In 1987, the NCAA voted unanimously to cancel SMU's entire 1987 season, and allowed it to only play seven games -- none at home -- in 1988 as a result of an investigation that discovered in 1985 and 1986 the school had paid 13 players a total of $61,000 from a "slush fund" provided by a booster.
The saga will be featured in ESPN's 30 for 30 documentary "Pony Excess," titled after the infamous "Pony Express" backfield of Eric Dickerson and Craig James that led the team in the early 80s.
The school, which was tied heavily at the time to the powerful oil-heavy Dallas political and social structure, was already under tight scrutiny from the NCAA, placed under probation a number of times for recruiting violations. They were banned from bowl games in 1985 and 1986, but that's nothing compared to what was to come.
In 1986, a Dallas television station got a tip that David Stanley, an SMU linebacker in 1983 and 1984, was paid to sign with the school and receiving subsequent payments during his playing days. The NCAA picked up on the report and investigated the school and discovered that Dallas real estate developer Sherwood Blount Jr. had been supplying money used to pay the school's players, though other boosters were believed to have been involved. The payments were approved by the school.
After being discovered, SMU proposed a series of penalties and vowed to obey the rules, but still saw the NCAA committee vote to cancel the school's entire 1987 season. The "death penalty" actually allows the NCAA to cancel a program for two years; the only thing that spared SMU from that fate was its cooperation with the investigation.
The full penalties included the 1987 cancellation, the cancellation of all 1988 home games, the extension of existing probation to 1990, the extension of existing bowl game and live television bans to 1989, the loss of 55 new scholarships over four years, the concrete ban of nine boosters, a reduction in the number of assistant coaches the school was allowed to hire, and a ban on off-campus recruiting until 1988.
The fallout, which included a number of recruits jumping ship to other schools, left the SMU program in ruins. The Mustangs had one winning season between then and 2008. They didn't make a bowl game until 2009, when they won the Hawaii Bowl against Nevada, 45-10. They'll be playing in the Armed Forces Bowl against Army on Dec. 30.
You can catch "Pony Excess" on ESPN immediately following the Heisman Trophy ceremony -- Saturday, Dec. 11 at 9 p.m. ET.