A few years back, a running joke in football was that star running back Eric Dickerson had to take a pay cut when he left SMU to play in the NFL.
Twenty-eight years after he left SMU, Dickerson is still not talking about what inducements, if any, he received to attend the university after being a highly recruited standout from Sealy, Texas.
â€œIt's a dead subject,â€ Dickerson said in a conference call this week with â€œPony Expressâ€ backfield pardner Craig James. â€œI've never been a guy in any situation to kiss and tell.â€
ESPN looks back at the powerful SMU football program of the 1980s â€” the only program to receive â€œthe death penaltyâ€ from the NCAA for repeated recruiting violations â€” in the fascinating documentary â€œPony Excess,â€ which wraps up the highly acclaimed â€œ30 for 30â€ series at 8 p.m. Saturday. The two-hour film, arguably the best installment in the series, will air after ESPN's Heisman Trophy presentation.
Filmmaker Thaddeus Matula, a graduate of the SMU film school, traces the history of the program in the competitive Southwest Conference, the illegal inducements to athletes that led to the downfall of the Mustangs' program and its eventual revival under coach Forrest Gregg.
Now an ESPN sportscaster, James said, â€œI hope that people once they see this film will look at us in the same sense that they do an Oklahoma, a Texas, an Alabama, a Penn State, a USC, a Notre Dame â€” that it was a great football team that was part of a culture that is different than it is today.â€
That culture included widespread payments by boosters in a much less regulated era.
â€œIt's changed significantly,â€ James said. â€œWe didn't know what rules were out there, truly. Nowadays there are compliance officers at all these schools. You have rules posted in the locker room about what you can and cannot do.â€
The film looks back at the recruiting battle for Dickerson and how he became the focus of NCAA investigators after he showed up at Sealy High School driving a new Pontiac Trans-Am.
â€œAs soon as the car showed up, they showed up at my house,â€ Dickerson said of the NCAA investigators. â€œThey came to my house every day for one month straight.â€
Dickerson denied that illegal inducements were the reason he came to SMU.
â€œAnything I did receive from SMU, if any, it didn't come close to some things I was offered from other schools,â€ he said. â€œIt wasn't even in the same area code. I chose that school because basically my grandmother wanted me to go there.â€
The film looks at how the competitive Dallas media market placed the SMU program under a microscope. In a powerful piece of TV journalism, WFAA sports director Dale Hansen interviewed SMU linebacker David Stanley in which he revealed that he had received payments of $750 a month from recruiting coordinator Henry Lee Parker. That revelation led to the NCAA investigation that resulted in SMU receiving â€œthe death penaltyâ€ on Feb. 26, 1987, shutting down the program for one year.