Is SMU being unfairly targeted?

The most recent investigations into a Mustangs team reinstates the debate of if the school deserved the investigations/penalties it has received or has been a fall guy for the NCAA.

Joseph Magnuson and J.B. Stockslager were not afraid to show their opinions toward what their SMU basketball team currently has to deal with.

Among the handful of signs and towels marked “Free Keith” that were in the Moody Coliseum student section for the Mustangs’ Jan. 17 game against East Carolina, showing solidarity toward suspended Mustangs guard Keith Frazier, these two took it to another level. During timeouts, they held up a sign that read “Give the NCAA the Death Penalty” – a clear jab at the history of what SMU sports has endured in the past and the grudge many close to the school still hold toward the college sports governing body.

“We just feel like we’re being picked on,” Magnuson said. “We’d like to have good sports teams, too.”

No one wants to be labeled as a conspiracy theorist. But in the eyes of those who have followed SMU sports for years, hearing reports that Larry Brown’s program is being investigated for academic impropriety at the same time that Frazier was ruled academically ineligible – one month after teammate Markus Kennedy was reinstated from the same issue – just raises their ire and belief that the small private school in Dallas has never gotten the leeway that major schools with perennial winning programs get.

“I feel like we should just start an African American studies program,” Magnuson added, referencing the questionable academic practices that the athletic programs at the University of North Carolina has been accused of.

Last year, it was bad enough that SMU basketball got snubbed for the NCAA Tournament. But now, in the midst of a season where they were tabbed as a favorite to win the American Athletic Conference, all new reports that the NCAA is investigating the program may have fans shouting “Oh come on!”

Because they’ve been there before. It does seem like every time a major program on The Hilltop starts to show success, the NCAA comes knocking, targeting their small school over bigger ones who commit similar infractions more frequently.

This most recent issue comes at a time when it looked like there was such hope for the basketball program under Brown, looking for its first NCAA berth since 1993. After turning an NCAA snub last year into a NIT finals appearance, many at SMU felt nothing would stop Brown’s team this season. But several instances have attempted to.

Highly touted recruit Emmanuel Mudiay, out of the controversial Prime Prep Academy, changed his mind over the summer and opted to play professionally overseas; some speculated this was due to him failing to meet NCAA academic standards (SMU insisted he met the school’s, which are tougher). Junior forward Markus Kennedy was then ruled academically ineligible for the fall semester. He returned during the winter break, but on January 10, senior Justin Martin left to turn pro under his own suspicions of academic ineligibility. Three days later, assistant coach Ulric Maligi, SMU’s top recruiter who was instrumental in bringing in Frazier, took a leave of absence due to “personal reasons.” Then came the Frazier announcement. Then, on the 16th, the NCAA sent its Notice of Allegations to the school.

It definitely sends fans into flashbacks with what happened to SMU football in the 1980s, when the program was frequently investigated and sanctioned for recruiting violations, culminating with the program receiving the first ever official repeat violator “death penalty” in 1987. The events were detailed in David Whitford’s 1989 book A Payroll to Meet and brought back to the public light with the 2010 ESPN movie Pony Excess. In the light of boosters and other supporters of the program, the penalty was more than just harsh – it was unfair to single them out in the midst of what they believed was across-the-board cheating among colleges around the nation and especially in the state of Texas.

To those who covered the scandal, like ESPN 103.3’s Chuck Cooperstein when he was with KRLD, there may have been other programs cheating, but SMU was so blatant about it that they were asking to be caught.

“Everyone was doing everything in the SWC of the 80’s save for Rice and Arkansas. Still, SMU was just so brazen about what they did, and then so arrogant in trying to stonewall the investigation, which of course, involved the Governor of Texas, it was impossible to feel sorry for them. They got what they deserved.”

There is truth to that. Bill Clements and the now-defunct SMU Board of Governors forced the school president to lie about the school’s payment system to players and blamed numerous boosters as fully responsible for the system while continuing to run the system after the program was hit with probation in 1985. This was key in the NCAA handing down the death penalty two years later.

Still, people long associated with SMU have frequently played the “unfair selective enforcement” card in how SMU was investigated. Alumni like former football player David Blewett, who wrote a scathing book The Pony Trap in 2012, have accused not only NCAA officials like Walter Byers and David Berst of having a grudge against their school, but also pointed the finger at media members like WFAA’s John Sparks and the Dallas Times Herald’s Danny Robbins – both alums of the University of Texas, which SMU boosters have long accused of committing worse and getting away with it.

