Being placed on probation by the NCAA is damaging and embarrassing to any college athletic program. It also can be expensive -- Southern Methodist University can attest to that. The Mustangs probably will lose more than $1 million this year because the football team is on probation. The University of Miami is relieved that it will lose only about $250,000 because it is being denied a bowl appearance.

The Mustangs (9-1) have been denied TV appearances this season, and they will be denied a Cotton Bowl bid even if they continue in first place and win the Southwest Conference. According to Coach Ron Meyer, those losses add up to more than $1 million in lost revenue.

Although Meyer and SMU knew in June they would not be going to a bowl (because of 25 charges involving recruiting), the University of Miami did not find out about its probation until two weeks ago, 48 hours after an upset of then-No. 1 Penn State had pushed the Hurricanes into the bowl picture.

But even though the announcement of NCAA sanctions (for 66 charges involving recruiting) shattered Miami officials, they also were relieved.

The Hurricanes (7-2) were told they could not play in a bowl game this season. That brought groans, especially from the 14 seniors on the team. But, they also were told that their regular TV appearances would not be affected. That brought cheers from the athletic department, which had counted on the TV dollars.

"It could have been worse, so much worse," Athletic Director Harry Mallios said yesterday. "If they had taken away the bowl game and our TV appearances, it would have knocked us out of the box completely. I don't know if we would have been able to survive."

In fact, many coaches agree that the investigation process can be more damaging than the penalties. "We've been laboring under a cloud for the last two years," Miami Coach Howard Schnellenberger said. "The fact that there was an investigation affected our recruiting the last two years.

"We had kids getting anonymous phone calls just before the national signing date from people telling them that Miami was going to get two years, no bowls, no TV, things like that. It's a tough thing to combat."

Meyer said the announcement that the NCAA was investigating the Mustangs last winter "cost us some players, at least two or three solid ones and definitely one all-America."

The probation, announced in June, kept the Mustangs off television this season and out of a postseason bowl. Since they are 9-1 and lead the Southwest Conference, it seems likely that the sanctions have cost them a minimum of two television appearances and quite possibly a Cotton Bowl payoff.

"It's been a disillusioning experience," Meyer said. "We were found guilty of 25 violations. We were wrong, no question about it. The fact that the violations were minor doesn't matter, we were still wrong.

"But the innuendos left over go beyond what happens. It's the Al Capone syndrome. They think you've committed murder but they can't prove it, so they go out and find you guilty of income tax evasion."

Meyer admits he is bitter about the experience. "There's selective enforcement at the NCAA," he said. "I've been burned so I'm biased, but there is. They're spending all this money on enforcement to try to keep us from buying some kid a McDonald's hamburger."

Yet, in spite of the probation, Meyer's team seemingly has been unaffected this season. Its only loss was to Texas, 9-7. Miami, since its probation was announced, has won impressively twice.

"The thing has hurt me. It's the most embarrassing thing that's ever happened to me in my life," Meyer said.

At Miami, the NCAA investigation began shortly after Mallios and Schnellenberger took over the program in 1979. "I think the outcome was an exoneration of our program," Schnellenberger said. "I would challenge most schools in the country to be scrutinized as closely as we were for two and a half years and have the NCAA come away saying it could find no pattern of illegal inducements.

"I feel now like a horse that's been unshackled. It's so much worse not knowing what's going to happen than knowing exactly what you're dealing with. We're obviously disappointed about not going to a bowl, that was one of our major goals this season. But at least we know when the season is over that this thing will be over, and we can go on from there without looking back."

Unlike SMU, which would have shared the $1.5 million Cotton Bowl payoff with the other schools in the SWC, independent Miami would keep any revenues from a bowl. The Hurricanes, after expenses, probably would have netted about $250,000 from a bowl appearance this year.

For the coaches, though, the lost bowl appearance is not nearly as worrisome as the possibility of damage to recruiting efforts.

"No question it hurts you," Meyer said. "You can't control what other people say about you. Still, it doesn't have to defeat you. Oklahoma won 21 of 22 games while it was on probation in the early '70s and still recruited well."

Miami has taken steps to ensure that it doesn't happen again. Shortly after the NCAA announced that it was investigating the Hurricanes, the school formed an intercollegiate athletic governing board that advises the president on athletic matters. It also is supposed to oversee everything in the athletic department, including recruiting.

"We've had seminars with our assistant coaches on NCAA regulations and with our athletes," Mallios said. "We needed to strengthen our control over what goes on."

With good reason. The whole process is too painful. SMU and Miami went through the agony of investigation and now are dealing with the embarrassment and the losses, tangible and intangible, of probation.

Clemson (10-0), the No. 2-ranked team, can't fully enjoy its banner year because of an NCAA investigation.

"The innuendo," Meyer said, "is always worse than the facts. And while they are investigating, all people hear about is the innuendo."