THE SMU SCANDAL : FACING*THE*DEATH*PENALTY : Southern Methodist, Trying Too Hard to Become No. 1, May Be the First School Suspended
While the rest of the college football world frets over such fluffy matters as a playoff system, drug tests and the Boz, folks here are preoccupied with a real stomach-churning issue--capital punishment.
Southern Methodist University, the most flagrant sinner in college sports, is being fitted for a noose.
The institution that gave football Doak Walker, Don Meredith and Eric Dickerson is facing the athletic equivalent of the death penalty, a two-year suspension from football competition.
When it comes to being nabbed for cheating, SMU is without equal in the jurisdiction of the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. The school has been on probation six times since 1956, four times in the last 12 years. Most of the violations have involved offers of cash, cars and jobs from SMU boosters.
A rash of new allegations last fall raised the specter of the death penalty, and the NCAA is expected to rule next month. SMU has cooperated fully and has conducted its own internal investigation in the hope of avoiding the death penalty, according to Lonnie Kliever, the school’s faculty representative to the NCAA.
There is pressure on the NCAA to come down hard. In an editorial, the New York Times called the SMU case “a fine first opportunity” for the NCAA to invoke the death penalty. If SMU escapes with its football program intact, other schools might get the idea that no misdeed is too flagrant.
“At stake is the principle of whether sanctions should be constructive and rehabilitative, or destructive and punitive,” said a source close to the investigations. “Our society wants neat, clean decisions about right and wrong, such as the rather primitive notion that if you’re caught with your neighbor’s wife, you’ll get stoned to death.”
Even if the punishment is milder, SMU may have to settle for a reduced program--which could mean getting out of the Southwest Conference. The faculty has been up in arms and if it has any say, SMU may start signing pointy-headed intellectuals to do the blocking and tackling.
It appears certain that there will be less emphasis on athletics, with the result that SMU will find it harder to be competitive in the conference. SMU currently has no football coach and, until the mess is resolved, little chance of recruiting any prominent football talent this year.
The prospect of not being able to compete with the Aggies and Longhorns and Horned Frogs is a spooky one. It’s almost as if someone proposed a ban on cowboy boots, chili and pickup trucks.
For some SMU alumni and followers who help drive a city with a freewheeling business culture that exalts being No. 1, trifling with the football program is like messing with the free enterprise system.
Dallas is hardly alone in its fixation with the bottom line, but there are some here who believe that SMU’s problems are at least casually linked with the expectation of out-sized success.
Many, if not most, of the school’s problems can be traced to overly aggressive alumni and boosters offering illegal inducements.
At the NCAA convention in San Diego this week, a proposal to ban contact with recruits by boosters was adopted. Such a ban, if it could be successfully enforced, seemingly would go a long way to preventing the troubles that seem to stalk SMU.
“This wouldn’t guarantee the exclusion of boosters but it would put the burden on the schools to patrol this area,” Kliever said. “It could be a useful step, but the question of how you make it operable needs some refinement.”
A lot of refinement, suggested Walker, a former Heisman Trophy winner and SMU’s biggest football hero.
“I think the answer is to penalize individual athletes who cheat, not an entire athletic program,” he said. “You can’t control the actions of the alumni. This sort of thing goes on everywhere. It’ll get done (cheating) one way or another. I think it’s a terrible thing to punish a school for the actions of boosters.”
That view may not make him the champion of idealists who would sanitize college football, but it’s a view grounded in reality, according to Hayden Fry, who formerly coached at SMU.
“The alumni, along with some of the folks who live in Dallas, want to identify with the school,” said Fry, now the coach at Iowa. “On a coffee break, they might be sitting with folks who went to other Southwest Conference schools, and it gets right down to pride. They take it upon themselves to help recruit. Money, scruples and ethics are no object.”
The SMU mess could be an example to alert other schools to the danger of overly zealous boosters, Fry said.
“You gotta be strong enough to correct what’s wrong, and good enough to do what’s right,” he said, drifting toward idealism.
There have been a lot of wrongs to correct on a campus sometimes referred to as Southern Money University.
