Last Thursday evening, Jim Wacker, the football coach at Texas Christian University, called a team meeting. One of the subjects he intended to touch on was ethics in college football.
All over the Southwest Conference rumors of shady goings-on were flying. SMU already had been slapped with its sixth NCAA probation for recruiting violations involving improper booster payoffs to players. At Texas A & M, officials found themselves trying to determine whether quarterback Kevin Murray had been given illegal payments and use of a car by a booster, as reported by Dallas TV station WFAA. In Austin, the University of Texas was getting heat over apartments rented at bargain rates to 37 players during the summer.
In 1984 TCU, long one of the lowliest of college teams, finished with an 8-4 record and earned a trip to the Bluebonnet Bowl, its first bowl invitation in 19 years. That was Wacker's second season, and naturally he was happy with the success and with the fact that he thought it had been achieved honestly. Things were looking even brighter for 1985. TCU had won its Sept. 14 opener over Tulane 30-13, and running back Kenneth Davis appeared to have a good chance to win the Heisman Trophy.
So on Thursday, in the face of all the talk about transgressions around the conference, Wacker complimented his players. He told them they were improving "without breaking the rules.... We did it aboveboard." Reflecting later on his talk, Wacker said, "I was pumped up and we had a great meeting."
September 29, 1985
So great that linebacker Gearld Taylor and free safety Egypt Allen apparently became conscience stricken. Taylor told SI that "Egypt and I came back and ate and we talked about it. Then we went back to the coaches. We felt kind of guilty, thinking about the team."
Taylor and Allen weren't the only ones who wound up talking to the coaches. So did Davis, defensive end Gary Spann, defensive tackle Darron Turner and defensive back Marvin Foster. And what they had to say was shocking: All of them had received money in violation of NCAA rules. Taylor later told SI that he received approximately $200 every two weeks after he came to TCU in 1982, "not a big lump sum or anything."
Wacker says he was stunned. "I absolutely couldn't believe it. I called the booster and he confirmed it. Obviously, once I had that information I didn't have any choice. I called my coaches back together. We were unanimous...that we had to call our conference and the NCAA."
Wacker suspended the six players before TCU's 24-22 win over Kansas State on Saturday, and is awaiting the results of an NCAA investigation. "The toughest thing I've ever had to do in all my life," Wacker says. "We had said from day one that we were going to do it right, that we were going to have a program with integrity and honesty. We had said if we ever discovered something going awry as far as our boosters were concerned...that we will personally turn it in."
Richard Lowe, a TCU booster from Fort Worth, admits he was one of the moneymen who paid TCU players. "What we did was a stupid mistake," says Lowe, the president of American Quasar Petroleum, an oil exploration firm. "We shouldn't have done it, but we did. We did it because it was obvious that everyone else was doing it and we were getting our butts kicked. That doesn't matter. We were wrong."
So, is he ashamed of himself?
And has he been told to stay away from the program?
"I've told myself to stay away."
How many alums were involved?
"It would take a good-sized bus to haul them off."
And the players accepted it?
"Accepted? They were pretty good negotiators. Don't mistake that."
Wacker did not recruit any of the suspended athletes. He recalled that he had hoped to retain an assistant coach or two when he replaced F.A. Dry after the 1982 season. Wacker said he interviewed one assistant, who told him, "I have inside knowledge of how to wheel and deal. We've gotten some great players in the last couple of years. I know the people with the money and all that sort of thing." Wacker said he told the assistant, "Coach, you sure aren't going to be a part of this program."
"Wacker did not know any of this [payments to athletes] was going on," Lowe said. "He was totally in the dark." Lowe added that improper payments of which he was aware were not made before 1980 nor after 1982. "It was just a typical deal like those going on everywhere—or almost everywhere.... But you should know that with something like this, the coaches generated it." He said he planned to detail how payments were structured after he talks with the NCAA, possibly this week. "I just think it's time some school got up and said, 'O.K., here's how it's done.' "
On Monday, Morris Bailey, a retired Amarillo, Texas businessman and a member of the TCU Lettermen's Hall of Fame, told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram Dry once approached him and asked him to set up a slush fund for athletes that would add up to $90,000 a year. Bailey said he declined the offer. He said he was speaking out now because Dry had denied involvement in the TCU affair. "F.A. made his bed. He should sleep in it," Bailey told SI.
Dry, the TCU coach from 1977 until 1982 and now an assistant at Baylor, called Bailey's charge a "fabrication." As for the case of the six suspended players, he said, "I don't know enough about it.... I haven't been at TCU in three years." He also said, "I welcome an investigation. I'm eagerly looking forward to cooperating in every way."
