SMU Football's Second Coming

How one college football program bought its way back from the dead

After two-plus decades of incompetence, the Southern Methodist University football team, with a 6-3 record, seems primed for its third-straight bowl appearance, a result that might tempt sportswriters to reach into the deep well of the trade’s clichés and call it a “resurrection.” In a manner of speaking, the team has returned from the grave. In 1987, after the Mustangs’ flagrant violations of National Collegiate Athletic Assn. regulations were exposed, SMU became the first and only football program to be slapped with what is colloquially known as the death penalty.

But the story of SMU’s second coming, like its earlier fall, is more about money than miracles. To build an early-1980s juggernaut—which included an undefeated season in 1983—SMU’s boosters set up a slush fund to pay players. The illicit payments continued even after the school was placed on probation and happened with the full knowledge and encouragement of university officials (including then Texas Governor Bill Clements, who served on SMU’s board). When the NCAA’s guillotine fell, SMU’s 1987 season was canceled and the number of athletic scholarships the school could bestow for the five following years was severely limited. Over the next 20 years, SMU mustered only one winning season. “It was a very harsh penalty for a very egregious case,” says NCAA spokesman Bob Williams.

Nearly every football season, it seems, is overshadowed by past misdeeds. Although the death penalty has not been invoked against another program, it now threatens the University of Miami, in light of accusations that its players for years accepted payments (and in some cases prostitutes) from convicted Ponzi-schemer Nevin Shapiro. But if SMU’s long, arduous rise from disgrace provides a lesson, it’s that, in college football at least, there can be life after death. And while boosters can’t necessarily buy players for a collegiate program anymore—they can buy nearly everything else.

It began with a new stadium. SMU’s home games were played outside its Dallas campus at the Cotton Bowl and at Texas Stadium, home of the NFL’s Cowboys. In post-death-penalty years, playing in those massive arenas could be embarrassing. The 1998 game against Texas Christian University, SMU’s archrival in nearby Fort Worth, drew just 26,000 fans—a large swath of them clad in TCU purple—who occupied a mere third of the Cotton Bowl’s capacity.

In 2000 the 32,000-seat Gerald J. Ford stadium and the adjacent Paul B. Lloyd, Jr. All-Sports Center were completed at a total cost of $56.8 million, much of it donated by two businessmen who sit on SMU’s board of trustees. (Ford is a billionaire banker, not a former U.S. President; Lloyd is an oilman.) At first glance the west side of Ford Stadium, which is partially sunk into the ground, seems to consist largely of air-conditioned luxury boxes, where individual suites go for $40,000 per year.

Every big-time football program also needs a big-time coach. In 2008, SMU’s athletic director, Steve Orsini, courted June Jones, head coach of the University of Hawaii and formerly of the Atlanta Falcons, known for his swaggering, run-and-shoot offense. Orsini invited 20 boosters to join SMU’s “Circle of Champions” and to each commit $100,000 per year for five years. “We needed a guy who was a proven recruiter,” says Lloyd, a Circle donor who played for the Mustangs in the 1960s.

Jones arrived on campus with a five-year, $10 million contract, making him the highest-paid coach in Conference USA—or in any conference that lacks automatic consideration for a Bowl Championship Series bid. But that’s what winning takes, argues Jones. “They paid me a lot of money,” he says, “and that commitment alone changes the dynamics of everything.”

During Jones’s first season, SMU finished 1-and-11. But in 2009 the Mustangs went 8-5 and routed Nevada 45-10 in the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl Championship, SMU’s first bowl victory in 25 years. Last year in something of a relapse, SMU fell to Army, 16-14, in the Armed Forces Bowl, after a 7-7 season. The Mustangs began their 2011 season with a tough loss to Texas A&M and then rebounded with five straight wins, including a 40-33 overtime upset over TCU, a team that went undefeated last season and beat the University of Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl. The victory was particularly meaningful since, as Orsini points out, SMU had in recent years closely followed TCU’s path to redemption.

“We had massive infractions, too, back around the time of [SMU’s] death penalty,” says TCU Athletic Director Chris Del Conte. TCU then built a new stadium and hired a respected coach. The success on the field drove admissions, Del Conte says. “In 1998, we had 4,500 applications for 1,600 spots, and now there are 20,000 applicants each year, and alumni giving is up,” he says. “Our sports success has driven our recognition.”

SMU President R. Gerald Turner insists that investing in SMU football is compatible with the overall rise of the university’s profile, though that seems hard to square with his position as co-chairman of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, which agitates against “the commercialization of college sports” at the expense of “the underlying goals of higher education.” But in his office, he points to a brick that’s inscribed with the number “1300.” “Our average SAT score was 1144 when I got here. This year it’ll be around 1260, and our goal is 1300 by 2015,” he says.

The money spent on returning SMU to football prominence could be better used elsewhere, argues anthropology professor Caroline Brettell. “Ford Stadium is used six times a year,” she says. “I look up at the luxury sky boxes, and I think, ‘We should hold classes in there.’ ” James Hopkins, a history professor and Texas native who has taught at SMU for 37 years, says he believes in Turner’s commitment to the academic advancement of the institution. “But the relationship between big-time college athletics and the core academic mission of the institution is inherently a perilous one,” he says. “The death penalty left a black mark on the entire institution, which took years to recover. I look at the recent football scandals at Miami and Ohio State, and as a historian I think that it can happen again here, too.”

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