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'Death penalty' not right; ask ex-SMUer

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Jen Floyd Engel

Jen Floyd Engel, selected as the top columnist in the 2012 Associated Press Sports Editors annual contest, started working at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in 1997 and became a columnist in 2003 before joining FOXSports.com. Sports opinions? She's never short of them. And love her or hate her, she'll be just another one of the boys. Follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook.

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Mike Romo has a friend about to have ACL reconstruction surgery. Of course, the friend called Romo for advice.

“I have a couple, the effect of having a thinned-out team from the death penalty,” Romo said, the words “death penalty” nonchalantly flowing.

Who the hell is Mike Romo, you are probably wondering? Or at least you are if you are not a diehard fan of the SMU Mustangs or a student of the NCAA Death Penalty.

He is one of the scholarship players on SMU’s post-Death Penalty football team, one of the guys every idiot calling for the death penalty for The U should think about before uttering another word, one of the guys who bore the brunt for “Pony Excess,” one of the guys who paid for the sins of others.

Mike Romo never got a car, or cash, or played for a winning team at SMU. He was not an alum bankrolling better Saturdays or an administrator who turned the other way. He was not the Governor who knew or the teammates who had to know. He was merely the guy who took the punishment for those who did. He is the poster child for what is fundamentally flawed about the death penalty and really the NCAA way of meting out punishment to breakers of their rules.

They punish real estate. They punish the name on the outside of the building. They punish kids who have neither the voice nor the power to fight back. They punish so they can pretend they are doing something when in reality it does nothing.

“Let me ask you this: If you could rob a bank and they arrest the next guy who walks in, who wouldn’t do that?” Romo asked me the other day as we talked.

After a long enough pause to suggest I had no good answer, Romo finished, “We were the next guy who walked in the bank.”

RAISING THE BAR

As scandals run rampant in U.S. college sports, one school north of the border is setting a new standard for accountability. A.J. Perez has the story.

The story of Mike Romo is not a sad one. Really, it is not, not even close. He played college football at an extremely high level, all things considered, earned a degree from SMU and has done well for himself in the ensuing years, including remaining involved in college football and now living in Austin with his wife and three daughters. He very much believes in this sport, and still loves what it gave him.

His experience was not bad, just different than it might have been if he had not signed up for the Herculean task of cleaning up a mess made by others.

Mike Romo was recruited by every big-time school in the then-Southwest Conference. He had appointments to all the service academies. He was exactly the quarterback teams were looking for back then, young and talented and smart.

Then his senior year in San Antonio, right around the time the NCAA was sorting through the slush funds and Trans Ams and football shenanigans from as high as Governor-elect, Mike Romo tore his ACL. And in a moment that forever changed the trajectory of his life, he decided he’d go to SMU. He figured The Ponies would miss next season, and so would he with rehab. Perfect, he thought, they would mount their comebacks together.

So in 1988, at exactly 18 years old, Romo became SMU’s first post-Death Penalty signee.

“I thought we’d be rebuilding for a couple of years, Years 1 and 2, and by Year 3, we’d be back,” Romo said. “We were 18. What did we know? With the benefit of hindsight, it was one of those things where you would have to be buyer beware.”

The story everybody likes to tell is how SMU never fully recovered from the death penalty, the almost 25 years of ensuing futility. It is a quick and dirty story backed up by a quick glance at stats.

No football in 1987 by decree of the NCAA, a self-imposed ban in 1988. A team that had finished Nos. 5, 2 and 12, respectively, in seasons leading up to 1987 went until 2009 before becoming bowl eligible under coach June Jones, and even that resurgence looks wobbly after Sunday’s thrashing at College Station. Texas A&M throttled the Mustangs, 46-14.

All of this was detailed in ESPN’s very fine 30 For 30 documentary, "Pony Excess," painting the seasons in between as a wasteland of futility. It is just a little too tidy, a little too cause and effect, and glosses over the real effect on guys like Romo.

The definition of futility is lack of importance or purposefulness, a fighting of windmills with no chance of winning. This is not what Romo and his teammates were doing. The Ponies were 5-6 in Romo’s final season. Those guys were fighting to fix what somebody else had broken. They were a win away from being bowl eligible their final seasons — led by Romo, who set all kinds of passing marks — and they did this with crazy odds stacked against them.

After being popped by the NCAA, SMU cleaned up its act, like really cleaned up by employing Ivy-ish academic standards while still trying to compete in a Southwest Conference where everybody had allegedly been cheating and everybody was relieved not to have been caught too.

“I can’t say that we didn’t get what was coming our way,” former Pony turned ESPN analyst Craig James told The Associated Press a couple of weeks ago, still blithely maintaining his innocence in and ignorance of any wrongdoing.

It is a lie, or at very best a gross act of Rogers Clemens-esque “misremembering.” James and Eric Dickerson and The Pony Express did not get what was coming to them. They were long gone by the time what was coming to them finally showed up in Dallas, onto jobs in the NFL and as color commentators, able to giggle and demur about the excess.

Not so for Mike Romo.

He got what was coming their way — his knees getting their punishment, his seasons marked by their hubris, his college football experience defined by their excess.

POLL

  • Should the NCAA 'death penalty' still be used?
    • Yes, it's the only way to send a message
    • No, it doesn't punish the right people

“At the end of the day, in hindsight, I don’t think any of us appreciated how difficult it was going to be,” Romo said. “There was a domino effect that really started with the death penalty. It impacted the players who came in immediately after and paid the ultimate price, certainly on the field. That is why they don’t do it anymore.”

What about The U? I asked him.

Accusations of egregious violations — strippers, cash and even an abortion — have many calling for Miami to be SMU-ed, to be given the death penalty, a few even calling for the program to be disbanded all together.

“No way,” Romo said. “There is too much at stake with TV contracts and the ripple effect on the university and other schools in the conference.

“You know I saw the article recently, somebody had sent it along. It was the 10 most egregious college programs, and we were No. 1. Baylor had a coach cover up a murder, and that is five. How is that? How do they determine what is so bad to be worthy of the death penalty? Especially because the student athletes are the ones who get penalized the most.”

I would add not the right athletes, just the most convenient ones. So at the same time as Jim Tressel suspended himself Terrelle Pryor-style with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s blessing thus reigniting debate as to whether the league should punish NCAA rulebreakers, it feels right to introduce you to Mike Romo.

There are Mike Romos starting their freshmen season at Miami, and they are the ones who will be punished — their bodies, their record, their knees — if the death penalty is enforced.

It is not right. It is not fair. It is not a deterrent, just like punishing Ohio State or USC freshmen for infractions committed by players and coaches since gone is not. It is window dressing. It is a scam. It is a way of pretending to clean up the game. And it does so on the knees of guys like Mike Romo.

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