Doak Walker, Kyle Rote, Don Meredith and the Pony Express of Craig James and Eric Dickerson, above. Southern Methodist's football tradition was a source of pride, but it came tumbling down 20 years ago when the NCAA used its most severe punishment, the Death Penalty, shutting down the Mustang program in 1987. SMU was already under two-year probation when the NCAA discovered that payments to 13 players had continued out of a $61,000 slush fund. Southern Methodist would lose its program for two years and fade, likely forever, from the ranks of the national elite.
Six days after the NCAA announced the death penalty, Texas governor Bill Clements, barely into the second of his two split terms and only weeks after stepping down as chairman of SMU's board of governors, dropped another bombshell. He and other university officials had approved a secret plan to continue illegal payments to players even after the team had been put on probation for paying players in 1985.
It became the scandal of scandals in the Southwest Conference and it helped lead directly to the conference's demise in May 1996. Only Arkansas, Baylor and Rice escaped sanctions in the 1980s, and with the conference's market share and television coverage dwindling, Arkansas was the first to bolt, joining the Southeastern Conference in 1992. A year later, Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech and Baylor joined the Big Eight, creating the Big 12.
Would the NCAA ever use the death penalty again? Unlikely. Said former University of Florida president John Lombardi: "SMU taught the committee that the death penalty is too much like the atomic bomb. It's like what happened after we dropped the [atom] bomb in World War II. The results were so catastrophic that now we'll do anything to avoid dropping another one.”