“The only reason that SMU ever got in this business of assisting athletes was strictly as a defense mechanism because the other schools were forcing us to do it,” booster Bill Stevens was quoted in A Payroll to Meet. “A player would come say, ‘Well, I’d a hundred times rather go to SMU than the University of Texas, but they’re offering to do one through ten.’ So if we’d match one through ten, then the guy would come to SMU.”

This is a new age: The Times Herald no longer exists, Sparks no longer is at WFAA and Byers and Berst are no longer running the NCAA. But evidence could be there that the organization still has the same selective procedures. It can seem suspicious that SMU, which so far seems to be following its own tough academic standards by suspending Frazier and Kennedy this season, would be investigated in the wake of so many other incidents happening at the moment.

A lot of people will say SMU had this coming by hiring Brown, the only coach to win an NCAA and NBA championship but someone who has seen two programs get hit by NCAA sanctions in the past.

That may be true, but so far the NCAA has not shown to be investigating Kentucky, who not only also has a head coach with multiple NCAA sanctions on his record in John Calipari but is one of the most infamous schools in recruiting one-and-done athletes more interested in turning pro than graduating college. And while Calipari’s 2008 Memphis team was forced to forfeit back its entire national runner-up season for using an ineligible player, the Kansas team that beat them in the title game did not despite being caught with a similar violation. In fact, the 2008 team was on probation that year, with its lone penalty being the loss of one scholarship.

Kansas and Kentucky are among the programs that currently rely heavily on players who plan to leave and turn pro after just one year. The lone player Brown has so far successfully recruited who may have considered that, Mudiay, didn’t even wait that long. (SMU did pursue projected one-and-done star Myles Turner before he eventually chose Texas.)

And now it definitely would raise eyebrows that allegations would come against SMU so quickly after it was discovered last year that North Carolina was essentially creating fake classes for athletes in multiple sports to take for at least 18 years. At the moment, the only NCAA sanctions on UNC have been three years probation on the football team imposed in 2012; the NCAA re-opened the investigation in 2014, while the school is facing a class action suit from former athletes and employees.

So if SMU has so far been a program not stocked with one-and-done players and enforcing the school’s academic standards, why has the NCAA chosen to come after them? Therein lies the SMU fan base’s fears of targeting.

It’s just the way things work, says Cooperstein.

“With Carolina being a blue blood program, they will always get the benefit of the doubt. Always remember the famous Jerry Tarkanian line: The NCAA is so mad at Kentucky, it’ll probably slap another two years probation on Cleveland State. The NCAA is always suspicious of bottom feeder programs that quickly rise to prominence.”

There is definitely more evidence to support that claim. At the same time SMU football was given the death penalty, the NCAA opened an investigation on the University of Texas and discovered several instances of football players receiving cash and favors from coaches; Texas’ only penalty was to be stripped of 10 scholarships for the 1988 season. In 2011, Colt McCoy’s wife went on Colin Cowherd’s radio show and hinted that other Texas football players may have received improper benefits that her husband refused while in Austin. Despite that, much publicized player arrests and assistant coach/former quarterback Major Applewhite admitting to an affair with a student, Texas was not investigated by the NCAA.

Even one of Brown’s other college programs was given leniency. The 1980 UCLA team that finished runner-up was forced to forfeit back its season – a rare occasion of dropping the hammer on a major program – but the 1988 Kansas team escaped such a penalty for recruitment violations and was only barred from tournament play and stripped of one scholarship for the following year. The NCAA has never stripped a program of a national championship for rules violations (The BCS did strip Southern California of its 2004 football championship).

The general belief by many fans is that if the NCAA comes after you, you’re a dead duck. But according to Whitford, at least at the time his book first came out in 1989, the NCAA is very limited and handicapped in how it can gain evidence. They were only able to nail SMU football in the end thanks to the likes of Sean Stopperich and David Stanley agreeing to talk. In 1989, Kentucky basketball was banned from tournament play for two years for a $1,000 payment that was to be sent to the family of recruit Chris Mills, but that violation was only even discovered because the package containing the money burst and was reported by the shipping agent before reaching its destination. (Numerous people have since claimed Kentucky was set up and no money was actually found; former Kentucky assistant Dwane Casey won a defamation suit against the shipping company that claimed he sent the package.)

SMU’s case may still be tough to levy anything severe on. After all, the NCAA has long had few absolute policies regarding athlete eligibility, relying on the trust of the schools to maintain their own academic standards. This has limited the NCAA’s abilities to police such policies, and the re-evaluations from UNC seem to be a far more glaring example of how schools might abuse that trust.

