When ESPN announced a year ago they would air their final 30 for 30 on the rise and detonation of SMU Football in the 80s, who could have predicted how symbolic the timing would be. The Pony Express examines the SMU cheating scandal and the NCAA decision to use the nuclear option for the first and only time in its history. The irnony is that the The Pony Express follows the 2010 Heisman trophy presentation where Cam Newton will be named the best player in the land.
I think Auburn is months away from being exposed for one of the most wide spread cheating scandals since SMU in the early 80s. What’s interesting is the similarities between Auburn in 2010 and SMU in the 80s.
Auburn cheating vs. SMU cheating – When it comes to cheating, SMU had it all. They had a little Reggie Bush (players living rent free in plush Dallas apartments) paid for by boosters. They had a little Cam Newton (recruits getting tens of thousands of dollars in cash envelops).
But where SMU went the extra mile was the school’s involvement. SMU’s recruiting coordinator was mailing cash envelops to recruits with the knowledge of the SMU athletic department. And like every good pay-for-play scandal there was the requisite slush fund. Only this slush fund was contributed to by certain members of the SMU Board of Governors and had the full approval of the SMU athletic department.
Bobby Collins was SMU’s coach and was fully aware of the pay-for-play scheme. While it has never been reported, you sensed that like Gene Chizik, Collins was brought in because he knew how the game was played. Forces bigger than the head coach were running the program, it was the coaches job not to interfere with that. Auburn knew Chizik was on the hot seat at Iowa State with his 5-19 record. They knew throwing him a lifeline would indebt Chizik to Auburn.
Eric Dickerson/ Cam Newton – Dickerson was the top recruit in Texas coming out of high school. He was set to attend Texas A&M and has later said A&M offered him a new Pontiac Trans Am. At the last minute he switched to SMU where boosters paid for a car and a healthily signing bonus. Insert Cecil and Cam Newton story here.
How Good was SMU – Pretty darn good. I wrote last year about their appearance in the 1980 Holiday Bowl. In `81 they finished the season ranked 5th in the nation. 1982 was their best team. The `82 team had Eric Dickerson and Craig James in the backfield and saw SMU win the Cotton Bowl over Dan Marino’s Pittsburgh team (at the time the Cotton Bowl was the equivalent of a BCS bowl).
In `83 SMU went 10-2 with losses only to Texas and Alabama in the Sun Bowl. In `84 SMU was again a top 10 team and beat Notre Dame in the Aloha Bowl. The win over Notre Dame ended the five year run of top ten teams. By 1985 the scandal broke and the rest is history.
Big Picture – what the cheating represented: I’ve read ESPN 30 for 30 paints the picture of SMU representing “the Dallas” lifestyle in the early to mid 80s. While it is certainly true, it misses the bigger picture.
SMU was the poster boy for the late South Western Conference. The SWC was ruled by Texas oil and the long list of millionaire boosters bankrolling SWC programs. SMU could have been any SWC school, they just had the bad fortune of playing in the biggest media market in the SWC.
Like SMU, it would be naïve to think Auburn’s current cheating scandal stands in isolation. Over the past five years, the SEC has experienced more league wide success than any other period in the Conferences history. This raises the question of whether the SEC’s recent success is a bubble about to burst like the SWC did 25 years ago.
The Death Penalty – The NCAA infractions committee cited the need to: “eliminate a program that was built on a legacy of wrongdoing, deceit and rule violations.” In doing so they cancelled SMU’s 1987 season, all SMU home games for 1988, and banned any TV appearances for SMU till 1990. They allowed all current SMU players and recruits to transfer without recourse. During that first week over 200 college coaches from 85 different schools descended on SMU to take away the scholarship players.
SMU went out swinging. Having destroyed their own program, SMU boosters proceeded to spend money implicating other SWC schools. They succeeded. A fund was devoted to bringing down other SWC schools and by 1990, TCU, Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech and Houston had all been punished to varying degrees by the NCAA. An exodus of high school talent left Texas and by the mid-90s the SWC dissolved.
2010 – It’s unlikely the NCAA does to Auburn what they did to SMU. The NCAA has learned the “death penalty” was just that: It was death to the SMU football program and the Southwestern Football Conference. The NCAA had no idea the destruction the sanctions they imposed would have.
Since SMU received the punishment, 29 programs in various sports have been eligible for the death penalty — All were spared.
Of the 29 incidents, the NCAA specifically mentioned the death penalty as a possible punishment in only five cases, but each school’s cooperation with the investigation helped diminish the punishments. To date, Auburn has denied any knowledge or wrongdoing in the Cam Newton scandal.