What "A Payroll To Meet" tells us about college football scandal, reform, and more.

The great SMU football scandal left the Ponies in a crater they're only now just starting to crawl out from. What lessons should we take away from their NCAA battles?

Photo credit: Getty Images

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I realize this doesn’t even crack the top fifty most surprising things about the 2020 football season so far, but I think it’s still worth mentioning. The SMU Mustangs are 4-0 and ranked in the AP Poll.

In my lifetime, this is a rare occurrence. SMU spent eight weeks in the AP Poll last season, topping out at 15 in late October, before a late season swoon knocked them out of the rankings. But other than that, SMU hasn’t cracked the Top 25 in my 33 years of life. They haven’t finished in the Top 25 since before I was born.

There’s a reason for that, of course. In the early 1980s, SMU was perhaps the most successful program in all of college football. By years of running afoul of the NCAA finally caught up to them, and after getting caught paying college football players again, the program was hit with the infamous death penalty. SMU football didn’t play for two years. Their coaches were fired, their players transferred, and the program never recovered.

I was familiar with the very basics of the story, but I never really sat down to learn the details. Recently, I finished a truly excellent recounting of not just the final scandal that sent the program on a crash course with NCAA history, but the entire history of SMU athletics, in David Whittford’s A Payroll To Meet. I appreciated the diligent breakdown of exactly who at SMU knew what and when, but I couldn’t help but think about how contemporary everything felt, even though the book was written in 1989. The questions I kept thinking about go far beyond the happening in Highland Park.

For example…just who is supposed to RUN a college football team? Who is it for?

SMU has been uncommonly tied to the Dallas business community, ever since the founding of the university, which, according to Whittford, required an aggressive push from local real estate investors to beat out a competing bid in Ft.Worth to secure the rights to the school from the Methodist church. 

The struggle at SMU, in my reading, stemmed at least in part from the inability to satisfactorily answer who is supposed to run this entire operation? According to NCAA bylaws, college athletics programs are supposed to be run by university presidents. It is the president who is responsible for making sure the department is in compliance with NCAA regulations, the president who is ultimately responsible for making sure that the athletic department operates in a way that furthers university goals, values, and exists in concert with the rest of the institution. The president hires athletic directors, coaches, and other administrators to handle the day to day operations, but on paper, the buck is supposed to stop with the president.

The book makes it very clear that this was not happening at SMU. Regardless of what the university organizational chart said, SMU football, in practice, was run by the Dallas business community, both explicitly through the SMU trustees, and through other unofficial channels. SMU head coach Ron Meyer might have helped marshall those disparate forces together to help the program recruiting and fundraising, and he was the one who called the plays, but the decision to “create” a payroll for SMU football players, and the decision to continue and maintain it, even in the face of potential NCAA sanctions, came from the business community and boosters, not anybody in the academic or athletic administrative chain of command.

In fact, when SMU president Don Shields tried to confront Bill Clements, the chairman of the SMU Board (and also the former governor of the entire dang state) about the payroll scandals, Clements memorably told Shields to “stay out of it, and go run the university.” 

This conflict, at least at SMU, was partly by design, where the university board held substantial power. But while the bureautic situations might vary from school to school, the overarching question applies to a number of different institutions.

The idea that college football belonged to the students pretty much died by the 1930s, as schools moved to professionalize the coaching profession. But if schools want to advertise college football as their great “front porch” to the world, and a way to better interface with their community, well, they can’t be surprised when some members of that community start to have opinions about how that football program is run, especially when schools depend on those community members to keep donating money, 

College football’s outsized impact on stakeholders outside of the university has been cited as a reason to play football this season, even amid concerns about COVID-19. After all, not playing football could have a negative impact on local restaurants, hotels, shops, and the entire local business community. If this is true, then at least on some level, do they not share some ownership or stake in the program itself? 

It’s probably a useful thought exercise for a school to literally map this sort of thing out. If the school is serious about presidential control, will they make sure that the president has the time, knowledge and desire to be a significant factor in athletic decision making? If it isn’t, who ends up filling that gap?

Okay, just how bad was all of that stuff SMU did?

One thing this book makes pretty clear was that SMU was basically always cheating. Here’s a passage detailing an investigation from 1923, not even two decades after the dang school was founded:

Overpaying for work study jobs! Ignoring transcripts! The only thing missing from a more modern recruiting scandal is a Twitter account.

