Published August 21, 2011
If you think the emerging scandal at Miami is the worst college football has ever endured, you might not remember SMU.
Even now, what happened at Southern Methodist University in the 1980s casts a shadow over the Miami case, the most startling to come from college football's assembly line of embarrassments in recent years.
A former University of Miami booster and convicted Ponzi scheme artist says he provided Hurricanes players with cash, prostitutes, cars and other gifts from 2002 to 2010, and that several coaches knew and even participated as improper benefits were handed out.
The Yahoo Sports story about Nevin Shapiro's self-described misdeeds has many fans asking whether Miami — if the allegations are found to be true — could be in danger of having its football program shut down by the NCAA. The so-called death penalty has only been handed down once, to SMU.
SMU players had been getting paid with funds provided by boosters for years, and top school officials — not just coaches — were involved.
"In the nine years I served on the (NCAA) committee on infractions I never saw another one that was even close to what occurred in the SMU case," said University of Oklahoma law professor David Swank, a former NCAA vice president.
As serious as the Miami case looks, Swank said the violations Shapiro claims to have been a part of are not severe enough to warrant the Hurricanes being treated the same way as the Mustangs.
"In that case you had the involvement of basically members of the board of trustees and the regents," he said. "And it was repeat violations which made it a very serious case."
SMU had been sanctioned multiple times in the 10 years leading up to receiving the death penalty for recruiting violations, including being placed on three years' probation in 1985. But the money kept flowing because school officials, including former Texas Gov. Bill Clements, the head of SMU's board, were afraid that players already on the payroll would expose the cheating if they were cut off.
Miami football was hit with NCAA sanctions in 1995 after a financial aid scandal involving at least 50 players. The Hurricanes received three-year's probation, a one-season bowl ban and were stripped of 24 scholarships.
But that involved an entirely different administration at Miami.
At SMU, there was systematic cheating that had been going on for years.
"You had an infractions case and then very shortly thereafter you had a second infractions case involving many of the same people," Swank said.
"At Miami ... it looks like it focuses on one outlaw."
Much like the Miami case, the SMU scandal came to a head at a time when NCAA investigations were rampant in college football. Some SMU supporters claimed the Mustangs were merely trying to keep up with Southwest Conference rivals Texas, Texas A&M, Houston, Texas Tech, Baylor, TCU and Arkansas.
"Every school had been investigated," said Bo Carter, the former longtime sports information director of the Southwest Conference and Big 12.
"In the '80s, no one had very strong compliance programs. The conferences were trying to enforce things through self-policing."
The result, Carter said, was a "lawless mentality."
ESPN analyst Craig James, who with fellow tailback Eric Dickerson formed the famed Pony Express backfield for SMU from 1979-82 but says he wasn't aware of the rampant rule-breaking, said back then boosters had far more access to players and recruits.
"They could help in some ways with recruiting ... it was not uncommon to see supporters around the university back in that era," he said.
In the years that have passed since SMU football was shut down, rules have been tightened and compliance departments at universities that have major athletic programs have grown substantially. Yet in the last 18 months, Southern California, Ohio State, Auburn, Oregon, Michigan, North Carolina, Georgia Tech and LSU have all either been investigated or sanctioned by the NCAA.
"If the assertions are true, the alleged conduct at the University of Miami is an illustration of the need for serious and fundamental change in many critical aspects of college sports," NCAA President Mark Emmert said.
Earlier this month, Emmert led a group of university presidents — including Miami's Donna Shalala — in drafting an outline for changing academic standards for student-athletes and the parameters of athletic scholarships, as well for streamlining the NCAA rulebook.
They also talked about imposing stiffer penalties on rule-breakers and coming up with a sentencing standard to provide more consistent penalties.
"We absolutely must put this climate of rule-breaking behind us," Penn State President Graham Spanier said during the retreat.
Specifics on how remain unclear.
And all the talk doesn't necessarily mean the NCAA is about to start handing down more death penalties to send a message.
Julie Roe Lach, NCAA vice president of enforcement, told The Associated Press she senses a movement toward more suspensions for coaches and postseason bans for teams.
Emmert said the death penalty should still be an option, however, "I would only support the death penalty structure in very rare circumstances, so I don't know that people are as adamantly opposed to it as they are reserving it for the most egregious violations."
Ivy League executive director Robin Harris served on the infractions committee for 4½ years before leaving in the late 1990s for an Indianapolis law firm that sometimes represents NCAA rule-breakers. Harris said she never saw a case she thought deserved the death penalty.
"We didn't ever have a situation where we thought it would be appropriate, but we had some cases where it technically was in play," she said. "I wouldn't rule it out (being used sometime), but hopefully it would be rare and it should be rare."
The NCAA hit USC with some of the toughest sanctions in recent memory last year, banning the Trojans from postseason play for two seasons and taking away 30 scholarships over a three-year period.
Even coach Lane Kiffin acknowledges it could take USC football seven years to bounce back from the penalties.
SMU has never fully recovered from the death penalty.
The Mustangs were not allowed to play football in 1987 and school officials chose to cancel the '88 season, too, taking a year off to rebuild. But the damage was too great.
SMU's final AP rankings from 1981-84 were No. 5, No. 2, No. 12 and No. 8. After the death penalty, the Mustangs did not play in a bowl game until 2009.
James said SMU's punishment was too harsh.
"I can't say that we didn't get what was coming our way," he said. "But it absolutely put a cloud over our institution for 25 years. It lumped everyone into the same group of cheaters."
Swank agrees with Emmert that the death penalty must be used sparingly.
"I don't think it is appropriate to totally destroy an athletic program of an institution because of violations unless ... you go back to something similar to what you had in the SMU case," he said.
"I don't think the Miami case is one that really deserves that."
AP Sports Writer Mike Marot in Indianapolis contributed to this report.
Follow Ralph D. Russo on Twitter: http://twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP