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Today in Sports History: 2/27 – NCAA Cancels 1987 SMU Football Season

Today in sports history (1987), the NCAA canceled the 1987 SMU Mustangs football season. The cancellation of the season comes on the back of the NCAA’s death penalty ruling against the Mustangs. The death penalty was in response to SMU’s violations of NCAA rules regarding athletic corruption. These charges date between the late 1970s and mid-1980s.

The worst of these allegations was SMU’s use of a slush fund. This fund was used under-the-table payments to convince family members and athletes to come to the school. This affected the next season as well, as SMU was forced to cancel their 1988 season, due to not having enough players to field a team.

1987 SMU Football Season Canceled | Today in Sports History

In the mid-late 1980s, the Southern Methodist Mustangs carved out a fair resume. They won a championship in 1935, 10 SWC titles and played in 11 Bowl Games. With numerous All-Americans, including Doak Walker and Eric Dickerson, SMU was a household name. Even with the success of the program, they were still losing out to bigger schools, due to enrollment and financial restrictions. Due to their recent success, the school was under investigation since the 1974 season. In fact, the school was put on probation five times between 1974-85.

In 1975, the football program hired Ron Meyer as their head coach. After going 16-27 in his first four seasons, Meyer began to build one of the better recruiting classes in the country. Meyer was able to build such a strong recruiting class, by targeting players in the school’s home state, Texas. According to reports, the first payments to recruits were going to players from Kashmere High School in Houston, with players calling Meyer, “Santa Claus.”

The violations continued to pile up and before fans even blinked an eye, SMU was a powerhouse. SMU religious professor, Lonnie Kliever, sent a report to the NCAA in 1987 which recommended an extension on the probation for the school. The report suggested extending the probation four more years to the 1990 season. After the report and their prior investigation, the NCAA made the decision to give the school the death penalty. This resulted in the 1987 SMU football season being canceled, all home games in 1988 being canceled, probation was extended four years, SMU lost 55 scholarships, boosters that were involved were banned, the team was allowed to hire only five assistant coaches and no off-campus recruiting was permitted until the 1988 season.

today in sports history 1987 smu football death penalty
Credit: Ronald C. Modra/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images

Effect of the SMU NCAA Death Penalty

Green Bay Packers legend and former SMU star Forrest Gregg took over the head coaching duties for the school in 1989. Gregg was forced to use a majority of walk-ons to build his teams. This included bulking receivers up to play on the offensive line. The team quickly turned into a bottom-tier team. There were even questions on whether players on their roster even played high school football. The lowest of the low came against Houston, when the Cougars beat the Mustangs, 95-21.

While SMU has since rebuilt their program, they have never been the same. The Mustangs only recorded one winning season in the next 20 years. Their first bowl appearance since the death penalty did not come until 2009. In 2019, the Mustangs finally returned to the national rankings.

This was the only time in college football history that the NCAA canceled a team’s entire schedule at any level.


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