Beating a Dead Horse
Nearly 25 years after SMU received the death penalty, the Mustangs are finally on the trail to success. But an ESPN documentary reminds us how far the team had fallen thanks to ego, greed, and the religion of football.
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For many college football teams, two consecutive bowl games and a conference championship berth represent a program that is on the move. For SMU it’s nothing short of miraculous.
That’s because the Mustangs—who played in the C-USA title game earlier this month and are headed to the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl on December 30—are the only team in history to receive the “death penalty” from the NCAA: the cancellation of the entire 1987 season because of repeated rules violations. That punishment, which forced the school to cancel the 1988 season as well, is the subject of Pony Excess, a film about the high-flying success of the football program in the early eighties—and its disastrous end. The documentary premieres Saturday evening after the Heisman Trophy presentation, and it is the last film in ESPN’s stellar 30 for 30 documentary series. The timing couldn’t be better: College football has been reeling from allegations that Cecil Newton, the father of Auburn quarterback Cam Newton and the front-runner for this year’s Heisman, asked for money to ensure his son would go to another school. Some things never change.
Still, Newton’s scheme would seem tame in Pony Excess, which shows how cheating was practically a way of life in the 1980’s-era Southwest Conference. Director Thaddeus D. Matula, who has deep roots at SMU, shows how big money from the oil and banking industries thrust the city into the national spotlight (using Dallas’s Bobby Ewing—also known as Patrick Duffy—as the narrator is certainly a nice touch). Soon those high-rollers wanted something else to brag about: a powerhouse football team.
So like any other project in the city—its high rises, its museums, its sprawling mansions—they threw money at it. As a result, the film lets us hear about recruits offered $20,000 to sign with SMU and turning it down, saying, “Coach, that’s not even close.” Future NFL Hall of Famer Eric Dickerson finds a gold Trans Am in the driveway of his Sealy home days before he spurned Texas A&M and signed with the Mustangs. Once at SMU, Dickerson paired with Craig James to form the famed Pony Express backfield, which led the team to a pair of SWC championships in 1981 and 1982 and put the Mustangs in contention for a national title. Both Dickerson and James appear in the film, but neither gives any indication of any wrongdoing during their time at the school, a fact that will have longtime critics grousing once more.
The movie’s best “gotcha” moment comes from a 1986 clip from Dallas’s WFAA-TV as sports anchor Dale Hansen, along with producers John Sparks and Mike Capps, confront SMU recruiting coordinator Henry Lee Parker. Hansen slides an envelope with Parker’s initials, bearing the SMU school seal and addressed to player David Stanley, across the table. Parker’s reaction and stumbling attempts at explanation are as damning as any evidence the NCAA uncovered.
The story moves quickly, propelled along with commentary by a Who’s Who of Dallas sports media: Hansen, Randy Galloway, Skip Bayless, Norm Hitzges, Brad Sham, Chuck Cooperstein, and Verne Lundquist. Matula tracks down people from all sides of the story: from former players and coaches to boosters, administrators, and NCAA investigators. About the only major player not represented through film clips or interviews is Dallas real estate developer Sherwood E. Blount, Jr. Blount was the main provider for the slush fund SMU used to pay players and recruits and is credited with telling school administrators that they couldn’t stop payments because they “had a payroll to meet.” (Blount was featured on the cover of TEXAS MONTHLY’s October 1979 issue.)
The director’s connection to the story is intriguing. Matula was an eight-year-old Mustangs fan when his team got the death penalty. His dad has been a professor at the school since the seventies. (The film features a brief clip of the elder Matula from news reports at the time.) Matula went to SMU’s film school and an earlier effort, All Grit, No Quit, focused on the Mustangs’ 2009 season and their first bowl win since the death penalty.
With Pony Excess, Matula provides an entertaining look into the rollercoaster ride of SMU football over the past thirty years, reminding older fans of those crazy days and giving younger fans a valuable history lesson. In the two decades following the death penalty, SMU had only one winning season, including six years when the team won only one game and a winless season in 2003. So when coach June Jones leads the team onto the field in the Armed Forces Bowl, the Ponies will have a lot to be thankful for—and college football will continue to have its darkest reminder of how far a team can fall.