Heisman, SMU share more than air date

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Brian Lowry

A media columnist and critic for Variety since 2003, Brian Lowry spent seven years at the L.A. Times and has contributed to both NPR and TV Guide Network. He writes weekly for FOX Sports. A UCLA alum, Lowry proudly attended the '95 title game. MORE>>

The uncertainty surrounding Auburn quarterback Cam Newton — exonerated by the NCAA, conveniently, before this weekend’s Heisman Trophy announcement — is yet another reminder that with all the money swirling around sports, “amateur athletes” often sounds like an oxymoron; you know, like “jumbo shrimp.”

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Recommended viewing: For college football junkies only: ESPN will air a “Bowl Mania Special” on Dec. 12 that, at 2-1/2 hours, is nearly as long as an actual bowl game — and probably more entertaining than most of them.


Still, even with former Heisman winner Reggie Bush returning his trophy for violations while playing at USC and a spate of players ruled ineligible for contact with agents this season, it’s worth remembering this is hardly a new phenomenon — and that, indeed, the golden age of cheating might actually have been in the bad old days.

As evidence, on Dec. 11, ESPN will air the final documentary in its stellar “30 for 30” series, “Pony Exce$$,” recounting in considerable detail the atmosphere that caused SMU to receive in 1987 the death penalty — having its football program disbanded for two years. It remains the only time that punishment has ever been imposed.

Either subtly or not-so-subtly, ESPN will air the two-hour production immediately after Saturday’s Heisman Trophy presentation, as if to demonstrate that boosters weighted down by sacks of cash for athletes is hardly new.

Indeed, as director Thaddeus D. Matula, an SMU alumnus, makes clear in his documentary, the old Southwest Conference pretty much perfected the art of funneling money toward prized recruits. What finally got SMU so severely nailed was that after getting caught a couple of times, the university continued paying players because they were under “contract” and administrators feared what might happen if the “payroll” got cut off in mid-cheat, as it were.



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In their 1980s heyday, the Mustangs featured the one-two punch of Eric Dickerson and Craig James, a backfield dubbed the Pony Express (hence the punny title). Dickerson widened eyes by showing up at school driving a gold Trans Am, apparently bought for him by one of the universities he ultimately spurned to sign with SMU.

To this day, former Los Angeles Rams and Indianapolis Colts star Dickerson won’t discuss what extraordinary benefits SMU gave him and, during a conference call Monday with former teammate James, sounded like he would take the specifics to his grave.

“I’ve never been a guy to kiss and tell,” Dickerson said, adding later, “Illegal recruiting will never stop . . . That’s just part of it.”

“Pony Exce$$” makes the case there was plenty of “kissing” by all the Texas schools — awash in 1980s oil money — to buy players (one was handed a briefcase with $50,000 in it) but that SMU simply “took it to another level.” As play-by-play guy Brent Musburger notes, a quarter century ago there was still a robust newspaper industry to investigate such things — with a war in SMU’s hometown of Dallas between the Times-Herald and Morning News.

Those Matula interviews describe the ’80s as “the Wild West” of recruiting violations. Even if SMU was more brazen than its rivals, the money was flowing in all directions, with Texas’ then-governor signing off on continuing payments.

The underlying issue, though, hasn’t really changed — whether such sanctions are applied equitably or arbitrarily. USC’s new athletic director, Pat Haden, is among those to grumble that the Newton investigation didn’t drag on the way the NCAA inquiry into Bush did.

Certainly, the temptation to break the rules looks every bit as powerful today. With top coaches commanding $5 million salaries and each conference with a team in a BCS bowl game earning a $17 million payout, hell, why wouldn’t you gamble 50 grand on an 18-year-old speedster who might get you there? Based on that calculus, it’s a pennies-on-the-dollar investment.

So credit ESPN both for ordering this last “30 for 30” documentary and its shrewd scheduling decision. Because airing “Pony Exce$$” next to the 2010 Hei$man presentation has a real $ymmetry to it.

SO LONG, DANDY DON: Speaking of SMU alums, few did more to define the current look and sound of sports broadcasting than Don Meredith, who quarterbacked the Mustangs and Dallas Cowboys before making his mark on “Monday Night Football” in the 1970s.

Meredith, who died Monday of a brain hemorrhage at age 72, not only helped establish the flow of star athletes into the broadcast booth but proved that clowning around while calling a game could be great fun — and, in the wrong hands, completely annoying. His back-and-forth banter with Howard Cosell was often more entertaining than that night’s game.

Admittedly, some of Meredith’s antics — like drinking during games — wouldn’t fly for long now, reflecting the looser atmosphere that existed decades ago, in a kind of “Mad Men”-type way.

So as Meredith himself would have sung, “Turn out the lights, the party’s over.” But in a sense, the party the ol’ QB helped get rolling by raising the bar on colorful color men just keeps going, and going.

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