Ponygate Revisited

For most people, the month of February is associated with Valentine's Day. When January ends and we turn the page on the calendar, our thoughts turn to ordering a dozen roses, buying candy in a heart shaped box and making dinner reservations.

There is, however, a group of people who are an exception to this rule — fans of the Southern Methodist University football program. They actually cringe when February rolls around, for it marks the anniversary of the darkest day in that school's long and storied football history.

To this day, there is not an SMU fan or alumni anywhere who does not wince when they hear the one word used to describe the events which lead up to the destruction of Mustang football.
The Southern Methodist University football program, the most punished in NCAA history, received the harshest sanctions ever — suspension for the 1987 season. It limited the school to seven "away" games, 15 scholarships and one coach for the 1988 season. SMU decided to voluntarily forego the 1988 season rather than play under those restrictions.

As such, the university's football program was essentially "dead" for two years. There are many who feel it still is.
The NCAA found that 13 football players were paid approximately $47,000 during the 1985-86 academic year. Those familiar with the situation know this was only the tip of the ice berg — there were a lot more players and lot more money involved. The joke around the Southwest Conference was that Eric Dickerson had to take a cut in pay when he went to the NFL.
 And in fact, SMU's history of violations, especially in football, was cited by the Committee on Infractions as one of the biggest factors in its decision. SMU had been penalized seven times, the most in NCAA history, since 1958.
There is absolutely no doubt about it — SMU was a dirty program.
As an academic institution, SMU enjoys an excellent reputation. It has a top flight business school and one of the best law school's in the state. Many people affectionately refer to the university as "The Harvard of the Southwest".
So the real question here is pretty simple — How did such a bad thing happen to such a seemingly good place?
The answer is equally as simple — ego.
There was a time when SMU football wasn't synonymous with rampant cheating and the death penalty. The Mustangs won a national championship in 1935. Doak Walker won the Heisman Trophy in 1948. In the late 1950s, future Dallas Cowboys quarterback Don Meredith was a two-time All-American who re-wrote the SMU record books.
In a wealthy city of big business and big money, SMU football mattered, sometimes filling the Cowboys' home, Texas Stadium. The excitement and insanity probably peaked in 1982, when the "Pony Express" backfield of Eric Dickerson and Craig James led SMU to an 11-0-1 record and a No. 2 finish behind national champion Penn State.

Meanwhile, SMU boosters were paying players tens of thousands of dollars. The cheating was so ingrained that when boosters met to figure out how to stop the payments, one famously warned the rest, "You've got a payroll to meet."
Even former Governor Bill Clements, then serving as chairman of the school's Board of Trustees, was part of the scandal, having authorized the payments.
The program never has fully recovered. There have been only two winning seasons and no bowl appearances since the penalty was handed down.

 "It is a penalty that is clearly intended to set back a program. It's probably not an exaggeration to refer to it that way," said David Berst, who headed NCAA enforcement at the time.  "I don't know that anyone could predict precisely what the impact would have or how long that impact would last."

Let's take a look at the impact in financial terms. At the height of the "Pony Express", SMU had an average home attendance of 41,000. This past season it was around 20,000. That is a difference of 21,000 fans. Assume SMU plays 5 home games per year, that is 105,000 fans a year. At $15 a ticket, that is $ 1,575,000 per year in ticket sales. That figure does not even take concession sales into account.

Allowing for inflation, and factoring in advertising revenue, a conservative estimate would put SMU's loss due to the death penalty at around $30,000,000.

However, even that figure could be drop in the bucket to what the real loss might actually be. Many experts feel that SMU, not Baylor, would have been the fourth Texas school to form the Big XII Conference had it not been for the death penalty. If that is indeed the case, the financial difference between being in the Big XII as opposed to Conference USA is enormous.

SMU has left a legacy for college football. Since Ponygate, college presidents have kept a sharper eye on their athletic programs. Self-reporting has become the standard early option to head off tough sanctions.

June Jones in now the head man at SMU. Interest in Mustang football is on the rise. Even though SMU struggled to post a 1-11 record this past season, most football experts acknowledge that Jones is a great recruiter and can rebuild this program.

That is, of course, unless history repeats itself.