A year ago, ESPN’s 30 For 30 series aired “The U,” a fast-paced, fascinating look at the meteoric rise and embarrassing fall of The University Of Miami in the ‘80s and ‘90s. “Pony Excess” is the 30th episode of 30 For 30 (and thus technically the last episode, though there are reportedly a few more still on the shelf) and it makes a solid bookend to “The U.” The style is similarly frenetic, the length and breadth are roughly the same, and like “The U,” “Pony Excess” looks at the corrupt culture of big-time college football. It as a timely topic for this bowl season as it was last year—and perhaps moreso, given all the talk about Cam Newton’s father and his alleged player-brokering.
“Pony Excess” covers the football program of Southern Methodist University, which in the early ‘80s had Eric Dickerson and Craig James in the backfield and was a perennial power in the now-defunct Southwest Conference, as well as on a national level. All the while, the NCAA and the local media doggedly pursued claims that the SMU boosters were paying the players. Ultimately, SMU became the first and thus far the only school to get hit with the direst of NCAA penalties: a full one-year suspension of the football program in 1987, followed by a one-year ban from playing home games. (Though the college opted to sit out completely in ’88 too.) During its ‘80s heyday, SMU went 41-5-1, won three conference championships, and fell just one tie short of ending the ’82 season with a perfect record and a spot at the top of the polls. Since 1988, the Mustangs have had only three winning seasons and one bowl appearance. (Their next bowl is coming up on December 30th, against Army in the Armed Forces Bowl.)
Director Thaddeus D. Matula doesn’t bring much of a personal stamp to “Pony Excess.” If anything, the film sometimes feels like it was cobbled together from 30 For 30 leftovers—a Brent Musburger interview here, a Skip Bayless there, and very little in the way of original research. But the doc is slick and entertaining, and it covers the subject well. Matula and company start by establishing a context for what happened to SMU, explaining what life was like in Dallas in the ‘70s and ‘80s, with the NFL’s Cowboys becoming “America’s Team” and the boardrooms of oil-rich downtown business full of graduates from one of the eight Southwest Conference colleges based in Texas. The state had plenty of money, and plenty of people eager to do what it took to earn bragging rights in their offices on Monday mornings. Meanwhile, Dallas was in the middle of a media war, with two local newspapers fighting each other to land scoops, relying on some of the best reporters and columnists around (including Bayless). So while the system of payoffs at SMU was likely no different than what was going on Texas, Texas A&M, Arkansas and the like, the Mustangs paid the price for being in Dallas.
“Pony Excess” dissects what went wrong in almost forensic detail: how when coach Ron Meyer was in charge, the cash, cars and houses provided by SMU boosters were all tightly controlled, while in the era of head coach Bobby Collins the staff took more of a “don’t ask don’t tell” approach to recruiting violations, and the result was a sloppiness that made infractions easier to prove. Making matters worse, Texas governor Bill Clements was a major SMU booster, and his involvement in the scandal moved it off the sports page and onto the front page.
More to the point, “Pony Excess” considers whether SMU really did anything wrong, considering the conference they were in and the tenor of the times. In the ‘80s, five different SWC teams were hit with probation, and even the lowliest teams in the conference were paying big money for their losing seasons. The film suggests that SMU’s biggest mistake was getting too good too fast. From the moment they beat a heavily favored Texas team on national TV in 1980, they were in the crosshairs. Meanwhile, the same newspapers and local TV stations that were digging up as much dirt as they could find on booster/player relationships were also dedicating their sports-reporting resources to “signing day,” making instant celebrities of high school players. (“Pony Excess” is loaded with footage of TV news reports from that era, including both the coverage of last-second signing-day switcheroos and the stunning special report in which one Dallas station confronted the SMU athletic director with evidence of booster payments.)
But while documentary is sympathetic to the situation SMU found itself in, it excuses no one—outside of maybe the student-athletes, who were often dealing with a situation where multiple colleges were offering payment packages and it would’ve been hard not to take one. “Pony Excess” gets into the reasons why paying college players under the table is a bad idea: mainly because it creates a situation where the players have too much leverage over the institution. According to the documentary, SMU was trying to correct their behavior after they were slapped with probation the first time, but the boosters felt obliged to continue paying the players to whom they’d already promised money, lest kids become disgruntled and start talking to reporters. Eventually, some players who were unhappy with SMU did tell what they knew, and the house of cards came down.
“Pony Excess” also deserves credit for dealing with the aftermath of that destruction, from what happened the day after the school got the “death penalty” (as coaches swarmed in to encourage SMU’s prize players to transfer), to what happened in the weeks that followed (as students and faculty held demonstrations demanding that the university clean house), and then to what’s happened over the past two decades (as the school became a perennial doormat in college football, and the Southwest Conference dissolved).
Lately, SMU has been making positive strides in football, and have even started inviting old players from the scandal-plagued era to come back and take their place, unashamed, as SMU legends. A happy ending of sorts. But then, over the closing credits, Matula undercuts the warm feelings by throwing in a montage of the various infractions and scandals that have occurred NCAA-wide since ’87. If 30 For 30 continues, they’ll never run out of subjects for the annual Post-Heisman Bum-Out. (After all, it’s becoming a holiday tradition.)
-Just so there’s no confusion, other schools have been hit with the “death penalty” after SMU, but no D1 schools, and none for football.
-Love watching the Eric Dickerson/Craig James backfield at work, wearing down defenses with run after run. Also fun to hear the stories about how they were recruited, with Dickerson getting a gold Trans Am from Texas A&M (and then signing with SMU anyway), and Craig James having schools try to offer scholarships and money to his girlfriend.
-Interesting to hear Ron Meyer’s shady-but-not-illegal recruiting tricks, like inventing once-in-a-lifetime scholarships that he’d offer to kids he wanted. Also interesting to hear him back in ’81, dismissing the allegations against the program as a matter of “shoddy bookkeeping.” It almost sounds plausible.
-During its wilderness years, SMU tried a number of things to pull the program out of the doldrums, including hiring veteran coach Forrest Gregg and reinventing themselves as a home for true student-athletes. One of those student-athletes defines his era well: “We weren’t big, but we were slow.”
-To this day, when I see June Jones on television I assume that Steve Bartkowski must be injured.