A Little about the History of Pitt's next Opponent - SMU

Written by Paul Zeise on .

Pitt will get back to full-time practices - this is finals week so they take it off - this weekend and hit full stride in preparing for their BBVA Compass Bowl opponent, SMU, early next week.

Obviously, we will get back to day-to-day coverage, track who is healthy and who is eligible and all that good stuff.

But I just sat down to watch ESPN's "Pony Excess" from start to finish - it is a documentary about the history of SMU's program and it is fascinating. If you have on demand, see if you can find it and watch it because it puts into context a lot of things about college football's history, particularly in the 1970's and 80's when it was the wild, wild west in terms of recruiting.

As many of you know, SMU is the only program that has ever received the "Death Penalty" by the NCAA and in 1987, the school was not permitted to field a team. Then, because of a lack of players and whatnot, the school made the decision to sit out the 1988 season as well.

That penalty proved to be significant because it took a team that was a national title contender for most of the decade of the 1980's -- they even beat Dan Marino and Pitt in the 1982 Cotton Bowl and probably should have won the national title that year as they were the only undefeated team in the country - and basically forced the school to start over.

But here is where it really hit me -- I didn't know much about what happened to the program since (I always knew the program had become mediocre, but I didn't realize just HOW much that sent the program into a tailspin) the death penalty but here is the sobering reality...

This bowl game - the BBVA Compass Bowl  against Pitt - will only be the third bowl game SMU has played in since it returned from the death penalty - and all three have come in the past three years under the direction of current coach June Jones.

In fact, when SMU won the 2009 Hawaii Bowl over Neveda, it was celebrated almost like a national title by the school and its former players and people associated with it because it was sort of viewed as the first real step forward since the death penalty.

Think about that for a second - the team started playing again in 1989 - it took to 2009 for the team to play in -- and win - its first bowl game. Last year, the Mustangs lost to Army in the Armed Forces Bowl and with a third bowl game appearance in a row coming up on Jan. 7th, perhaps the program is finally really on the road to recovery.

That's just a little context for those of you not familiar with SMU and its back story so hopefully when you watch the game, it gives you a little more insight into why it is viewed as such an important step for Pitt's opponent - and why a bowl win over a program like Pitt, even a mediocre 6-6 Pitt team, would be celebrated as such a big deal.

Couple of little side notes on it:

** I doubt any team will ever get the death penalty again. For one thing, big-time college football still has issues, but I think it has been cleaned up significantly since the day when coaches and boosters were showing up with $50,000 cash in a duffel bag. Also, the NCAA realized this - the penalty is too severe. The guys NCAA talked about how they thought it would set a school back five to seven years but never dreamed it would kill a program for two decades. I just don't see them doing it to another school.

** The SMU case was yet another example of the hypocrisy of the NCAA - as well as its selective prosecution. It could have nailed any number of big-time programs who were recruiting the same kids as SMU and doing some of the same things, but instead chose to go after SMU - a small college with a small fan base and very little national appeal. Eric Dickerson, Craig James - they were all offered the same perks and gifts from Texas, Texas A&M, Arkansas and all of them, so it was going on everywhere.

** The central player in the beginning of the end for SMU was from Pittsburgh - a lineman from Canon-McMillan, Sean Stopperich, who took cash and gifts and his family was moved to Dallas by boosters and given an apartment and an allowance. Stopperich basically got to SMU and was damaged goods - he had some knee issues -and never developed into a player, got home sick and became disgruntled and when he left SMU to return to Pittsburgh, he was followed by NCAA investigators and he quickly spilled the beans about what was going on.

** Between this documentary, the one about Marcus Dupree and the one about "The U" - ESPN has done some excellent stuff with this 30 for 30 series but it has also been eye opening as to just how ridiculous recruiting was back in those days and just how dirty college football really was. Like I said, it is still shady now, but back then it was ridiculous - guys buying cars, houses, moving families to other cities - it was out of control. All three are really well done - but my favorite is "The U" and mostly because, any documentary that involves Luke Campbell as one of the main characters, is all right by me.....


Join the conversation:

To report inappropriate comments, abuse and/or repeat offenders, please send an email to and include a link to the article and a copy of the comment. Your report will be reviewed in a timely manner. Thank you.