NCAA Imposes “Death Penalty” on Southern Methodist University Football Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

For rules violations that included alumni payments to college football players, the Southern Methodist University (SMU) football team was suspended from competition during the 1987 season and then voluntarily remained out of the 1988 season because of NCAA restrictions. The NCAA sanction against competition is known as the death penalty for its severity and seriousness.

Summary of Event

During the early to mid-1980’s, Southern Methodist University (SMU) fielded one of the best college football programs in the United States. According to author David Whitford, from 1980 to 1985 no major college football program won as many games as SMU, few went to as many postseason bowl games, and few were ranked among the nation’s elite as regularly. SMU was also one of the most corrupt college football programs in the country. It already had been penalized six times by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) prior to its receiving the so-called NCAA death penalty in 1987. [kw]Football, NCAA Imposes “Death Penalty” on Southern Methodist University (Feb. 25, 1987) Clements, Bill Meyer, Ron Football;college Southern Methodist University football National Collegiate Athletic Association;football National Collegiate Athletic Association;"death penalty"[death penalty] Coaches;football Clements, Bill Meyer, Ron Football;college Southern Methodist University football National Collegiate Athletic Association;football National Collegiate Athletic Association;"death penalty"[death penalty] Coaches;football [g]United States;Feb. 25, 1987: NCAA Imposes “Death Penalty” on Southern Methodist University Football[02260] [c]Corruption;Feb. 25, 1987: NCAA Imposes “Death Penalty” on Southern Methodist University Football[02260] [c]Sports;Feb. 25, 1987: NCAA Imposes “Death Penalty” on Southern Methodist University Football[02260] [c]Education;Feb. 25, 1987: NCAA Imposes “Death Penalty” on Southern Methodist University Football[02260] Stanley, David

Southern Methodist is a private, liberal arts university in Dallas, Texas, with an enrollment averaging about eleven thousand students. Founded in 1911, it is affiliated with the United Methodist Church. The university is governed by a board of trustees, which until 1987 was led by an executive committee called the board of governors. The board of governors during the 1980’s consisted of elite Dallas businessmen and politicians, including Bill Clements, a Dallas politician who would be elected to serve a second term as governor of Texas in 1986.

In 1987, the SMU Mustangs competed in the Southwest Conference (SWC), an intercollegiate conference consisting of five large state universities (Texas, Texas A&M, Arkansas, Texas Tech, and Houston), as well as four smaller private universities (SMU, Baylor, Rice, and Texas Christian). Although SMU had experienced some success during the 1930’s and 1960’s, its football team was not competitive during most of the 1970’s. Between 1973 and 1975, SMU won just sixteen of thirty-three games.

In 1976, however, the university made an enhanced commitment to football, hiring a brash young coach named Ron Meyer who had previously built a successful football program at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV). Whitford suggested that Meyer’s success at UNLV came from bending, if not breaking, the rules governing intercollegiate athletics.

Whatever he did at UNLV, at SMU, Meyer reinvigorated the Mustang football program by creating a system of boosters and rich alumni who were able to get elite high school athletes to enroll at SMU; the alumni-boosters also paid the athletes monthly cash stipends to stay at SMU. More than twenty athletes (or their families) were given thousands of dollars in cash, cars, and other valuables. Meyer’s program reeked of hypocrisy. In addition to SMU, other schools in the SWC bribed high school athletes; paying players was rationalized as a necessary evil for a small private school without a glowing athletics reputation.

Within a few years, SMU’s football program was riding high. By 1981, its record was 10-1 and it earned a SWC championship and a postseason bowl game. Its record in 1982 was even better (11-0-1) and the program ranked second in the nation. However, with the victory came NCAA probation in 1982, 1985, and 1987.

During the 1970’s and 1980’s, most universities in the United States competed against each other under the auspices of the NCAA, which is a voluntary association of more than one thousand schools that sets rules for intercollegiate athletics. The most sacrosanct rules concern the amateur status of student athletes. Although student athletes are given a host of benefits—room and board, tuition, books, health care, and apparel—they cannot be given money to play. For example, athletes cannot use their “star” status to generate personal income, nor can they sell tickets allotted to them, be reimbursed for expenses, or borrow money from coaches. Also, parents of student athletes are prohibited from receiving complimentary tickets to a sporting event.

SMU demonstrated considerable contempt for the rules and was repeatedly penalized by the NCAA. In 1985, the program was placed on three years’ probation for paying players, a virtual “slap on the wrist” for promises that it would stop making illicit payments and that boosters who had paid players would be banned from contact with the football program. Clements, the head of the board of governors, knew about the payments yet ordered the athletics director to continue making them. Clements made the order even though he promised to comply with NCAA sanctions and rules.