At the moment, SMU is feeling no ill effects from Frazier’s suspension or the NCAA announcement; the Mustangs have not lost a game since, going into Saturday’s contest with Central Florida on a seven-game winning streak. Even if the NCAA finds anything concrete to lay sanctions for, it is not likely that would happen before the end of the season.

But should the Mustangs get hit hard and a program like North Carolina is not hit even harder, it won’t assuage the fears of people like Stockslager.

“It’s kind of sad that its gotten to this point, with the different programs at the school… at the same time, they have (Frazier’s) high school issue which we thought was covered last year… I kind of feel like they let us down with the timing of all of it.”

Sprawled conferences haven’t been good for college sports

Last Monday night was the most fun I had at a game in a long time, watching Scott Cross’ UTA Mavericks take down Danny Kotter – sorry, Kaspar’s Texas State Bobcats. And it made me wonder why my adrenaline hasn’t been as high at College Park Center as it used to be? Was it because that was a much tighter contest after seeing a lot of blowouts recently? Was it because I’m just getting too old?

But I know the real reason. It was because the game was against Texas State, the only in-state rival the Mavs have any more. That game meant something extra, something I haven’t been able to get from them playing Georgia State or Troy. It’s something that used to be present in a lot more conference games that don’t exist any more.

Once upon a time, the UTA Mavericks played in the Southland Conference, which for years was mostly comprised of schools within the state of Texas and Louisiana. Now, the names Stephen F. Austin State and Sam Houston State and UT-San Antonio might not seem like big names to a lot of people, but to those of us who were loyal to the blue and white, those names meant everything. For me and my friends, piling into a car and making a simple three-to-four hour drive to be among the few fans daring to yell for our team in enemy territory and make it back home in a day made for some of the best of times.

Now, today’s UTA students definitely have it better than us in some regards; a big new place to watch games with an actual student section tops that list. But how often do they get a chance for the road trips we had? They could possibly travel to San Marcos or Monroe, LA – MAYBE to Lafayette. That’s about it. Let’s see college students manage to travel to Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina or some of the other places the Mavs go to now in the Sun Belt Conference.

The thing is, what UTA now deals with in conference play in bad travel and opponents fans can’t get fired up for is not unique in college sports today. Conferences are all over the map, quite literally. And it’s killing college athletics, especially for those that can’t immediately sell dreams of a national championship.

Once upon a time, as you can see from the first of the two diagrams provided below, college conferences were organized by regions. Everything was relatively compact and easy to understand, and the chance for your team to prove it was the best in the region led to excitement that programs could sell. Maybe you didn’t have a shot at the national championship this year, but you could brag to your colleagues from a nearby school that you beat them out for best in the region.

While I did have to go back 35-40 years for the exact alignment provided [EDIT: I have also since been informed that the Big East was not founded until 1979], it’s important to note that not that much changed over the next 20-30 years. Arizona and Arizona State did go to the Pac-10, the Big East and ACC expanded into Florida and most notably, the Southwest Conference dissolved to create the Big 12. But for the most part, things stayed regionalized.


Not anymore, as the second image proves. In the last decade, the idea that being spread out over the nation leads to more money and recognition has taken hold, and regional rivalries have suffered. Colleges have ditched the old system of proximity breeding passion and instead trying to sell recruits on being able to travel across the country for games while trying to tell their fans they can get just as excited for conference “rivals” 1500 miles away.

It isn’t working. TCU’s last game in 2014 at Amon Carter Stadium, against Iowa State, had a Big 12 conference championship to be won as a selling point – and they still couldn’t sell out the place.

But at least TCU is in somewhat of a good spot being in as close to the old SWC as possible in the Big 12. SMU is in no-man’s land playing in The American. Even with a shot at winning the conference, Larry Brown’s team is seeing empty seats at Moody again. The football team has to stockpile its non-conference schedule with old SWC rivals to generate any interest, because even when the Mustangs were making bowl games again, they couldn’t pack Ford Stadium for the likes of Memphis, Cincinnati and South Florida.

When UNT is in the best position by being with UT-San Antonio, Rice and UT-El Paso in Conference USA, that’s beyond not good.

What college fans in North Texas want more than anything else is to face each other for bragging rights. Instead, we have four Division I schools – three with football programs – that all play in different conferences now.

