February 25: The Death Penalty

SMUIn the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s intercollegiate sports system, the harshest penalty that can be handed down upon a member college is known as “the death penalty.” The NCAA death penalty is a complete cancellation of an offending team’s entire athletic schedule for an entire year. Typically, this punishment is combined with other penalties. Anyway, it was on this day in 1987 that the NCAA handed down its most famous death penalty ruling, when the Southern Methodist University Mustangs football team received the dreaded punishment.

SMU’s Mustangs were perennial contenders in the Southwest Conference and in the early 1980s the team was enjoying great success thanks to the “Pony Express” offense lead by running backs Eric Dickerson and Craig James (pictured above); and in fact in 1982 SMU was the nation’s only undefeated football team.

So, what did the Mustangs do to be sentence to “death”? Well, it also has to do with how one of the smallest NCAA schools managed to achieve great success. For one thing, the school had committed several recruiting violations, leading the football program to be put on probation. Amusingly, at the time most of the SWC’s members were on probation for for recruiting violations.

Of course, it was more than just that. It was soon discovered that since the mid-1970s SMU had been maintaining a slush fund to pay members of its football team. There were even several instances in which it came to light that the university had been paying for nice apartments for some members of the football team. In one particularly heinous case, Mustangs offensive lineman Sean Stopperich revealed that he had decided to enroll at SMU after he and his family had been offered thousands of dollars by SMU boosters. The worst part came when school officials swore to NCAA investigators that the slush fund had been shut down…only for the investigators to discover that the fund was still going strong.

So, on February 25, 1987 the NCAA brought the hammer down and brought it down especially hard. While the death penalty only required a one year ban from competition , the NCAA added further penalties: In addition to the cancellation of the 1987 season, all of SMU’s home games in the 1988 season were canceled. They were still permitted to play on the road, so the other institutions wouldn’t be financially affected. However, SMU decided to sit out the whole of the 1988 season too.  Their current prohibition was extended to 1990, and the team’s bowl game and live television ban was extended to 1989. Additionally, the school lost many scholarships and was given a limit on how many paid assistant coaches the team could have. Finally, the school was not allowed to visit with potential recruits or pay for recruits to visit SMU until the 1988 school year.

Unsurprisingly, the death penalty destroyed SMU’s once mighty football program. Within days of the death penalty announcement, recruiters from rival schools arrived on SMU’s campus to poach some of the team’s best players. When the team returned to the field in 1989, they did so with a young and inexperienced team. In the 25 seasons since SMU came back from the death penalty, the school has only had five years in which they emerged with a winning record. The NCAA has only used the death penalty on two further occasions, but never again for a college in its top division. For more information on the SMU death penalty scandal, I suggest ESPN’s excellent 30 for 30 documentary Pony Excess.

Since the SMU Mustangs were running wild, I thought it appropriate that we mix a Wild Mustang. This stiff cocktail balances Wild Turkey American Honey Bourbon and grapefruit juice and a rosemary sprig gives it a nice herbal twist.

Wild Mustang

  • 1 1/2 ounces Wild Turkey American Honey Bourbon
  • 3 ounces grapefruit juice
  • 1 dash Bitters

Pour all ingredients into a tumbler with ice and stir. Garish with a sprig of rosemary.

Tomorrow: Jazz

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