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The History of College Football Recruiting Cheating- Part 8

This is the one I've dreaded writing. This is the one about the Longhorns.

All through these posts, I've adhered to the idea that if a school were penalized by the NCAA, it was breaking the rules. I've also subscribed to the idea that if a school were not penalized, it's not fair to say it was cheating (recognizing that some schools cheat and are not caught or penalized, it's a silly position to call a rival a cheater without reinforcing findings by the NCAA). So before looking at Texas, let's review some of the things we've learned.

1. The standards on what constitutes cheating have evolved through the years. Many old practices that shock us (boosters with formal roles in recruiting, players scalping game tickets) were legal at one time.

2. Not all scholarship offers from different schools are equal in value (value of degree, value of experience). Cheating serves as a way of equalizing the values.

3. To have an NCAA violation, you need a broken rule, and somebody to report it to the NCAA. Lacking one or the other, you don't have a violation.

The questions we have to deal with here are- Has Texas been a clean program? Has it ever been dirty, and if so, how dirty? Has Texas ever had its success tied to cheating? Let's look.

Darrell Royal was the coach at UT for 20 years, from 1957 to 1976. In that time, he won 3 MNCs, won the SWC 10 times, and finished ranked in the Top 5 nine times. His program was put on probation once, in 1964. In his book, Kern Tipps tells of how SMU coach Hayden Fry was so upset that the Ponies were turned in (by Texas and others, he assumed) to the NCAA for recruiting violations that he turned Texas in as a response.

Texas' violation was providing recruits with meal money on visits, which they could keep after charging their meals to their room. Royal claimed that he started handling recruits' meals that way because when he gave the player-hosts the money ($10 in 1964, equivalent to about $50 today?), they would take the recruits to cheap hamburger joints and keep the rest of the money themselves (not exactly the sign of a program where players are receiving extra benefits). The NCAA didn't think it was a big deal, and merely put Texas on probation, without any penalties.

Royal took pride in running a clean program. One of the first things he did as coach was to distance the boosters from recruiting (primarily because he didn't want their participation in deciding which prospects to chase, or their opinions of recruits' places on the depth chart). However, many of his penalized rivals (Fry, Switzer) said that they weren't doing anything that Texas wasn't. The problem with their claims against Royal is that there isn't much evidence to support them. It's hard to prove a negative, but let's try.

1. NCAA violations during the Royal era. Texas was penalized once, in '64, and the penalty shows the NCAA thought it was minor. In that same period, OU, UH, and TAMU were penalized three times, and SMU twice (their "best" days were ahead of them). This is not a perfect record (only Michigan has a perfect record wrt football recruiting in major programs), but it's certainly better than his peers.

2. Did Texas have talent out of proportion to its peers? No. Strangely, for such a dominant program, Texas did not produce many NFL players during the Royal era. He achieved his results with a bunch of good, and not very many great, players. Royal recruits were eligible for the NFL draft from 1961 thru 1980. He had 58 players drafted in that time period. For comparison, OU had 92 drafted in the same period, TAMU had 69 drafted, Houston had 70, SMU had 35, and Rice had 29. Royal was not grabbing all of the difference-makers, far from it. Most of his players looked elite while they played for him, and not so much after. Royal was one of the few coaches who actually did more with less. His peer programs, Alabama and USC, had 63 and 147 players drafted in the same 20 year period. If you're going to accuse Royal of cheating, you have to ask why he didn't get better players.

3. Specific accusations of cheating. Gary Shaw was an unhappy player in the Texas program in the '60s, and wrote an expose- "Meat on the Hoof", outlining the abuses he saw. He accused Royal of cruelty and callousness; he accused the program of covering for the players' academics. He did not accuse Texas of paying players or recruits. If Texas were paying players, and Shaw knew of it, it would have been reported.

I feel pretty confident that Texas was clean under Royal. It didn't have Michigan's record, but who does (besides Michigan)? While railing against Switzer, late in his career, Royal referred to the hyper-competitive Frank Erwin and said, "If I wanted to buy players, all I would have to do is turn him loose, and there wouldn't be any players left for anybody else."

There is a common myth that in the era before NCAA scholarship limitations, Royal loaded up with huge signing classes to keep players from other schools. That is hogwash, and can be easily disproven. Before NCAA scholarship limits, the SWC had a limit of 115 scholarships per team. An examination of the recruiting classes listed in Dave Campbell's annual Texas Football shows that Texas had no larger recruit classes than the other state schools in the SWC (the Ags had the largest classes by a small margin).

What about after Royal left? Well, ... uh. Although he stayed as AD for a few years, Erwin made it clear that DKR was not hiring the next coach (Akers), nor running the football program in a truly supervisory manner. Using the standards that were applied above to Royal's program, it appears that Texas wasn't lily-white after Royal retired. This was a wild time in SWC recruiting. Integration had doubled the talent pool, and every program in the SWC was recruiting the whole state. There were a lot of competitions and a lot of bidding wars. In that time period, Texas competed for talent as well as anybody.

In this era, there were bidding wars.

Let's look at NFL draft picks from 1981 (when the first post-Royal class was eligible for the draft) thru 1989 (when the SMU death penalty had a chance to scare local programs straight). In that period, Texas had 55 players drafted. OU had 53. TAMU had 42. SMU had 26 (many of their draft-eligible recruits finished at other programs, post-death penalty). Houston had 23 drafted. In other words, after Royal left, Texas collected as much elite talent as anybody.