SMU’s most recent probation was handed down by the NCAA in August of 1985. Under the terms of the probation, SMU was to be limited to 15 football scholarships this year and prohibited from appearing on TV or in bowl games through next season. Altogether, the NCAA found 36 violations involving illegal recruiting through money, cars and jobs.
In addition, nine boosters were identified as recruiting violators, and at least one, George W. Owen, was banned from any further involvement with SMU athletics.
The NCAA was back in town this fall, investigating new allegations. If SMU is found guilty of a second major violation in the last five years, the NCAA could disband its football program for up to two years--the so-called death penalty.
In November, former SMU football player David Stanley said in a televised report that he had been paid by officials to play at the school.
Stanley claimed that he and his mother had received $52,000, some of it after SMU was put on probation in 1985. Stanley said he was paid $25,000 to sign a national letter of intent in 1983, and that he also was paid $400 a month and his mother $350 a month through December of 1985.
Stanley presented envelopes bearing the school’s insignia and initials of assistant athletic director Henry Lee Parker. He said the envelopes had contained money from the school.
There was a further revelation by the Dallas Morning News, which reported that tight end Albert Reese was living rent-free in an apartment provided by the banned booster, Owen. Former employees of Owen’s real estate development company said that Owen told them to give Reese the apartment.
Those allegations were followed by a shake-up in the SMU hierarchy. Turning in their resignations were university President L. Donald Shields, Athletic Director Bob Hitch and football Coach Bobby Collins.
Officials hope the resignations will be viewed by the NCAA as a sign that the institution is committed to cleaning up.
In his tenure at the school, Shields demonstrated a commitment to improving the faculty and student body.
Shields, who cited failing health for his departure, took the SMU presidency in 1980 after serving at Cal State Fullerton. While he was at SMU, average Scholastic Aptitude Test scores of incoming students rose from 1,020 to 1,102, and the school’s endowment increased from $92 million to $282 million. Endowed chairs increased from 26 to 50, and Shields sought a more diversified base of students.
The SMU board of governors took a step toward stressing academics by voting to abandon special admissions for football players. Special admissions allow students to enroll under academic standards less stringent than those required for others, and are the practice at many major universities.
Before his departure, Hitch argued that without special admissions, SMU couldn’t remain competitive in the Southwest Conference. That led some on the faculty to conclude that the only reasonable course of action would be to withdraw from the conference.
Kliever disagrees. He concedes that the school may have a hard time producing a winning record every year, but he doesn’t think that all of SMU’s problems will disappear if the school withdraws from the conference.
“The intent is that the student-athlete in football will be subject to the same requirements as other students in the university,” he said. “Some of the guidelines that have been adopted would have a profound effect and would impair our competitiveness on the field in the short run. But, in time, I think we can build a tradition of academic and athletic excellence in the spirit of a school such as Stanford.”
One way or another, the trend toward academic excellence seems likely to accelerate in the wake of the mess in the athletic department.
The faculty seems determined to use the cheating scandal as a vehicle to produce more scholars.
“What I hear from a lot of colleagues is that this crisis presents us with a chance to do some major restructuring along the lines of academic excellence,” said Leroy Howe, professor of pastoral theology and president of the faculty senate. “The word crisis carries a double meaning, threat and opportunity, and I’m pretty hopeful we will have a reintegrating around academic growth.
“It’s sad Don Shields was blown away by the scandal and didn’t get the credit for bringing in faculty that takes academics and moral integrity very seriously. . . . The issue now is not if, but what kind of football program we will have here. I’d be very surprised if we come out of this with a program that can remain in the Southwest Conference.”
The issue of withdrawal from the conference is a touchy one, according to one of Howe’s colleagues.
“I’d be exceedingly surprised if we got out,” said the faculty member, who requested anonymity. “I don’t think the alumni would stand for it. People are using the phrase Southwest Conference as a catchword, like Commie or Yuppie, to identify bad faith or questionable practice.”
Although there is shame, anger and revulsion among the faculty, there is also a feeling that SMU can emerge stronger, cleaner, better balanced.
