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Web Posted: 03/03/2007 2:00 CST

20 years after SMU's football scandal

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Twenty years ago today, an announcement in Austin rocked the Texas sports scene and ignited a wave of criticism and ridicule across the nation. Just days after the NCAA's announcement of the suspension of SMU's football program for repeated rules violations, Texas Gov. Bill Clements acknowledged he had approved the continuation of payments to SMU players while serving on the school's board of governors. A look back at that dark day and its aftermath.

AUSTIN — D. Alan Williams sits in the study of his home in Charlottesville, Va., holding a report.

On its pages is the blood trail of the most damning and far-reaching infractions case in the history of the NCAA — the investigation that led to the so-called "death penalty" being imposed on SMU's football program in 1987.

It's only seven pages long.

"Some of these go 50 pages or more," said Williams, then a Virginia law professor and member of the NCAA's infractions committee. "But this wasn't contested. It was all cut and dried. That's why it's only seven pages."

But what a seven pages they are.

The details jump off the parchment: A slush fund totaling $61,000 involving 13 football players. Stonewalling by athletes and coaches when questioned about the deeds. The continuation of payments even while the school was serving a two-year probation handed down in 1985.

Because of what was in those pages, SMU — the alma mater of such football greats as Doak Walker, Kyle Rote, Don Meredith and Eric Dickerson — would lose its football program for two years and fade, likely forever, from the ranks of the national elite.

And yet, even as the other shoe dropped in Dallas 20 years ago this week, the final jaw had not.

Six days after the death penalty pronouncement, Gov. Bill Clements stepped to a microphone for his weekly news conference in Austin. Barely into the second of his two split terms — and only weeks after stepping down as chairman of SMU's board of governors — Clements fully expected to field questions on the NCAA decision.

The NCAA's penalty called for a one-year suspension of football and no home games the following year. SMU decided to cancel the second season rather than play a road-only schedule.

What Clements said caused the rest of the nation to howl in disbelief, to recoil in revulsion, to reach into an already bulging bag of J.R. Ewing-esque Texas stereotypes and seed the national dialogue with derisive laughter.

Twenty years ago today, on March 3, 1987, Clements acknowledged that while sitting on the SMU board, he and other school officials had approved a secret plan to continue illegal payments to SMU players.

No matter that SMU was then serving probation time for those payments. Clements and his SMU cronies agreed the cash had to keep flowing.

Attempting to take the high road, Clements said the agreement was reached in an effort to "phase out" the payments and restore integrity in the football program. But, Clements explained, integrity also required the school to honor its slush fund commitments to the players still in the program.

"We made a considered judgment decision over several months that the commitments had been made and in the interest of the institution, the boys, their families, and to comply with the NCAA, the program would be phased out," Clements said.

Not terminated.

"Phased out."

"In due course," Clements said.

Sportswriters, political writers, editorialists, talk-show hosts — and much of the general public — were aghast.

For all of his stated good intentions, Clements had delivered a mea culpa for a decadelong morass of Southwest Conference scandals — scandals that led directly to the conference's demise in the mid-1990s.

The governor of the great state of Texas, it turned out, really was an overzealous college football booster — and a bag man to boot.

And, on top of that — an unrepentant bag man.

Paying off in victories

Those payments had helped SMU turn around a program in disarray. The Mustangs had three winning seasons in the 1970s and two in the 1960s.

All total, SMU was 41 games under .500 in those two decades.

In the first six years of the 1980s, SMU was 42 games over .500. It won two SWC championships outright and tied for a third. The 1982 team led by Dickerson and Craig James at running back and quarterback Lance McIlhenny finished the season ranked No. 2 in the nation.

Those payments also led to the NCAA's execution of SMU football, but the governor's admission six days later made the spit fly.

Democrats brutalized Clements, the first Republican to be elected Texas governor since Reconstruction. George Shipley, a Democratic pollster, called it "very embarrassing and damaging to Texas."

"I cannot comprehend what's happening," Arkansas athletic director Frank Broyles said. "The governor's statement blew my mind."

Two years later, Broyles cut a deal to pull Arkansas out of the SWC for membership in the Southeastern Conference.

SMU's faculty senate denounced Clements. Members of the school's student senate voted to pursue legal action against him and others involved with the football program.

An SMU ethics professor, Dr. Leroy Howe, told the Washington Post: "I think it's a pretty good example of modern day thinking going beyond the normal concepts of good and evil. Maybe the Nietzchean Superman acts this way, but no one else does. It strains the language to incredibility."

Ted Koppel, host of the popular "Nightline" television show on ABC, took up the topic with Dan Jenkins, the prominent Texas author and exuberant TCU alum. Jenkins blamed the affair on the NCAA's "stupid rules."

That didn't help.

Clements insisted all members of SMU's board of governors were in on the fix. All denied it.

Adding to the level of incredulity, Clements insisted the NCAA had pre-approved of the school's "phase out" plan.

NCAA officials angrily denied it, prompting more headlines.

SMU's board of governors asked the United Methodist Church, which runs the school, to have its College of Bishops investigate the matter, both payoffs and those who approved them. That didn't save them.

Barely two weeks after Clements' admission, the school's board of trustees voted to abolish the board of governors.

The bishops' report, released four months later, confirmed the NCAA's findings and, over the course of its 48 pages, dropped a few bombshells of its own.

The report revealed that in 1986 Clements had met with SMU athletic director Bob Hitch. They concluded the Mustangs "had a payroll to meet."

Clements then told SMU President Donald Shields: "We'll take care of it. You stay out of it. We'll run the university."

The report showed Clements, Shields and three members of the board knew of the payments. Two of those board members, it was revealed, conspired to cover up Clements' involvement. One of those was Clements' successor as chairman, William L. Hutchison.

The bishops found three key figures in the scandal — Hitch, football coach Bobby Collins and assistant coach Henry Lee Parker — were paid more than $850,000 in severance in return for their silence.

They discovered two SMU athletes had once broken into Parker's desk and stolen the monthly payoff money. When confronted, the athletes refused to return it, declaring, in effect, that it was their own hush money.

Clements, asked shortly after his disclosure for an explanation of his earlier lies, kept the outrage alive.

"There wasn't a Bible in the room," he said.

Incredible.

Code of silence

Even two decades later, the SMU case is veiled by a certain omertà, the enforcement version of the Mafia's vow of silence.

"We've always had a policy that once a decision is handed down, we don't comment on it," Williams said.

"This is old, old stuff," Howe said in an e-mail interview request.

Shields, who resigned as SMU president for health reasons three months before the sanctions were delivered, was reached at home in Encinitas, Calif.

"That is a matter I essentially have put aside," he said.

Butch Worley, the NCAA enforcement point man on the case and now a senior associate athletic director at Texas, was reluctant to open old wounds.

"The Bishop's Report lays it all out," Worley said. "I can't provide any more information that wasn't in that report."

Parker said from his Alabama home: "I don't want to do that again."

Clements' personal assistant did not return phone calls.

In June 1987, two Texas legislators moved to impeach Clements, contending that had he honestly addressed the matter in 1986, voters never would have elected him. The effort failed. Still, Clements remained tarred by the scandal.

He opted not to run again in 1990. Voters replaced him with Democrat Ann Richards.

Williams, almost nine years retired from his post as a law professor at Virginia and 13 years removed from workings with the NCAA infractions committee, is getting around to a different kind of housecleaning.

Last November, he shredded his notes on the SMU case — about 1,000 pages' worth.

There are more that have to go.

"It's time to clean up," he said.

And he meant it.


mwangrin@express-news.net

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