Correlation does not equal causation. We know that. But it's certainly beginning to appear that whenever an SMU athletics program is on the verge of a national breakthrough, it's also likely on the verge of NCAA sanctions.
In the 1980s, the football team that achieved prominence built on the backs of star running backs Eric Dickerson and Craig James was hit with the stiffest penalty ever issued by the NCAA. For repeated violations centered on paying football players, the program was completely shut down for a year in 1987, banned from playing home games in 1988 — the school would cancel the team's road games, as well — and banned from bowl games and TV until 1990. Football scholarships were limited until 1992. The program still hasn't completely recovered. Despite a couple of appearances in small bowl games under former head coach June Jones, SMU still struggles to recruit the level of athletes necessary to maintain a nationally viable program.
SMU's basketball program, under Hall of Fame head coach Larry Brown had, until recently, appeared that it might escape the shadow of the school's NCAA infamy. Two years ago, snubbed by the NCAA tournament selection committee, the Mustangs made it all the way to the championship game of college basketball's second-tier postseason tournament. Last year, Brown led the Mustangs to a conference championship and the team's first NCAA Tournament in more than two decades.
Tuesday, more than a month before the 2015-16 hoops season starts, SMU found out that it won't be going back. Brown's program has been hit with a one-year postseason ban, limited scholarships and limited unofficial campus visits from recruits by the NCAA after being found guilty of a series of infractions, the biggest of which centers on former Kimball High School star Keith Frazier. Brown himself will be suspended for the first nine games of the season. In an effort to get himself eligible to attend SMU — and play for Brown's basketball team — Frazier enrolled in an online course. Frazier passed the class and was allowed to enroll in SMU, but he didn't take it, according to the NCAA; a member of SMU's athletic department staff took it for him.
Michael Adams, chancellor of Pepperdine University and a member of the infractions committee that reviewed the evidence against SMU, said Tuesday that SMU's history contributed to the committee's stiff punishment.
"The fact that this institution has been in front of this committee so many times is an aggravating factor," Adams said during a press call.
Adams acknowledged some of the work SMU has done to promote NCAA rule compliance in the 30 years since the Pony Express — Brown has access to a compliance officer in the basketball building, just to make sure stuff like this doesn't happen — but said there were a large number of individuals within the SMU athletics community making unethical decisions.
Later in the day, SMU officials, including university President Gerald Turner and Brown, addressed the sanctions and the state of sports at SMU.
"I believe that SMU has a very strong compliance program," Turner said, before blaming individuals who, he said, chose to break the rules.
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Brown has his full support, Turner said, and he intends the coach to stay on for the foreseeable future. Brown, appearing haggard but resolute, said he had no intention of stepping down and criticized the penalties as being unfair to the athletes on his team.
"I accept responsibility but cannot respect the appropriateness of the punishment," Brown said.
NCAA bylaws require that coaches are responsible for any infraction that occurs within their program, whether they know about it or not. That wasn't the rule during two of Brown's other coaching stops — at the University of Kansas and UCLA — that also saw Brown's tenure dogged by accusations of NCAA violations. Still, Brown's staying and doesn't expect any of this to affect recruiting. After all, he suggested, by the time those kids are on campus, the sanctions will be over.