By week's end, the storied Southwest Conference—the conference that has brought us Sammy Baugh, Doak Walker, Bobby Layne, John David Crow, Don Meredith, Lance Alworth, Earl Campbell—had plenty to clean up. Conference members reportedly couldn't phone fast enough to lodge complaints about the alleged recruiting transgressions of their brethren. This is a football conference in which everyone genuinely dislikes everyone else, or so it seems. Even conference commissioner Fred Jacoby glumly conceded, "I can see how some people might call us an outlaw conference."
Boosters were involved in most of the allegations being tossed back and forth across Texas. At A & M, athletic director and coach Jackie Sherrill isn't conceding anything yet on the Kevin Murray case. The sophomore quarterback, who three years ago received a $35,000 bonus from the Milwaukee Brewers, was said by WFAA to have received a leased Datsun 300ZX and several $300 illicit payments from a Dallas alum, Rod Dockery. Dockery could not be reached for comment. For now, Murray will do his talking on the field. He has denied any wrongdoing and will not discuss the situation further, pending a school investigation. "It's like a soap opera," says Sherrill.
While the A & M and TCU developments were unraveling, the Big Daddy of Texas scandals continued to be SMU. That school's president, L. Donald Shields, says he has sent letters to nine wayward boosters outlining penalties ranging from prohibitions against their recruiting for the school for three years to decrees that they have nothing to do with SMU athletics ever again. Shields thinks such action is justified: "Frankly, I'm not sure a lecture by me on ethics and morality would have a great impact on a few of these individuals."
All of which, of course, raises serious questions about boosters. At SMU, where the football team had struggled for years, boosters became more conspicuous when Ron Meyer was head coach between 1976 and 1981 because he enjoyed them and their flash-and-dash ways. By the time Meyer left for the New England Patriots before the '82 season, the alums were entrenched in the recruiting process, and they apparently remained so with the arrival of new coach Bobby Collins. So is this a program that has been hijacked from SMU by its boosters? Collins, who has an extraordinary 32-4-1 record in his three-plus years on the job, says: "The problem is so many people love this university and their competitive spirit just got out of hand." To try to keep the alums at bay, SMU now prohibits any of them from being at practice, being in the locker room after games or going on team trips.
Walt Coughlin, this year's top fund-raiser for SMU's Mustang Club (he raised $250,300), says: "I can't imagine why grown men want to recruit. Why mess around with a spoiled 17-year-old in the first place?"
But, obviously, some grown men do. One of the banned alums, John Appleton, a 35-year-old Dallas investor who says he has given around $200,000 to SMU football over the last three years, says his motivation for his involvement is easy: "I enjoy being around coaches and the game. Giving money gave me an entrée. Look, Bob Hitch [SMU's athletic director] gave me Eric Dickerson's helmet."
For whatever reason, boosters appear to be particularly avid in Texas. Perhaps it's because eight of the nine conference schools are in the state and everyone tends to recruit the same players. Familiarity breeds you know what. Another of the SMU boosters banned for life for his free-spending ways is high-rolling Dallas real estate developer Sherwood Blount. A former SMU linebacker who is also in the sports agent business with former Mustang coach Meyer, Blount, according to sources familiar with the SMU program, has willed 2.5% of his net worth to the school. That could mean millions. However, the school gets that money only if Shields and Hitch are gone when Blount goes. Blount, 36, who in recent years has contributed some $200,000 to athletic and academic areas of SMU, will make no public comment.
The sad truth, says Collins, is that "you can do nothing" to control boosters for sure.
Including past probations, the NCAA has now found SMU guilty of infractions in 11 of the last 14 years. The school, which was cited for 36 violations in the probation ruling handed down by the NCAA last month, gripes about "selective enforcement." One of the enforcers, David Berst of the NCAA, doesn't see it that way and calls the most recent case "very serious." He says, "If there's a distinction [with other schools], it may run to the attitudes of outside boosters, people whose common practice it is to violate the rules."
The NCAA never could fully substantiate published reports of cash and cars to a number of SMU players. But former Oklahoma defensive back Keith Stanberry says he was offered $3,000 and a car by an SMU booster. Then along came former SMU All-America wide receiver Jerry LeVias, who told Danny Robbins of the Dallas Times Herald that he paid three players "a couple grand" last school year for getting good grades.
