SMU’s Death Penalty: The recruiting scandal that refuses to die

August 29, 2013, 5:00 PM UTC

FORTUNE — While I was living in Dallas in the late 1980s, researching and writing A Payroll to Meet: A Story of Greed, Corruption and Football at SMU, I read a memorable essay by a native son, Lawrence Wright, published in Texas Monthly, called “Why Do They Hate Us So Much?” One of the stories Wright tells took place during a family road trip in the summer of 1964, when he was a teenager. Somewhere in Florida, they stopped for gas. The attendant noticed the license plate. “Where from in Texas?” he asked, and when Wright’s father said, “Dallas,” the attendant “stuck his face up to the window to get a closer look at us.” And then he said, “You all killed our president.”

“That reaction endured … for years” Wright wrote, “even after Memphis and Los Angeles had their own tragedies. Dallasites always begrudged the fact that those cities were never taken down, the way Dallas was, and made to feel at one with Birmingham and Selma.”

At Southern Methodist University in Dallas, they know the feeling. More than a quarter-century has passed since the SMU Mustangs football team received the NCAA’s so-called death penalty for repeated, egregious violations of recruiting rules, yet the story still shocks and amazes. It was the subject of a powerful 2010 film, Pony Excess, that was the highest-rated premiere in ESPN’s Peabody Award winning 30 for 30 documentary series (I appeared on camera) and prompted the reissue of my book this fall by University of Nebraska Press.

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No reasonable person disputes that SMU got what it deserved. SMU boosters were paying players; SMU coaches knew all about it; and numerous SMU officials — all the way up to Bill Clements, a two-time Texas governor and chairman of the university’s board — were actively involved. It was an outrageous scandal, and it earned SMU what is still the harshest penalty ever levied against a major college football program: a complete one-year ban on competition, followed by a partial ban in year two. (SMU could have played an away-games-only schedule the second year but chose not to, partly out of fear for the safety of the few undersized players who remained.)

Some would argue that paying athletes to perform in contests that are otherwise thoroughly professional shouldn’t be a crime in the first place, and they’d have a point. But there was something profoundly dispiriting and exploitational in the whole sordid SMU affair. Two of the players who were paid the most gained nothing from their association with SMU, and more likely were scarred by it. Offensive lineman Stopperich never played a single down for the Mustangs. He died of a cocaine overdose in 1995 at age 29. Linebacker David Stanley did take the field for the Mustangs, however briefly, but he wound up in drug rehab, paid for — out of compassion, perhaps, or maybe just because Stanley knew too much — by his SMU sugar daddy. After battling substance abuse for years, Stanley died in his sleep in 2005. He was 41.

But shouldn’t the dark cloud have dissipated by now, as it has for other bad actors, including some whose transgressions dwarf SMU’s? Southern Cal seems to have recovered. Yes, running back Reggie Bush had to give back the Heisman Trophy he won in 2005 after he and his family were found to have accepted payments totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars from an agent. And yes, the Trojans forfeited all the games they won that year, and gave up 30 scholarships, but otherwise? USC still plays to big Saturday afternoon crowds at the Coliseum, still wins more games every year than it loses, and last fall (after a two-year bowl ban expired) collected $2 million for playing in the Sun Bowl. USC is still USC.

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And Penn State? It doesn’t get any worse than what happened at Penn State, where a special investigation led by former FBI Director Louis Freeh found that the head coach, the athletic director and the president of the university knew of allegations against assistant coach Jerry Sandusky involving child sex abuse and failed to take appropriate action. (Sandusky was ultimately convicted on 45 of 48 counts.) Penn State was fined $60 million by the NCAA (the Big Ten Conference tacked on $13 million), forfeited from 1998 through 2011, and lost 60 scholarships and the right to play in a bowl game for four years. Practically speaking, that was a harsher set of sanctions than SMU endured, even if it wasn’t the death penalty. But Penn State still drew an average of more than 100,000 fans to its seven home games last fall, still had a winning season, and still appeared regularly on national TV, where announcers routinely heaped praise on the loyal Nittany Lion players who could have gone elsewhere to finish their college careers but stayed behind to help rebuild a storied program. Penn State is still Penn State.

The NCAA’s stated purpose in punishing SMU so severely was to give other potential cheaters something to think about. The theory being, as with the actual death penalty — the one involving lethal injection or an electric chair — that SMU’s example would serve as a general deterrent. It didn’t turn out that way. The dismal parade of recruiting violations, academic fudging, and general bad behavior by athletes, agents, boosters, coaches, and administrators continues unabated.

One way SMU might have responded in the wake of the scandal was by scaling back its program, or simply opting out of football altogether. There are precedents for that. The University of Chicago, a founding member of the Big Ten Conference and winner of two national championships in 1905 and 1913, quit playing in 1939 after President Robert Maynard Hutchins decided that the whole bloody spectacle had gotten out of hand. College football, Hutchins wrote, had become an “infernal nuisance,” incompatible with the university’s larger academic mission. Decades later, Chicago did return to the field, but now it competes against colleges like Beloit, Elmhurst, and Rhodes in the NCAA’s Division III, which doesn’t allow athletic scholarships.

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A few lonely voices suggested a similar course for SMU, among them, oddly, Governor Clements. Instead, SMU hired Hall of Famer Forrest Gregg as its new coach, with a mandate to bring SMU back from the dead. Gregg promised a fast fix and a return to gridiron glory, but it was not to be. Over the next 20 years, SMU suffered 18 losing seasons, including six when it won just one game, and one, in 2003, when it didn’t win any. SMU’s demise coincided with the breakup of the storied Southwest Conference. The strongest programs, chasing TV-network millions, migrated to the Southeastern Conference and the Big 12. The weakest, SMU among them, bounced from one lesser conference to another and dropped off the big-time college football map.

In recent years, however, football has undergone a quiet revival on the SMU campus. Coach June Jones has taken the Mustangs to four straight bowl games, and won three. They play their home games on campus now in Ford Stadium, a tidy, red-brick horseshoe on Mockingbird Lane. This year’s season opener at home against Texas Tech — Friday night, August 30, at SMU’s Ford Stadium — will be televised nationally by ESPN.

If you were to go, you might see some familiar faces: Lance McIlhenny, who quarterbacked the Mustang’s lethal option offense in the early 1980s, attends often, as does Eric Dickerson, one half (with Craig James) of SMU’s famed Pony Express backfield, who went on to a Hall of Fame career in the NFL; and so, occasionally, does former head coach Ron Meyer, the architect of SMU’s disgrace.

Coach Meyer left SMU for the NFL in 1982, where he won two AFC coach of the year awards and finished with a career record four games over .500. Later he teamed up with SMU’s most notorious bagman turned player agent, Sherwood Blount, representing some of the same players he had once recruited. Now he’s mostly on TV, doing NFL commentary for a Canadian sports network. You might think Meyer would not be welcome anymore on the SMU campus. But only if, after all these years, you still haven’t forgotten.