Now some of that recruiting success can be attributed to the program's stature, the university's reputation, and the wonderfulness of an Austin with a population less than Arlington has today. But could it be that Texas was playing it a little fast and free with the rules? The NCAA reports indicate so. Texas was found guilty of infractions in 1985. The report follows the typical format from the NCAA Compliance Commitee - excessive benefits from boosters (trips, meals, ticket scalping) during recruiting, Texas cooperated with the investigation, penalties were assessed, yadda-yadda.

Texas was probably turned in by Marcus Dupree, because the highlight violation was a pair of cowboy boots he received on his trip. Dupree tried them on in a store, walked out wearing them, and the recruiting coach was stuck with the tab. He told Dupree he wouldn't pay for them, but when Dupree walked out he was faced with either forking over the cash or allowing the best running back in the nation to be arrested on his visit. Unfortunately, he chose the former. The NCAA was keenly following Dupree's recruitment (see "The Courtship of Marcus Dupree" by Willie Morris), and interviewed Dupree after signing day to discover violations.

This was very embarrassing to UT. The university was in a period where its national reputation was growing, and did not want to be known as a sell-out for football success. Then, a couple of years later when SMU was given the death penalty, bitter Pony boosters hire PIs to dig up what they could against all rival schools they felt betrayed them. Texas was one of them, and the NCAA began a new investigation (censured SMU alum Sherwood Blount issued a public letter gloating about this investigation). There were allegations of ticket scalping, payer payments, and gifted cars. This time, Texas responded differently.

The final 1987 infractions report is different from the standard template. Typically, these reports find no violations beyond the initial allegations. In this case, Texas' internal investigation turned up several other violations, including payments to active players. It was nickel-and-dime stuff (loaned cars, loans for bail bonds, $20 for gas, often repaid), but until now schools usually used internal investigations to determine what goods the NCAA had on them, not to truly investigate their sins. Texas actually revealed several more violations, proposed several corrective actions, including requiring players to provide detailed records of their automobile purchases or leases, and the NCAA said that the 2-year probation could be reduced to one if these actions were actually taken (they were). UT lost some scholarships and some allowed recruit visits, but overall the NCAA took it easy on them for fessing up. Note- the NCAA was not so understanding when TCU self-reported paid players, and gave the Frogs what Jim Wacker called "the living death penalty".

It appears that UT actually did bow out of the recruiting wars of the '80s in the SWC, maybe a few years after some schools but certainly a few years before some others (Texas never recruited Hart Lee Dykes!). The quality definitely dropped, and Texas had losing records three of the next four years. When I reviewed the Dave Campbell Texas Football magazines from the late '80s, I was surprised to see that Texas was generally the consensus #2 recruiting class in the state, behind TAMU.

There were comments about Texas that were very similar to what is written today about TAMU recruiting ("Although Texas missed out on the consensus #1 RB, the Longhorns did sign Joe Dropfoot, who many experts feel could end up being as good"). Of course, a lot of the high rankings of the Longhorns' classes may be an over-rating of the recruits simply because they committed to Texas ("If Texas is recruiting Sidney Bigcigarson, he must be better than we thought"). The classes certainly didn't perform as if they were in the upper echelon of talent.

If Texas did put itself at a disadvantage by cleaning up its act, it was only for a short time. The SMU death penalty frightened every regional program, as almost all were only one more major violation away from receiving similar treatment. One disgruntled player, one bitter ex-wife of a booster, one investigative reporter...and any program could be hit hard and maybe shut down. That's why you saw programs like OU and TAMU drop their coaches at the first sign of trouble in the late '80s. In the past, they might have rode out the scandals, but now...

My suspicion is that the SWC of the early '90s was quite a bit cleaner than it was 10 years prior. I think this may be why we saw so many more blue-chip recruits leave the state (from about 40% in the '80s to about 60% in the '90s). I think the out-of-state schools were still able to offer the benefits that the SWC schools dared not.

Texas is at no significant disadvantage now. The current staff is good enough at selling the school, the city, and the program to make up most of any disadvantages caused by a poor benefits package. If we are less competitive with grade risks, it's by our own choosing. So, let's answer the questions at the top.

Has Texas been a clean program? Mostly, but we have been on probation, and for a reason. In the '80s we let our boosters get too close to recruiting.

Has Texas ever been dirty, and if so, how dirty? Yes, a little dirty, during the '80s. You might say that we weren't as dirty as several rivals at the time, and I'd ask if "being not as bad as our rivals" was the standard we aspired to. I don't believe we ever participated in bidding wars, because we never signed the guys who famously put themselves on the auction block (Marcus Dupree initially committed to us, but he was using us as a "stalking horse" to gin up the other offers; he wouldn't give the assistant recruiting him to Texas the time of day the last two months before signing day).

Has Texas ever had its success tied to cheating? The great successes of Darrell Royal are not tied to cheating. The successes of the '80s were achieved in a period when we were stepping over the ethical line. We were on probation twice, and we brought in a lot of talent. If we had run the program then as we do now, it's quite possible we would not have had a team in '83 talented enough to provide 20 draft picks to the NFL.

My opinion is that the success in the early '80s is partially a result of breaking rules. We can debate how much all day, but because we were found guilty by the NCAA we can't deny the debate altogether. That's the trap you fall in when you break the rules. Any successes post-'87 are clean.

There you have it. That's my take. If anybody wants to make any contrary claims or allegations, please supply attributions or sources (let's not have any blanket "Come on, everybody cheated"; it's unseemly).

We're going to wrap this series up later this week (real football discussion should pick up soon), with a review of one of the weirdest recruiting scandals ever (the George Smith kerfuffle), and the most wheels-off NCAA infractions report ever (the Houston report).