What did it for SMU this time and was largely responsible for getting the school stiff probation (the violations will cost the Ponies a whopping and potentially devastating 45 scholarships over the next two years, no bowls this year or next and no live TV in 1986) was a case involving Sean Stopperich, a 6'3" 265-pound bluest of blue-chip offensive tackles from Canonsburg, Pa.
At the time Stopperich was being recruited, his father, Carl, had been unemployed for nearly two years, the electric bill was three months in arrears and the family was accepting food from the Salvation Army. Says Sophia Stopperich, Sean's mother, "Our whole situation was horrible."
The Stopperiches say their son favored the University of Pittsburgh over SMU until an SMU booster decided to do a deal. But, they say, no money was mentioned or seen until the booster arrived at the Sheraton Inn Airport near Pittsburgh for a meeting with the family on Feb. 5, 1984.
As the family tells it, the visitor pulled out a manila envelope and plunked its contents, 50 $100 bills, in front of Sean, in exchange for the signatures of family members on two copies of a postdated letter of intent. Said Sophia, "I remember the look on Sean's face when he saw that money." Besides the greenbacks, family members said, the sales pitch included a $300 a month allowance for Sean, free rent on a Dallas apartment for the family, a job for Carl and a trust fund (including real estate and bonds) for Sean. Was this an unusual agreement for Southern Methodist University? "No," said Carl Stopperich. "We were told it was very common."
The family sold its home in Canonsburg and set off for Dallas. "Everything was almost perfect," Carl Stopperich told SI. "Everything was just too good to be true." Which it was.
The Stopperiches say they received about $6,000 more, but that some promises turned up empty. No job for Carl. No trust fund for Sean. The family struggled anew, at times pleading for the assistance they said they had been promised. Says Carl, "I even told Sean, 'I feel so small. It's almost like a begging situation.' " Sophia eventually was forced to work as a $250-a-month cleaning lady. Carl says that after hundreds of phone calls, he found work as a $7-an-hour laborer. Fumed Sean, "All these millionaires in Texas and they can't find anyone who can help find my Dad a job." Ironically, one of Carl's jobs was cleaning the artificial turf in the Cotton Bowl, where his son had dreamed of spending January 1.
Sean's frustration and anger over what he believed to be broken promises ultimately led him to leave SMU in September of '84. Soon thereafter, he told his mother, "I'm not coming back. There will be an NCAA man down to see you. Just be honest with him." The family returned to the Pittsburgh area, and Sean eventually enrolled at Temple, where he is a redshirt this year. Carl shakes his head sadly and says, "If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn't do it."
The Stopperiches decline to identify the booster. However, a source close to Blount said that Blount gave the family $5,000 and that he and others later gave the family more money. But the source said that these payments were loans and that Blount "expects to be paid back." Regardless, it's against NCAA rules to give or loan money to recruits and their families.
Two SMU recruits who got away to Texas were running back Edwin Simmons and defensive back James Lott. Sources familiar with their recruiting told SI:
•An SMU booster came to Hawkins (Texas) High School to see Simmons. The alum held out a one-page handwritten contract for Simmons to sign. It promised $1,000 for clothes and various bonus incentives, including $500 if Simmons made the All-Conference team. Simmons was told he could have a used car as a freshman and would be given a new car his sophomore year. Asked his preference in automobiles, Simmons said he would like a Z-28 Camaro. He asked to take the contract with him so he could study it, but the alum wouldn't allow it, saying he had only one copy. Simmons went to Texas because, he told friends, he simply didn't like the idea of being bought.
•Lott's uncle, Jonathan Isaiah, was given a position as a caretaker at the Corpus Christi home of another SMU booster, Jack Ryan, who is now persona non grata as a result of the NCAA's most recent crackdown.
The caretaking job is a clear NCAA rule violation. Ryan, however, claims the job had nothing to do with Lott's recruitment. Lott was left alone with a booster, who asked for his preference in cars. Lott said he liked Datsun 280Zs. Lott maintains the booster said, "You can have any car you want, but not a brand new one because that would cause an investigation." Lott chose Texas because he thought SMU was headed for probation.
All of which has caused some consternation in the Methodist Church, which has strong ties to SMU. Spurgeon Dunnam III, editor of The United Methodist Reporter, said last week, "The situation is clearly out of hand and is inappropriate at SMU." His publication editorialized: "Are those responsible for governing SMU less concerned than the NCAA with honesty and fair play?"
"We have been an embarrassment to the Southwest Conference," Hitch, SMU's beleaguered A.D., said last week. "I am ashamed." He isn't the only one in the conference who should feel that way.