This article is some of my old content from last year that needed a new home
Unofficially, SMU won two national championships during the period covered in Thaddeus D. Matula ESPN 30 for 30 film, Pony Excess. But, is there an official NCAA Champion for 1981 and 1982? The answer is no. You've never seen a trophy handed out at the end of the season for the FBS champion like the three FCS Appalachian State was awarded in the picture above. In SMU's case, people don't remember the two championships that were awarded that counted for less than the NCAA recognized champions for those years, Clemson and Penn State. What you know about the SMU Mustangs is that they received the "death penalty" for a pay for play scheme. It wasn't a death penalty in a strict sense as SMU is going to play in their second consecutive bowl game after finally overcoming the postseason drought the death penalty supposedly induced. A decision not to take the football program seriously can be more of a death sentence than an NCAA reduction of scholarships and recruiting visits or TV bans, etc. For example, New Mexico State has not been to a bowl game since 1960. Head Coach DeWayne Walker was reduced to asking the Las Cruces community for snacks for his players. New Mexico State isn't going bowling this year and likely won't be for some time because it isn't a priority for the school. If suddenly fielding a great football team was a priority, as it was for SMU and its boosters in the 1970s and 80s, what's stopping a school from pulling it off besides NCAA regulations?
My question is why are the FBS programs submitting to an organization's regulations that has never awarded a championship to the champions of major college football? SMU wasn't playing the NCAA's rules and was paying players and continued to do so after the school was on probation. Afterwards, the school itself decided to impose a harsher penalty than the NCAA by canceling the 1988 season and treating the program like a non-entity for nearly two decades. SMU should have fought harder...and so should have everybody else. Only six institutions out of the 433 which voted at the 1985 meeting in New Orleans which wrote up the "repeat violator" penalty voted against the measure. SMU was certainly one of these schools, as were other schools in the Southwest Conference of which SMU was a member at the time. SMU had to scale back their whole athletic program because of the revenue lost from football. All athletics at SMU was harmed by a sport which the NCAA refuses to officially sanction by awarding a championship in or even run its postseason. How does that make sense? After seeing the impact that the death penalty had on SMU, it is unlikely that it will be handed out to an FBS program again. Nobody is saying their apologies to the Mustangs for the punishment because we are supposed to believe SMU and their boosters were acting terribly by paying student-athletes. At the same time, we know other programs were getting away with paying their players directly or indirectly. We can be sure that pay for play hasn't gone away.
Why shouldn’t have SMU cheated? The impact of the death penalty on the football program is the obvious answer to that question. The film shows us otherwise. What was head coach Ron Meyer’s punishment for bailing on the program before the hammer fell (if Pete Carroll also comes to mind, well, he should)? What about the Pony Express backfield of Eric Dickerson and Craig James? Did SMU have to vacate a single win or Southwest Conference Championship from the pay for play era? Bobby Collins, who was the SMU coach when the death penalty was handed down, never coached again. That outcome was not mandated by the NCAA, however. Boosters were banned, to be sure, but only because the Mustangs were caught. The ban didn’t prevent known boosters such as Sherwood Blount Jr. from participating anyway (which brought on the death penalty). Blount wasn’t even done paying college players after his involvement with his alma mater. Blount didn’t want to be interviewed for the film, which is convenient because he was the agent of current ESPN employee Craig James. I’m not going to dwell on that facet of the story because that is less important than the upshot of the SMU story: never again. The death penalty was too severe. It ruined one program for two decades and broke up a conference (maybe even two conferences). In some sense, for SMU it never even happened: players from the so-called disgraced period such as James are welcome on campus once again. James is a board member for a political advocacy group that “advocates limited government and running universities more like businesses.” If the university was run more like a business, football players would be paid for the great revenue they bring in—openly, of course. As that is not an option currently, what exactly did SMU do wrong with their payments?
In addition to the lack of stripping SMU of their onfield achievements, Pony Excess also gives us the blueprint of how to cheat and what happens when you go off-script. The problem for SMU was not that they were the only program which was cheating. SMU boosters were paying players, not doing it in a quiet way and not ensuring that every player they paid was kept happy. There were also too many boosters involved which makes it easier for something to go wrong. If you’re going to pay players with boosters, make sure you have a small cadre, the film tells us. These boosters and the players on the payroll have to keep quiet. From the appearance of disgruntled players in the film who helped bring down the program, the reason for keeping paid players content and quiescent is very clear. What SMU was doing was working. So what the film makes us wonder is why hasn’t another private university tried what SMU did (with proper care taken to avoid the Mustangs’ mistakes, naturally)?
For instance, what’s wrong with Vanderbilt University? Why even field a football team in the SEC if it’s going to be terrible? Vandy recently swung and missed at Gus Malzahn. There’s absolutely no reason why he would go there but their supposed three million dollar offer was intriguing. Perhaps they are going to get serious, I thought. If it was up to me, I would have booted the Commodores from the league for a competitive program years ago. Why shouldn’t Vandy get serious? They won’t get the death penalty, especially if they handle things in an efficient businesslike manner. If Vanderbilt started winning the SEC East, we’d know that something was up. But, if players were paid covertly, what could be done about it? I’m not saying that Vanderbilt should start cheating. Instead, I’d like to hear a compelling reason why Pony Excess didn’t show that the risk/reward isn’t worth it for Vandy. What would the SEC do if Vandy won an SEC title in football? Do we really think the league would push for an investigation? Perhaps, the SEC would do what I think they should do and secede from the NCAA in college football.
Further, I'd like to know: why we should even be upset with what SMU did? Ask yourself, why shouldn't the student-athletes who bring in so much money and attention to their schools get paid something in return? If a graduate student at a university creates a patentable invention, (even if the creation involved heavy use of university resources or personnel), the university only gets a share of the royalties (see a representative example of such a policy here). Why is it understood that a graduate student should get some of the money for the fruit of their labor, but an undergraduate student-athlete who might help a school pull in millions from a BCS bowl appearance, is entitled to a bowl gift and the same scholarship and stipend they would get for a winless season? If you haven't heard the latest bit of ridiculousness from the NCAA, it is this: some Ohio State players could be ineligible because there is a rumor that they received tattoos for autographs. Well, if the university was forced to share even a minor amount of the revenue its student-athletes brought in, those student-athletes could afford to pay for all the tattoos they wanted. UPDATE (12/23, 1:13 p.m.) Terrelle Pryor was among five Ohio State players who are suspended for the first five games of next season. If you sell things that were given to you such as jerseys, pants and shoes, you're suspended, says the NCAA.
It's time for FBS programs to push back. If the NCAA wants to say who can and cannot play football, they must run the postseason. If the NCAA is unwilling or unable to run the postseason, the programs should tell the NCAA to stay out of their business. Nothing short of a reform of the structure of FBS football can get us to an adequate postseason. I have little faith in Mark Cuban's "plan" for a playoff which doesn't overhaul anything in terms of weak scheduling and having enough common opponents to evaluate teams. Therefore, I'll be rolling out the layout of my own system that would deal with an NCAA run option or an independently run option.