And the conferences are almost all the same. If anything, it’s what’s killed any chance of The American or Conference USA or the Sun Belt being a competitive power in Division I because they are all spread out over almost the same area. None of those conferences and member schools have anything special to offer over one another. No tight regional formations = no regional rivalries = no excitement among the fans = bad atmospheres for games = little incentive for top recruits to go there.

When I heard that UTA was leaving the Southland, the athletics department’s head of promotions at the time kept trying to tell me, “this is the best thing for us.”

So far, I’m not seeing it – for UTA, SMU or a lot of other programs across the country.

Big 12 could risk Big East destruction by expanding

Part 2 in a series on the Big 12 and the College Football Playoff

Larry Brown’s SMU Mustangs have a tough challenge playing in the American Athletic Conference, just like last season. Last year, for the most part, they lived up to the task. It is still wait and see, following a tough loss on Saturday with Memphis coming to Moody on Thursday and the likes of Louisville and UConn still to come, if the Mustangs will do so again.

That’s how it goes in one of the best basketball conferences in the nation. But the ironic thing is that the American, formerly known as the Big East, never wanted to be a good basketball conference. They wanted to be a great football conference, and they paid a big price in their vain efforts to do so.

The Big 12, meanwhile, is known a football conference, even with six Top 25 basketball teams in it. But for some, it still isn’t good enough, and it is because of that that the conference could be at risk of a similar implosion.

Having dodged such destruction once, the Big 12 continues to say it is satisfied with only having 10 schools for the monemt. But now they are having to hear pundits say they need to go back to at least 12, and maybe even more, if they are going to compete with the likes of the 14-team Big Ten and the SEC for spots in the College Football Playoff.

ESPN and others in the sports media have long predicted that college football will eventually be re-organized into four “superconferences” of 16 schools each. But it still hasn’t happened, and it likely never will to those who keep their eyes smaller than their stomachs.

Mark my words on this: The current glut of teams in the “BiG” and the SEC will not last, and it will likely end ugly.

The allure of the “superconference” is one of the biggest cases of people refusing to learn from history and thus dooming to repeat it. Even after the mess that the Big East became, other conferences continue to tell themselves, “Oh, that won’t happen HERE!”

Except eventually, it always happens. It happened in the WAC, and it happened in the Big East. Two conferences that wanted to get bigger and bigger solely because of football, and ultimately resulting in neither conference even playing football any more.

The Big East is just the most blatant example of how badly things can go wrong with a superconference. Long considered the bottom rung of the BCS conferences, the Big East decided the solution was to get bigger and thus get one of those purty conference championship games. Even as teams like Virginia Tech, Boston College and Miami departed, they kept bringing in the likes of Memphis, Cincinnati, Louisville, anyone from Florida…

No one bought that the Big East played big football, though. The defections kept occurring, as Syracuse, West Virginia and Pitt all left. That drove the Big East to recruit SMU, Houston, and even San Diego State and Boise State – to a conference known as the Big EAST.

That’s when the Big East schools that didn’t play football said, “Enough with this s***.” They packed up and left, leaving a little note that stated they had the right to take the conference’s name with them.

The end result? A new Big East that doesn’t even play football and the remnants of the old conference’s gluttony that is among the lowest rated of the “Group of Five” football conferences.

Chad Morris seems to be already doing the best job possible to recruit football players to SMU, but it is a challenge that, with the quality of that sport being played in the American, he can’t sell the chance of a national championship for his program like Brown can to basketball players.

The ACC is certainly the next to implode. After an embarrassing semifinal loss to a Florida State team that some claim didn’t even deserve a playoff spot, don’t be surprised if the ACC tries to get even bigger by perhaps luring more Conference USA or AAC schools. And eventually, the big basketball schools at North Carolina and Duke will certainly look at the gluttony and ask, “Is this worth it?”

But surely this wouldn’t happen in the Big 12, right? Not in a conference where there are so many established football powers that no schools there would dare break up the good thing they have, right?

Don’t count on that. Texas and Oklahoma are among the biggest opponents for a conference title game on the very claim that it puts a shot at the playoff at risk (which both schools have been on both sides of). And given those two schools almost led the charge at breaking up the Big 12 once until that huge TV deal satisfied them, what UT and OU say usually goes.

Bob Bowlsby did make a big mistake in not declaring a tiebreaker between TCU and Baylor for the championship. But making a knee-jerk response by just up and adding another two to four schools among whoever will come calling will be an even bigger one.

Because should that happen, Texas and Oklahoma will likely consider taking their ball and going elsewhere once again – just like the University of Texas did once before, leading to the destruction of one historic conference.

History can happen again, no matter how much media pundits choose to ignore it.