In our ongoing efforts to bring you the fabric of the old Southwest Conference we aren't inclined to candy coat things. We're here to chronicle the history of the SWC, warts and all. We can't do that without addressing the issue of cheatin'. NCAA violations committed by SWC schools helped bring the league down. (It also made it pretty great.) Tonight, Episode Two: Bill Yeoman's Magical Drawer of Cash.
Bill Yeoman pioneered an offense called the Houston Veer. In the late 60's and 70's it was unstoppable. A fair amount of today's spread concepts trace back to Yeoman's offense. From 1966 to 1974 the Cougars were ranked seven of eight years and went to four Astr0-Bluebonnet Bowls.
In 1976 Yeoman's Cougars joined the SWC. The SWC was known for liberal interpretations of NCAA rules and conservative views on just about everything else. Yeoman fit right in thanks to his unstoppable scheme and his magical drawer of cash. More on that later.
The Cougars took the conference by storm, winning three titles in their first four seasons in the SWC. Yeoman's charges went 25-7 in the league and busted up the good ol' boys club, including blue bloods Texas and Texas A&M. The Horns, Aggies and the rest of the league had just about enough of the newcomers. They knew the Cougars were cheating, but hell, everyone in the league was. It was how they went about it and the nondescript office accessory that helped pay the way that set them apart.
"It was a tradition."
Since the 60's the legend of Bill Yeoman's magical drawer of cash had grown. Darrell Royal, the unchallenged, unofficial deity of the league despised Yeoman in part because he felt Yeoman played fast and loose with the NCAA rules. He also knew about the second drawer on the left hand side of Yeoman's desk.
By the time David Roberson showed up on Houston's campus, handing out cash was a well established practice. He was more than eager to partake. So were many of his teammates.
After their playing days, Roberson and Lonell Phea swore in affidavits that they received cash from Yeoman and their position coaches. Roberson who was a second team All-SWC receiver and estimated that he received between $8,000 and $10,000 during his four seasons at Houston. Phea, an Honorable Mention All-America, estimated that he received at least $18,000. According to Roberson the payments were commonplace "[i]t was a tradition. They had always done it."
According to Houston legend Warren McVea, the practice went back to his era in the mid-60s. In 1966 the Cougars received three years probation for improper benefits, including those given to McVea. McVea was perhaps the most explosive athlete in the state. A disgruntled former assistant went to the NCAA and turned in his ex-employer. In the SWC the sun rose and set, deaths occurred, taxes were levied, and former assistants typically beat a path to the NCAA once their contracts were terminated.
In 1977, Yeoman's program again ran afoul of the game's governing body when information leaked that prized recruit Darrell Shepard's brand new Pontiac Trans Am was secured by Yeoman and the Cougars. Shepard famously turned down Fred Akers and the University of Texas to sign with Houston. Texas' AD was Darrell Royal, the Cougars' rise had coincidentally come at the same time Royal was suffering through his only non-winning season on the 40 acres. According to Jim Dent, Royal had grown none to fond of Yeoman and his interlopers from Houston.
Magically, as though dropped like mana from heaven, the car loan story appeared in the Dallas Times Herald. Funny how that worked.
As the story goes Shepard, from Odessa, somehow secured a loan from the Bank of Brazoria. The Bank of Brazoria Chairman also happened to be a member of the Houston Booster Club and a close friend of Yeoman's. The value of the loan was worth more than twice the value of the Shepard home. Not to mention that the Bank of Brazoria was 500 miles from Odessa. In the pre-internet 1970's the story seemed to good to be true.
The car by the way had the word "Darrell" emblazoned on the trunk in four inch lettering. No word on whether it had spinners.
The Cougars were placed on probation for one season thanks to transactions like Shepard's. Shepard by the way transferred to Oklahoma where he helped the Sooners beat the Cougars in the 1981 Sun Bowl. He was still driving the Trans Am. We're sure he never got any help with the payments in Norman. Barry Switzer was pure as the driven snow.