But when you go back and actually look at the sort of things that SMU was “convicted” of by the NCAA, the laundry list of crimes that gave the program their dreaded repeat offender status...a lot of them look more like parking tickets than grave felonies against amateurism. 

Coaches gave petty cash to walk ons and members of the scout team for excellent special teams plays in practice. Some players got free passes to the movies. Another player worked for an oil company, did a good job, and was paid a market rate, but the NCAA didn’t think he had enough experience before taking the gig. Lots of complaints about free and discounted travel, etc. 

Even when you look at what eventually got SMU the Death Penalty, one of the most significant unauthorized benefits wasn’t cash, but that the university paid for the treatment of a football player struggling with addiction. 

Now, just because the NCAA didn’t convict SMU of every single amateurism violation doesn’t mean they didn’t occur, as the book makes quite clear. The NCAA isn’t the FBI, they can’t really force anybody to comply with an investigation. And SMU’s argument, that “hell, everybody else is doing it too” was probably accurate! The SWC in the 1970s and 1980s was a lot of things, but “constantly adhering to the principles of amateurism as exposed in the 1910s, even to the potential detriment of their athletic fortunes” was not one of them.

In 2020, I think the national narrative about many of these scandals have changed. It’s harder to find sportswriters who can bother to clutch their pearls over the idea of a 20 year old football player getting cash to go on a date or fly back home. The money in college football has also completely exploded since the early 1980s, thanks to the deregulation of television broadcasting, making it harder, although not for the NCAA’s lack of trying, to keep up the pure amateurism facade. 

Still, I’m not sure I would personally argue that this entire operation was a victimless crime. One of the main boosters, Sherwood Blount, would later diversify his business empire and get into a sports agency. His aggressive boostersism of SMU athletics wasn’t just borne out of a rah rah spirit for the Red, White and Blue, but explicitly as a business expense. He’d meet other rich Dallas businessmen who could become potential clients, and then by getting SMU athletes on the payroll early, he’d give himself an edge in securing their business as professional athletes later. 

Maybe you think that sort of arrangement is completely okay. Maybe it’s just a consequence of NCAA regulations that prohibited athletes from securing their own representation and hitting the open market before they left college. Maybe you view it as unethical. But at the very least, I think it’s fair to say that it’s a different sort of situation than the owner of the local Ford dealership giving a hundred dollar handshake to a kid he hopes scores touchdowns for his favorite team. After all, sports agencies 

At the very least, I think it’s fair to say that the entire cover-up had enormous consequences for lots of folks beyond the SMU football team. It became a significant political scandal for Bill Clements. It ended the career of SMU’s president, and played a role in his declining health. The death penalty led to SMU’s athletic revenue cratering, resulting in dozens of job losses for administrators who had nothing to do with any NCAA violations. The whole operation marred the reputation of the school for decades. Heck, depending on your age and where you live, there’s a decent chance the SMU football scandals are still the first thing you think about when you think about SMU.

I don’t think there’s another operation quite like what SMU had going anywhere else in FBS right now. The idea of, say, Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker, helping operate a secret slush fund with say, Sam Zell, Jerry Reinsdorf, Ken Griffin and Tom Ricketts to promote Northwestern athletics, feels absolutely ridiculous. The sheer size, scope, political heft and brazenness of the end of the SMU affair feels very 1980s in Dallas. Today’s bagmen have a bit more sense.

But the bigger questions still feel modern. Every program, even small ones, struggle with the push and pull between faculty, students, booster and local political needs and desires for the program. The NCAA has many of the same logistical and ideological problems with their enforcement mechanisms as they had in the 1970s and 1980s. The question of who is actually hurt by breaking some of these rules isn’t just some Texan bravado (when Blount was questioned by the NCAA, he said "I can damn well spend my money any way I damn well please” and if the NCAA didn’t understand that, well, they were a "a bunch of communists." If anything, that question is even more contemporary. 

A payroll to meet was a hell of a read, a book I was able to polish off in about 48 hours, no small feat now that the internet has completely ruined my attention span. It’s a great look at a fascinating story in a particularly fascinating part of college football history.

But I think it’s also a bit more than that. 

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