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 Four: Polygraphs and Payments.
A decade and a half before the NCAA came down on the SMU football program, going full Godfather horse's head in the bed with the Death Penalty, the Mustangs ran afoul of the NCAA rules under one of the most interesting coaches in SWC history, Dave Smith.
Dave Smith assisted at SMU under then head coach Hayden Fry for eight years before heading off to the great white north for one season to coach the offense of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. A season later he left Winnipeg for Stillwater, Oklahoma and the head job at Oklahoma State. A year after that he was on the move back to SMU to replace Fry. Fry had run afoul of the powers that be in Dallas and left for North Texas. An interesting note on Smith, as an assistant at SMU he was instrumental in recruiting the first black football player in SWC history - Jerry Levias.
Apparently SMU chose between Smith and some pretty heavy hitters. Lou Holtz, then at North Carolina State, interviewed. Holtz of course would coach at Arkansas and later Notre Dame where he would win a National Title before finishing his career at South Carolina. Johnny Majors, then at Iowa State was also on the list. Majors would go on to win a National Title at Pitt before returning to his alma mater, Tennessee, where he coached for sixteen years. Finally one Barry Switzer, then an assistant at Oklahoma was apparently up for the job. Switzer of course went onto win three titles at OU and wasn't exactly immune to NCAA troubles.
All of the above interviewed for the job, but SMU settled instead on Dave Smith.
Pay for Play
Smith won six games each of his first two seasons at SMU. The Mustangs appeared to headed in the right direction. They were playing with vigor and desire. Perhaps part of the reason for their newfound enthusiasm was a pay for play scheme that Smith had concocted a la Greg Williams of more recent vintage with the New Orleans Saints.
The Dallas Morning News and the Waco Tribune broke the news in December of 1973. At the time Smith was the athletic director at SMU as well. Apparently Smith the AD was in hotter water than Smith the head coach because Smith the AD lost his job over the payments while Smith the head coach kept coaching.
The payments by the way ranged from $5 to $25. In todays terms that would be between roughly $30 and $150 in cold hard cash.
SMU was also accused of compensating players for complimentary tickets. Here's how it worked, the players were given free tickets and then "sold" them back to the athletic department for a profit. Bilking free tickets was a common SWC scam in the 70's and 80's. Several schools got in trouble for it.
In an odd twist, something akin to a lost plot of Les Miserables, the players actually donated their pay for play earnings for December of that year to an injured local JV football player. So basically their charity implicated the misdeeds of the football program.
Allegations came to light at the SWC meetings that year. Historically the self reporting of infractions was a consistent agenda item at conference gatherings. We assume the commissioner would look around and ask "does anyone have anything they need to tell me?" SMU President Paul Hardin fessed up and imposed sanctions against the Mustangs with the conference signing off. Smith's contract was voided by the violations and he was subject to dismissal. Hardin put him on a year to year deal. Smith survived. Ironically, Hardin did not.
By June of of 1974 Hardin was gone. Some claimed that Hardin was let go because he had turned in his football program to the conference. Other issues contributed to Hardin's problems, including the way Fry left the school, but the whistle blowing didn't help. A few players alleged that Hardin even took part in the ticket scam.
By August the NCAA came down with their sanctions against SMU which included a two-year probationary period and a bar on post-season eligibility as well as tv revenue.
Things took a rather odd turn when it was revealed that Smith, concerned with possible drug use by team members, began administering lie detector tests to his young charges. At first the tests were voluntary. However players that refused were suspended. Smith told local reporters that one of the suspended players was let go due to academic issues, however, that player was removed from the team prior to taking final exams. The player himself claimed he was accused of "pushing drugs" and told to either submit to the polygraph or be dismissed from the team. Another suspended player threatened legal action.
In a moment reminiscent of the movie "Rudy" except, you know, something that actually did happen, SMU's remaining players demanded the suspended players be reinstated and a meeting with their head coach to air their grievances. They even threatened to boycott offseason workouts.
All this came at a time when the SWC was wrestling with the use of polygraphs to investigate just about anything from accepting illicit funds to drug involvement. Of course the idea of due process prior to kicking players off a team or out of a university based on what has become known to be unreliable science never really entered the equation.
There were even accusations that Smith and his assistants had tricked players into taking polygraphs. SMU was faced with a near all-out player revolt.
Then came word that SMU assistant Julius Glosson, apparently upset with a prospect signing with Arkansas, took a wad a cash out of his pocket and waved it at the recruit saying "you could've had all this if you'd signed with us." Smith and Glosson took polygraphs administered by the SWC and were reportedly cleared. Can you imagine the SEC giving Nick Saban a lie detector? Neither can we.
The NCAA decided it was time to sniff around the Mustang program again. The news came a few months after SMU's two year probation period ended. It was the straw that broke the camel's back. Smith couldn't survive another NCAA probe.
Smith was let go in December of 1975. A few weeks later Ron Meyer was introduced as the new SMU coach. Meyer claimed he was going to chart a course that led the Mustangs to grid iron glory without institutional malfeasance.
That didn't work out too well.