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'Death Penalty' A Relic Of the Past

cedrick dorsey - southern methodist
Running back Cedrick Dorsey, above, and SMU are 1-4 and struggling to return to a bowl game for the first time since 1984. (Amy Conn-Gutierrez - Associated Press)

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By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 10, 2007

DALLAS -- The only light in Phil Bennett's office emanated from two monitors that continuously displayed video of his team's next opponent. Fighting a fever after a sleepless night, the football coach holed up in a dark room on a September afternoon, searching for ways to infuse life into his long-suffering Southern Methodist team.

The Mustangs have had one winning season since 1987, when the NCAA imposed the "death penalty" on the football team for rampant rules violations, including payments to players. The unprecedented punishment shut down the program for two seasons. Two decades later, SMU coaches and players -- some not born when the ruling was meted out -- still are struggling to return the team to prominence.

"It is nothing [compared] to this devastation, but it's almost like the nuclear bomb," said Bennett, a Texas native in his sixth season as head coach. "Nobody knew the devastation the death penalty would do to this program. It was a Scarlet 'D'."

Since SMU received the punishment, 29 programs in various sports have been eligible for the death penalty -- meaning two sets of major NCAA rules violations occurred at a school within a five-year period -- according to an NCAA database. All were spared. And because of the long-lasting effect on SMU, some observers familiar with NCAA investigations question whether the penalty ever will be imposed again.

"Now with the benefit of hindsight, everyone, including the NCAA, recognizes that the death penalty is just that: It is death and it is not helping," said J. Brent Clark, a former NCAA investigator who is an attorney in Norman, Okla. "Because of the SMU experience, the NCAA realizes it's too severe a penalty for the institution to recover from."

The death penalty has been used to criticize NCAA enforcement because it is talked about as a "sword" that is not swung, said Jack Friedenthal, a George Washington University law professor who was a longtime member of the Committee on Infractions, which acts as judge and jury in NCAA investigations. "It is a minor factor because people don't believe it will be used today," he said.

David Swank, a former chair of the infractions committee, said SMU's struggle to recover probably has made the NCAA reluctant to impose the penalty again, but added that the widespread nature and acceptance of cheating at SMU made for an "extremely unique case. We never saw another case where it was even close to that."

'A New Mentality'

In the early 1980s, SMU broke school records at the same time it broke rules. On the field, the Mustangs won 41 of 47 games between 1981 and 1984 and were known for the famed "Pony Express" backfield of Eric Dickerson and Craig James. Off the field, almost two dozen players received payments. Rule breaking was allowed to continue after SMU initially was placed on probation for paying players.

But the climate was changing. In an effort to aggressively crack down on rule breakers, the NCAA staged a special convention on integrity in 1985, during which university presidents voted overwhelmingly to implement Proposition 3, known as the repeat-violator rule. If a school committed two sets of major violations within a five-year period, the NCAA could shut down the program for up to two seasons, a drastic measure that soon became known as the "death penalty."

Having coached in Southwest Conference, of which SMU was a member and which disbanded in 1996, Bennett is familiar with the renegade reputation of the league and said that while cheating was "going on everywhere," the "flair" with which SMU cheated made the Mustangs ideal targets for the NCAA's new initiative. Chuck Smrt, who supervised the SMU investigation for the NCAA, said last week that the punishment "reinforced a new mentality, a new philosophy on enforcement that started with that convention" in 1985.

The announcement of the punishment in February 1987 became a surreal scene when David Berst, then the NCAA's director of enforcement, fainted after declaring that SMU was banned from competing in games in 1987. The school decided to shut down the football program for a second year to further assess its future.

The effect was immediate. Bennett, then defensive coordinator at Purdue, was among the scores of coaches who descended upon SMU's campus, recruiting players who suddenly were without a team.


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