Loans were one thing, but cold, hard cash was the preferred mechanism of influence. According to Phea the coaches cut out the middle man or bag man and just handed out the cash themselves. When players visited Yeoman's office, he would open his magical drawer and in todays vernacular "make it rain." Well technically, the players wouldn't strip and get showered with bills, but you get the idea. "Sometimes (the money) would come out (the coaches') pockets. Sometimes Yeoman would take it from a drawer in his desk" Phea would claim. Roberson went further, saying the money was kept in a left hand drawer in an envelope, "a large envelope" that contained only hundreds.
Other players described a gray coffee can. That sort of repurposing would be applauded today.
Phea claimed that at times Yeoman's cash drawer would be used to get players out of some harry predicaments. "I needed $1,200 one time and I got that from coach Yeoman. He helped me with some pretty serious personal issues that I needed money pretty bad for."
All these cash gifts or philanthropic donations came back to bite Houston in the backside in 1986 when the NCAA got wind of the windfalls and started investigating the Cougars. NCAA investigators must've got a group rate on airline tickets to Texas as at the time NCAA investigations were ongoing at Texas, A&M, TCU, Texas Tech, and Houston. Then there was SMU, where the NCAA blew up the Mustang football program in 1987.
Can I borrow the Credit Card?
Details of the Cougars' money lending practices began to trickle out. Turns out players were given money to purchase things like wedding rings, wedding gifts, rent for a player's mom, and even an abortion. Coaches continued the practice of arranging bank loans.
The allegations went beyond just the cash, Phea claimed that Yeoman and the football staff only wanted him around to play football. "I ain't took no math or english since the first year I was there" he claimed. The quote itself tends to be self proving.
An internal audit found that the academic issues were profound and athletic department wide. On the football team alone 21 players were either academically ineligible or quite after the 1985 season. All those defections contributed to a 1-10 season.
Roberson was on academic suspension for five of his nine semesters at Houston yet somehow continued to play. After the third academic suspension, the registrar noted that "no further enrollment should be contemplated" but Roberson was good at football and that changed things. By the time Roberson finished his eligibility at Houston he was 37 hours short of his degree but he had a sweet $3,000 stereo system in his dorm room.
If academic issues and cash payments weren't enough, 23 players said they bought gas for their cars using credit cards provided by coaches. Houston AD Tom Ford resigned in June of '86 and was replaced by interim AD Mike Johnson. In July of that year the NCAA gave the Cougars notice that investigators were officially going to sniff around the program.
Johnson was either a steely operator or deluded because he told the local media, "I really don't think they're going to find much, if anything." Optimism was running high. He also said the NCAA investigators would be coming to Houston as soon as they were free. Apparently they were "up to their ears" in investigations. The Texas branch of the NCAA investigatory wing must have been open 24/7.
After resigning following the 1986 season, Yeoman admitted paying players, though according to Yeoman, never more than $35 and never for anything other than a true financial hardship.
By 1988 the NCAA had made its decision: the Cougars were placed on three years probation for violations stemming from conduct from 1978 to 1985.
The NCAA found, among other things, that a player was given $500 in bathroom stall, a player was given $200 after signing a letter of intent, another player was given a car and $800 to pay for his mother's utility bills, players also received other improper benefits like free hotel stays and credit cards.
Jack Pardee took over for Yeoman and after a difficult four win season in '87 and in spite of scholarship restrictions, led the Cougars to two straight nine win campaigns including a bowl trip in 1988. After Pardee left to take over the Oilers, John Jenkins led Houston to a 10-1 season in 1990 and #10 ranking in the final AP poll. That great Houston squad was ineligible to go to the post season. By the time the Cougars were back in the post-season hunt, whatever lightening Jenkins had was gone. His last two years Jenkins' Houston teams won eight games combined.
Yeoman went from coaching to fund raising for the university he loved and the program he built. He's still revered in coaching for his offensive innovations and for taking the SWC by storm. His legacy also includes a bit of impropriety, as is the case with so many of our SWC legends. Coach Yeoman was tempted by the football Gods to pay to compete in a cheating league. He was hands on with his indiscretions, he kept his money in his desk drawer for easy access.