this time. Per the NCAA reports, the standard SMU deal was $300 per month. The typical car was a 280Z. "A Payroll to Meet" shares the story of Dickerson committing to TAMU, driving a maroon Trans-Am to Dallas after he switched to SMU, and getting a Z-car the next year.

The young SMU boosters who did the recruiting were wild and unrestrained. They used football recruiting as a networking tool, since it gave them access to the big cigar Dallas businessmen who funded the recruiting payouts, but would never get down in the mud and do the dirty work of visiting a Houston housing project to woo an 18 year old running back. These young boosters were far more afraid of reporting failure to a big cigar than they were of the NCAA.

The 1985 NCAA investigation was much more revealing of the true sordid situation. The NCAA report outlines promised payouts- thousands for a recruit to sign, and hundreds per month while on the team. Note that the vast majority of the violations involved recruits who went elsewhere, not actual team members receiving benefits. SMU went through the internal investigation dance, and the NCAA penalized them with scholarship reductions, TV ban, and a post-season ban. The penalties also required SMU to disassociate with four boosters who were the key recruiters.

Shortly thereafter, key members of the SMU board made the decision to continue the payouts. Reportedly, one of the penalized boosters told them, "You have a payroll to meet." This was a veiled threat that if payouts didn't continue, other players would start squealing, leading to another investigation.

Unfortunately for SMU, not every paid player had a successful career, and as they were dropped from the roster, the payouts ended. These disgruntled players complained to the media, and the whole house of cards collapsed. Although all of the coaches and boosters refused to cooperate, the school leadership stepped up and conceded the wrongdoing.

The NCAA applied its new punishment- "The Death Penalty", where scholarships and competition were curtailed for a year. The school president, board leadership, AD, and coach were all replaced by the school in the aftermath as other institutional stakeholders (faculty, alumni) reasserted control.

In one final, crazy scene, swarms of recruiters from other schools across the nation descended upon the campus to swoop up the free agent players. Almost all got scholarships to other D-1A schools, and several went on to successful NFL careers.

SMU restarted its program, with new institutional rules. By now, the NCAA had banned booster involvement in recruiting, and the SMU faculty insisted upon tighter academic standards for recruits. A lot of SMU supporters will claim that the Mustangs' diminished fortunes since 1986 are a result of the Death Penalty, but I'm not sure. It appears that SMU, a private school with limited appeal to the typical recruited athlete, has enjoyed the same fortunes as its peers- Rice, Tulane, and Vanderbilt. It can approach .500 in a good season, occasionally has a true elite player, and struggles to get 20k in the stands.

Next, it's time to review Texas' history.