Clements believed that the university had to honor its promises to the athletes until they graduated. He hoped that by 1987 those athletes who had been receiving money would have graduated or otherwise left the school. Moreover, he feared that if SMU stopped paying, disgruntled athletes would document for the NCAA and for the media the extent of the corruption. That is exactly what happened. After his monthly stipend was ended, David Stanley, a former football player who had been unhappy at SMU and had gotten into trouble with cocaine, revealed he had been paid twenty-five thousand dollars to enroll at SMU and received seven hundred fifty dollars per month until he left school. The news led to a yearlong investigation by the NCAA. Expecting another slap on the wrist, SMU was stunned by the penalty it received.

On February 25, 1987, as a result of sustained, repeated violations, the NCAA imposed its so-called death penalty on SMU. The infractions committee meted out severe punishments, including a ban on televised games and on postseason bowl games, limitations on scholarships for four years, and a one-year ban on competition (which, subsequently, was extended to two years). In announcing the penalty, the NCAA observed that the severity was justified because of the program’s brazenness in flouting the sanctions and rules, even in the face of multiple investigations.


New York Times reporter Peter Appleborne noted that 1986 was to be a year of celebration for SMU. It was the school’s seventy-fifth anniversary and the university community had been looking forward to celebrating SMU’s development into a major regional university with hope for national prominence. In contrast, the year was marked by disgrace. As Appleborne noted, “What hurt most was not that a bunch of football-mad alumni had put together a $400,000-a-year slush fund for athletes, but that the university’s response for years had reflected skewed priorities and an absence of leadership.”

In short, the athletics director and the board of governors were willing to continue a corrupt system because football wins led to enhanced prestige, increased donations, and a larger student enrollment. They were willing to bet the university’s reputation that the depth of the corruption would never be exposed and that any NCAA penalties would be minor. Resignations included senior university trustees, the university president, the athletics director, and the football coach. Some even called for the impeachment of Texas governor Clements because of his complicity in the scandal as a university official.

In the wake of the scandal, the SMU board of trustees voted to replace the select board of governors and to make the board of trustees smaller, more inclusive, and with shorter terms in office. There also were sweeping changes made to the football program. As SMU athletics directors realized, fielding a competitive team, let alone rebuilding the program, would be impossible in the short term. The two-year hiatus gutted the program, and virtually every SMU football player on scholarship in 1986 was gone by 1989. Many had transferred to other schools; others had graduated. Scholarship limitations imposed by the NCAA made it more difficult to attract topnotch athletes to SMU. In retrospect, the NCAA death penalty did not keep other university programs from cheating. Ironically, the severity of the penalty has kept it from being used by the NCAA.

The impact of the scandal extended beyond SMU. During the mid-1980’s, four of the nine football programs in the SWC were on probation, including SMU. The reputation of the conference plummeted, and by 1994 most of the major universities in the SWC joined other conferences. Two years later, the SWC disbanded. Clements, Bill Meyer, Ron Football;college Southern Methodist University football National Collegiate Athletic Association;football National Collegiate Athletic Association;"death penalty"[death penalty] Coaches;football

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Appleborne, Peter. “Is There Life After Football?” The New York Times, October 4, 1987. Appleborne details the changes made at SMU in the year after the imposition of the NCAA death penalty on the school’s football program.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bowen, Ezra. “Revolt In a Football Palace.” Time, December 22, 1986. Bowen explores the NCAA’s investigation into the SMU football program and the result of that inquiry on the university community.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Eitzen, D. Stanley. Fair and Foul: Beyond the Myths and Paradoxes of Sport. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999. Argues that college athletics, and athletics in general, is inherently corrupt and that it breeds hypocrisy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Goodwin, Michael. “NCAA Bans Football at SMU for ’87 Season.” The New York Times, February 26, 1987. A major newspaper’s breaking news story of the scandal at SMU.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Padilla, Arthur. “The Message in the Morass at SMU.” The New York Times, March 8, 1987. Provides an overview of the NCAA penalties against SMU and why those penalties were imposed.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Staurowsky, Ellen J. “Piercing the Veil of Amateurism: Commercialization, Corruption, and U.S. College Sports.” In The Commercialization of Sport, edited by Trevor Slack. New York: Routledge, 2004. Part of the Sport in Global Society series. Staurowsky discusses how amateur athletics in the United States has moved to commercialized and corrupt spectacle.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Whitford, David. A Payroll to Meet: Greed, Scandal, and Football at Southern Methodist University. New York: Macmillan, 1989. Presents a narrative overview of the scandal, with a focus on the actual funding of the SMU athletes as well as the NCAA death penalty.

College Basketball Players Begin Shaving Points for Money

Japanese Baseball Players Are Implicated in Game Fixing

Mobster’s Arrest Reveals Point Shaving by Boston College Basketball Players

Pete Rose Is Banned from Baseball for Betting on Games

Georgia Basketball Coach Jim Harrick, Sr., Resigns over Fraud Allegations

University of Alabama Fires New Football Coach in Sex Scandal

New York Times Exposes Grading Scandal at Auburn University

Football Star Michael Vick Pleads Guilty to Financing a Dogfighting Ring

New England Patriots Football Team Is Fined for Spying on Other Teams

Categories: History