Like Zombies, SMU football Plays on Without a Pulse
For his role, Dale Hansen got death threats, extortion ploys and a dead bird.
"It was a black crow delivered right to our office," recalls Hansen, WFAA-Channel 8's sports anchor. "It had a note pinned through its body: 'You're next.'"
For its part, SMU football received even worse. A two-year death sentence from which it still—21 years later—hasn't recovered.
"It was a significant historical event and a dark day for SMU and the city of Dallas," Mustangs athletic director Steve Orsini said from his office last week. "But there's no residue. It doesn't affect us today."
Tell that to Phil Bennett.
It's been two decades since Hansen's investigation into illegal player payments prompted the NCAA to execute the only homicide in college football history. With last Saturday's excruciating loss in Tulsa, this SMU season—which began with brash bowl game optimism—ended like all the others. Flat-lined.
"It's surely not what we expected," says Orsini, who fired Bennett within 24 hours of the loss. "We're disappointed."
After last year's 6-6 record that had the Mustangs flirting with their first post-season appearance since 1984, this was supposed to be the year. Orsini and Bennett worked up a 71-point plan of improvement. More than $1 million was dumped into the program, including a $600,000 "Pony Up" marketing campaign geared toward attracting fans to Ford Stadium and tailgaters along Bishop Boulevard.
Though four games remain—Bennett will coach through the November 24 finale—the autopsy is in: SMU couldn't beat a team of nerds from the Cox School of Business. SMU, 1-7, lost to Tulsa despite forcing five turnovers, making two 50-yard field goals and enjoying a 23-21 lead and a 1st-and-goal from Tulsa's 5 with 3:00 remaining. And you thought the Bush Library was embarrassing.
With his team officially eliminated from bowl contention, Orsini added Bennett, alongside Mike Cavan, Tom Rossley and Forrest Gregg, to the list of coaches who failed to wake SMU from the dead.
"It's time for results," Orsini says.
Despite the gig being more hazardous than Phil Spector's hairdresser, it's time for Bennett to go.
Bennett, 18-48 in six seasons, survived 0-12 in 2003 to take SMU to the crest of the hump. But this season is an undeniable, unacceptable nosedive.
The defense is one of the nation's worst, allowing around 35 points and 500 yards per game. Not surprisingly, the program's promotional push has likewise flopped. Averaging 35,000 fans in 1986, this year SMU is attracting a weekly tent revival of less than 20,000, including 14,900 in Bennett's last home game two weeks ago against Tulane.
"I believe the pieces to have a successful program are in place," Orsini says. "Coach Bennett said our realistic goal was to go to a bowl game, and I agreed with him."
Though the statute of limitations for using the death penalty as an excuse should've expired long ago, it's plausible to blame Hansen as the Alpha as much as Bennett as the Omega. Like Elvis, SMU's death penalty is tangibly gone yet practically functional.
What Bennett referred to as the "Scarlet D" doesn't drop passes or miss tackles or influence recruits. Or does it? You can no longer see the sanctions in the school's day-to-day operations, but you can still feel their imprint—a stigma that might well outlive us all.
"It was a devastating blow, don't get me wrong," Hansen says. "But too much time has gone by to think it still has a major impact on what SMU is doing."
Hansen had thicker hair, a thinner waistline and only a sapling of an ego when a woman walked into his office in August 1986. An admittedly disgruntled former secretary from SMU's athletic office, she tipped off Hansen to illegal payments—delivered via hand-addressed envelopes—from director of recruiting Henry Lee Parker to dozens of players, including $750 a month to former linebacker David Stanley.
Powered by the "Pony Express" backfield of Eric Dickerson and Craig James, SMU went 41-6 between 1981-'84. But off the field, there was a corrupt culture in place, founded on a blatant disregard for the rules. SMU was placed on probation by the NCAA in 1981 and again in 1985. The latter episode prompted an NCAA emergency meeting in the summer of '85—in Dallas, fittingly—to pass Proposition 3, lethal legislation aimed at repeat offenders.
Hansen and his staff spent four months on the story. Despite Parker's claim to the contrary, a handwriting analysis expert confirmed it was his penmanship on the envelope.
"We bent over backward giving SMU every chance to crawl out of the story," says Hansen. "Parker swore to me one last time that he never sent anything to Stanley, and I told the newsroom, 'If this doesn't run tonight I'm walking off the job.'"
On November 12, 1986, Hansen and Channel 8 aired a 40-minute special on the Stanley saga. Later that month SMU President L. Donald Shields resigned, followed in December by athletic director Bob Hitch, head coach Bobby Collins and the board of governors chairman, better known at the time as Texas Governor Bill Clements. And on February 25, the NCAA dropped the big one.
After discovering that—already on probation—SMU paid 21 players a total of $61,000, the NCAA invoked unprecedented penalties aimed to "eliminate a program that was built on a legacy of wrongdoing, deceit and rule violations." The NCAA canceled the '87 season. SMU voluntarily voided '88.
Hilltop, meet Hiroshima.
"I'm sorry the story had to be told," says Hansen, whose work earned him a coveted Peabody Award. "But I'm really proud Channel 8 told it."
The carnage has been catastrophic. SMU returned in 1989, only to lose a game to Houston, 95-21, and record only one winning season (6-5 in 1997). And after this season's faceplant, the Ponies appear as far from credibility as ever.
The NCAA's response: Oops. In a kinder, gentler, post-SMU environment of enforcement couched with watered-down legislation, compliance officers and institutional control, the NCAA has since pardoned all 29 schools eligible for the death penalty.
Like a flawed taser delivering fatal aftershocks, Proposition 3 has been all but pulled from the shelves.
"It's not for me to say," Orsini says, "but I'd hope the NCAA would remain consistent in administering penalties fairly."
While SMU begins the search for its next losing coach and continues to deal with its permanently scarred legacy, Hansen long ago shed any remorse.
"There's nothing for me or Channel 8 to feel guilty about," says Hansen. "We didn't put SMU on probation. They did it to themselves."
The death penalty may be dead.
But in its wake, SMU is barely alive.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.