With the announcement of the annual NCAA Basketball tournament bracket on Sunday, one team watched from the sidelines. The #24 SMU Mustangs were left out of the dance even with their impressive 25-5 record. While they were talented enough to make the tournament, they were impeded by actions off the court. This isn’t the first time SMU has been in hot water with the NCAA. With these recent events in mind I think it is a good time to look back at the 1987 SMU football scandal.
One of, if not the largest calamity in college football history was the 1987 Southern Methodist University (SMU) football scandal. The University was accused of having a hidden slush fund for the use of incentivizing players to attend SMU and play on their football team. Due to this, SMU was given the first and only death penalty in college football history. Thus barring them from playing the 1987 football season (later the university self-canceled the 1988 season) along with a plethora of other sanctions. Prior to the scandal, SMU was a Southwest Conference (SWC) powerhouse enjoying 10 SWC titles and 11 bowl appearances. Once SMU was able to field a team again in the 1989 season the program was a shell of its former self. Since the sanction SMU was never able to return to their former glory posting a 94-214-3 (.305) record and only one winning season since the death penalty.
This raises the question of, “What if?” Would SMU still have been the dominating football team like they were in the 80s or would they have regressed to mediocrity unable to stand the test of time. I will be attempting to answer this question to the best of my abilities. To do this let’s go back to an alternate version of history. Where the slush fund never existed and all of the player who benefited from it instead decided to go to SMU for it’s great academics and proximity to the beautiful city of Dallas, Texas. To get a better idea of what this “clean” SMU team would be like in 2016 I will be breaking down the key components of building a top flight football program in this modern era. While also trying to identify another institution that might resemble this SMU in a modern day and age.
SMU is currently in the American Athletic Conference becoming a member in 2013. The conference is not as highly regarded as their power 5 counterparts and is mediocre at best. SMU has expressed interest in joining the Big 12, although these advances have not been reciprocated by the conference. In the alternate form of history, it is highly likely SMU would have been a founding member in the Big 12. Since it did rise from the ashes of the failing southwest conference. Also given their location right in the middle of many schools in the conference (ex. TCU Baylor) being a member would revitalize old geographical rivalries. An association with a power 5 conference would be quite beneficial in keeping SMU competitive. The Big 12 has seen much success in the 21st century claiming national titles and Heisman trophies. This would make SMU an attractive school to those who would want to compete with the best competition in the land. Being in the Big 12 would also increase national exposure. All these factors combined would keep SMU relevant on the national stage.
SMU has historically been a good academic institution. Most recently the school was ranked 58th in the United States by the U.S. News & World Report. Most notably, the Cox School of Business has also been held in high esteem and gifted many honors. The academic standard of the university was unaffected by the scandal. Potentially the academics could have been slightly improved in an alternate reality due to the increased revenue produced from a successful football team. Great academics is a powerful selling point to recruits who would be provided with a solid education along with a great football program.
Around the time of the scandal SMU was a national powerhouse drawing recruits from all around the country. Let’s ignore the fact that some of these recruits may have been enticed by the thought of being paid and instead they wanted to go to SMU for other reasons. With continued success in football along with being a member of a notable conference. It is likely SMU would continue to be able to pull in top recruits to the program. Currently, Texas is a prime state for the best college football talent. The state of Texas had 547 recruits qualify to be on the recruiting site 247 Sports along with 33 in their top 250 recruits in the nation. While Texas is saturated with great football schools, the vast amount of talent would allow for SMU to still get a good share of elite recruits. Along with a sustained national presence, SMU would continue to have a great pipeline of recruits each year.
While recruiting is important, having a coach who can develop players is just as if not more vital. At the time of the sanctions Bobby Collins was the coach at SMU. He enjoyed a 91-44-3 record as a head coach between Southern Mississippi and SMU. While his career was cut short due to the sanctions, all signs pointed towards Collins being a solid college football coach. SMU did not have a losing season while he was associated with the program and if the timeline was changed it is highly likely this trend would have continued. Having a reliable and consistent coaching staff would go a long way in keeping a strong program going for years to come.
The easiest school to compare this “clean” SMU to would be their neighbors 40 miles to the west, TCU. Both are around the same size, located in an urban environment, and are private christian universities. TCU has had their up and down years since around the time of the SMU scandal, but their current state best shows the potential ceiling of SMU. Recently everything has come together for TCU allowing it to gain a foothold on the national stage. One great season is all it takes to elevate a program to elite levels. Given SMU was already a highly acclaimed program in the late 80s, it is likely they could have kept the momentum going forward. TCU provides a modern example that a small private university can still keep up with the big boys, which leads me to believe SMU could of been in a similar situation.
While no one knows for certain what would have happened to SMU if they never paid their players, it is always fun to think about the possibilities that could have occurred. There is always the possibility SMU ended up in the same situation they are in currently in without the sanctions. There is always the possibility we have missed out on a program that would be a modern powerhouse that never came to be.