Sunday, December 12, 2010

Pony Pride

Immediately following the eyebrow-raising presentation of the Heisman Trophy to Auburn's Cam Newtom -- eyebrow-raising because of his father trying to shop him around to different SEC schools before he eventually settled in at Auburn -- ESPN aired PONY EXCE$$, a two hour film about SMU football's prominence in the early 1980s followed by their ultimate demise through the death penalty.

If you get a chance to watch the 30 for 30 film about Southern Methodist University receiving the harshest punishment in the history of the NCAA, I'd strongly recommend it. Growing up in Dallas, I always knew that SMU once dominated the football landscape and eventually suffered what my father always said was a punishment the NCAA would never dish out again. But I never fully understood the depth of what was happening on Mockingbird until last night's feature.

Some background...

SMU's dual backfield of Eric Dickerson and Craig James, aka the Pony Express, ran over the rest of the old Southwest Conference as the Mustangs won three conference titles in four years while players received cash gifts and other benefits from boosters around the program. With the program riding high, other colleges started encouraging officials to look into the program's success -- how could dinky little SMU be beating the likes of Texas?

The corruption and payments were bad, but it's foolish to think SMU was the program doing this. One of the players in the documentary spoke of how recruiters from SMU once played a briefcase of $20,000 cash in front of him, and the recruit said that the amount "wasn't even close" compared to what another school was offering him. Programs throughout college football were dirty, but SMU ended up being made an example.

After violations came to light in 1985, the Mustangs were caught as repeat violators a couple years later. The NCAA banned the program from competition in 1987 and would allow it to play road games only in 1988. The Ponies opted to go two years without a team, and the "death penalty" produced a two decade drought of success that took until the 2009 season when the Mustangs got back to a bowl for the first time since the 80s.

Growing up just a few miles away from the SMU campus, I knew their football team was bad, and I knew they had been punished for paying players. But I had never linked the downfall of their program to the beginning of the end for the once-dominant Southwest Conference. SMU football was once a strong point of pride in Dallas, but for pretty much all of my life, it was a point of embarrassment.

Just a few weeks ago, ESPN's 30 for 30 series aired a program about Oklahoma's Marcus Dupree and the over-the-top offers he was getting from college recruiters to entice him to come to their schools. SMU wasn't the only program that was dirty, but they were the program to get caught and punished the hardest.

As a result, no one ever really talked about SMU football while I was growing up in Dallas. Games were played, sure, but it wasn't worth taking note. I went to one SMU football game while living in Dallas in 2000, the year it opened, but really only to see the new facility. I wasn't a a Mustangs "fan" because there wasn't much to be a fan of. I wanted SMU to beat Ft. Worth's Texas Christian University to represent for Dallas in the Metroplex battle, but that was about it.

With this 30 for 30 feature re-airing SMU's past dirty laundry, some people might think that this will again rehash those feelings of embarrassment around the Ponies. I disagree.

In fact, I think that SMU can expect a strong swell of phone calls on Monday for 2011 season tickets.

As Brent Musberger pointed out in last night's PONY EXCE$$, the story of SMU football is so compelling because it's no longer a story of corruption as it was two decades ago. Now the story of SMU football is about a program rising from the ashes. No, they have not had to overcome tragedy in the way that Marshall's football program did after a 1970 plane crash of a flight carrying the team crippled the Thundering Herd; SMU brought it's downfall upon itself. But folks in the Metroplex love a winner, and the Mustangs did play for the C-USA Championship this season. They're going to a bowl game for the second straight year. And there's nothing terribly exciting happening in Arlington this year.

The re-telling of the "Death Penalty" experience in PONY EXCE$$ on ESPN coupled by the recent rebirth of SMU football will result in a swell of Pony pride around Dallas. That's just how our city works (exhibit A: people weren't wearing Texas Rangers gear out and about until October).

I want to be able to support SMU football. I have family and friends that went to SMU. It's the closest university to where I grew up. And I know that there are plenty of folks in the Metroplex who will view PONY EXCE$$ as the easiest way to say "It's officially behind us. Now we can talk about it." Being able to accept your past and move forward will be a big step for the program. Someone on Mockingbird might want to pen a thank you note to the Worldwide Leader and get a few extra folks ready to answer phones this week.

The Pony Express may not ride again any time soon, but for the first time in a long time, it's acceptable to take pride in SMU football.

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