How do you feel about someone who smoked cigarettes for thirty years and now lies dying of lung cancer and emphysema, gasping in pain for every wheezing, tortured breath? How should I view someone who shot dope since high school and now lives in a weak, broken, sickly body ravaged by AIDS and hep C? Should I look with sympathy on someone who vainly sought physical perfection, only to have some hack butcher her or his cosmetic surgeries and turn them into some bizarre, demented Halloween mask of a human?
As a Christian, I always want to be caring and empathetic, remembering the dump load of stupid, self-destructive things I have done over the years, all of which the Good Lord has forgiven. But a part of me will always be wondering if there is something to karma, if you get as good as you give, if what goes around comes around and if all the chickens eventually come home to roost.
You remember SMEW, right? They were a great, respectable football program, a tiny Dallas private school with the moxie and heart to compete with the much larger, well-funded public school giants of the Southwest Conference. Southern Methodist was the home of Heisman Award winner Doak Walker, my father's hero as a kid and the namesake for the award annually given to the best collegiate running back. The Mustangs played in the (then) luxurious Cotton Bowl, one of the finest stadiums in the country. Kyle Rote, Don Meredith, Craig James and Eric Dickerson were Ponies. They have as many national championships as the Aggies, for crying out loud, winning in 1935.
Then they began cheating. Perhaps their sentiments were initially understandable. Their small school grew less and less competitive as college football grew in popularity. As money and television increasingly began to dominate the sport, fewer marquee kids donned the red and blue. To win, they needed better players, and this was Dallas, after all, the home of American free enterprise. The surest, quickest, easiest way to get better players was to do what you did for anything else you needed – go out and buy them.
Regardless of their motives, things quickly got out of hand. A linebacker named David Stanley was allegedly paid a signing bonus of $25,000 as well as a monthly income during his entire stay at SMEW. As a result of this and other allegations, the NCAA placed the Ponies on probation in 1985.
Incredibly, during the probationary period, SMEW allegedly created a slush fund of $62,000.00 to pay 13 different players – all with the knowledge, consent and approval of athletic department officials, including head coach Bobby Collins and athletic director Bob Hitch. The cheating, according to the NCAA report, was pervasive and could be characterized as audacious, flagrant and shameless, allegedly going all the way to Bill Clements, chairman of SMEW's Board of Governors and soon-to-be governor of the State of Texas. When asked why he did not come clean sooner about the illegal payments, Clements allegedly claimed he lied because "there wasn't a Bible in the room."
The NCAA determined SMEW committed two major violations inside a five-year period and handed down their stiffest sentence: the dreaded "death penalty." The 1987 football season was completely canceled – wiped off the face of the earth like the wrath of God destroying the city of Sodom. The Ponies were permitted only road games in 1988, and lost 55 scholarships over a four-year period.
The sanctions decimated Mustang football. Twenty years later, the program has not recovered, going through three head coaches and winning only 18 games since 2002 while going 0-12 in 2003 and 1-11 last year.
Which brings me to Saturday night's game between SMEW and Texas Tech in Lubbock. The Mustangs moved the ball well at times, and, with 12 minutes left in the second quarter, sprung a pass up the left sideline and almost scored, giving them first and goal at the two-foot line. Nobody could screw that up, right?
Oh, ye of little faith. On first down, instead of plowing straight ahead for a score, SMEW ran sideways, attempting a quarterback option to the short side of the field. Not only did Tech stop the Mustangs for a two-yard loss, but SMEW was whistled for holding. Because of the penalty, the Ponies had another first down, which promptly resulted in a quarterback sack. With second and goal from near the twenty, Tech again put pressure on QB Bo Levi Mitchell, who scrambled, was flagged for releasing his pass beyond the line of scrimmage. Tech declined the penalty, since the toss was one of five interceptions by Mitchell in the game.
The rest of the mismatch played out in similar fashion. The final score was a merciful 43-7; Tech finished with 693 yards of total offense.
So, what am I to make of the abomination, the mutated, unnatural spawn of a football program Southern Methodist has become? There are programs that struggle, then there's so grossly incompetent you couldn't pour piss out of a boot if the instructions were on the bottom.
Didn't they bring all this on themselves? Isn't this what they deserve? SMEW didn't invent cheating – think OU – but they did make buying football players an art form and had absolutely no compunction about it. They lied like Nixon in a rug to cover up what they had done and came clean only when it appeared they had absolutely no other choice.
Still, after watching them flounder for four quarters like a goldfish on the carpet, I can't help but feel a little sympathy for the Ponies. I'm sure the NCAA didn't mean their "death penalty" to be as literal as it turned out to be. Articles from the late 80's had quotes claiming the penalty was too harsh and would set the program back "ten years."
Like Michael Jackson's grotesque, ghoul-like face, in our wildest dreams we never imagined it could possibly turn out this bad.
Our thoughts and prayers go out to the victims of Hurricane Ike. God bless.
Jeff Conner's political and pop culture-infused Longhorn commentary appears regularly in the Inside Texas magazine and at InsideTexas.com.