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.”