“Surely the cheating isn’t limited to SMU,” said journalism professor David McHam, one of seven members of the faculty senate executive committee. “In reality, what happened here may be the leading edge of what is going on nationwide, and that tempers the embarrassment somewhat.
“I think this will help the university weather any future storm that comes up. This is a strong school, considering all that has happened. I think our image will emerge intact. We will come out of this with better ways to give students a college education. We are in the forefront in that regard.”
In any case, the athletic department is in a state of animated suspension until the NCAA concludes its investigation.
The school has no full-time athletic director, no football coach and little or no chance of landing this year’s version of Walker, Meredith or Dickerson. Hiring and recruiting will have to wait for the NCAA to act.
“There is no one on the road recruiting,” said Dudley Parker, acting athletic director. “We have some graduate assistants monitoring prospects, letting them know we have some interest and as soon as we have a coach, we hope they’d be receptive to a scholarship. But we’ll be in limbo until we get a coach, and each day we get closer to the national signing date, Feb. 11, we know more and more kids are committing to other schools.”
Several coaches from other schools have contacted him in confidence and expressed interest in becoming SMU’s next coach, Parker said.
“There are coaches who still think we have a lot to offer and who would be willing to fight the battle with a short stick,” Parker said.
If the NCAA wields the big stick against SMU, it would be a misguided act, in the view of Owen, the prominent school booster.
“I love that school and I hope they don’t do anything to disband the football program,” he said. “I blame the media for some of this. I think they’ve been unfair. I don’t know of another school that could get under the microscope like we have and survive. I hope we get our program back.”
Owen, who reportedly provided Reese with the rent-free apartment, said that he had expected to be reimbursed when the player found an agent and signed a pro contract.
Owen was asked if he felt any guilt as a member of a Dallas business community that puts so much emphasis on achievement. “There may be some of that, yes,” he replied. “There may be a feeling of being overzealous.”
That sentiment struck a chord in former SMU football star Kyle Rote, a contemporary of both Owen and Walker.
“As far as being hurt or embarrassed, I don’t take any of this personally,” said Rote, now a sports consultant in New York. “I just think it’s a sad commentary on what attracts people. . . . It might have something to do with the business climate in Dallas, trying to be the premier city in Texas. They want everything to be the best.”
If Dallas differs from other cities, it’s only in degree, argued Howe.
“We are an acquisitive, success-oriented culture,” he said. “But there are appropriate ways, involving fairness, a sense of accountability, and trust. . . . It’s not just making a profit, it’s making a larger profit that really motivates people in Dallas. Excellence means being superior to everybody else.”
Last month, Howe described Dallas in these terms to another reporter:
“What lies behind SMU’s problems is the single-minded preoccupation with being No. 1, developing a reputation of unequaled achievement. The Dallas business community is the very embodiment of that ethos, where it has to be No. 1. There is a bank commercial in this city where the voice of Orson Welles is heard calling Dallas ‘the city with no limits.’ That sort of gets at it.”
The NCAA proposal to bar contact between boosters and recruits wouldn’t have prevented the morass in which SMU finds itself, according to Howe.
“Boosters would regard this (proposal) as being just another hassle to circumvent,” he said. “A lot of these people are not convinced it is good to control athletics in the ways the NCAA tries. Some people believe what is good is winning.”
Howe doesn’t count himself a naive believer in the notion that people or athletic programs can be perfected.
“One thing we must do is get academically qualified people playing the games,” he said. “But even if we clean up our act, I’m not terribly optimistic others will fall in line.
“We have done some unseemly things, and I am concerned about our image. But if we make significant changes, the image question will take care of itself. Do the right thing, and you don’t have to worry too much about image.”
Things are going to change here in the long run, McHam said.
“The great tragedy of modern education is that people pay lip service to academics but really prefer athletics,” he said. “That’s the real issue here: Not continuing in that vein.
“The people who go into the classroom and teach at SMU are in a position to do something about it. We are not being dragged along. We are taking the lead.”