“Like Sharks To Blood”: ‘87 SMU Players Recall Disorienting Transfer Period

When SMU was given the death penalty, the school’s football players faced the same choice — transfer or stick it out — as players right now in Happy Valley.

Joe Robbins / Getty Images

With Penn State football facing unprecedented penalties from the NCAA, the organization has said it will allow current players to transfer without having to pay the usual price of sitting out a season. Their likely choice: lose with the teammates they’ve come to trust or win with a bunch of strangers. It’s a familiar dilemma for members of the 1987 Southern Methodist University team. Or, more accurately, would-be members, since that team didn’t actually exist: SMU’s season was cancelled as punishment for repeated recruiting violations.

The players were stuck — forced, one way or the other, to make a major change in their life because of others’ misbehavior. John Stollenwerck, who played quarterback for SMU, said he heard about the season’s cancellation from the radio on his radio alarm clock. “It was a sinking feeling,” he said. “I have a long family tradition at SMU. My grandfather was the quarterback over there … my uncle played there, my dad played there, my cousin played there. I played there. My aunt was the homecoming queen there.”

SMU players describe a feeding frenzy after the day after the announcement as at least 100 coaches from around the country flew to Dallas to recruit anyone who could fill a hole on their team. Teammates headed as far as Hawaii and Michigan for recruiting visits. “It was like sharks to blood,” said Stollenwerck, who ended up transferring to Missouri on the advice of a family friend.

Some of the better SMU players left overnight, flying quickly to schools with openings so they could get a head start on doing schoolwork and getting acclimated to a new program. Others weighed their options for weeks before making a final call. And some decided to stay put, deciding it wasn’t worth starting over. Of the 53 players eligible to transfer, a contemporary New York Times report said at least 20 planned on doing so; a rep for SMU says they don’t have a precise record of how many players left. Many found success at their new schools: seniors David Richardson and Ben Hummel transferred to UCLA and won a Pac-10 championship, while Jeffery Jacobs and Derrick Reed won a Rose Bowl at Michigan State. Others, like Franky Thomas and Robert McDade at the University of Houston, still found themselves finishing the year with a losing record. Quarterback Bob Watters split the difference, landing on a 4-4-3 Arizona team; he recalls, not fondly, being put through freshman initiation despite arriving in Tucson as a senior.

All of defensive tackle Dick Anderson’s close friends had already left campus two weeks after the death penalty was announced. But he decided to stay in Dallas and finish his degree at SMU without football. “I took a bunch of recruiting trips,” he said. “But God works in mysterious ways. I had met the girl that I ended up marrying – and am still married to – so I decided not to transfer. I just had one year of school, so I just graduated and did an internship in the profession that I ended up in.” (Anderson is now a partner at a real estate firm in Austin.)

“It would have been nice to play my last year of football,” he added. “But I guess it all worked out in the end.”

Fellow defensive lineman Dave Blewett actively sought to transfer to Stanford. “They said no due to the taint on all of us from the death penalty,” he said. “When Stanford turned me down, I turned back to SMU, I hung up the cleats, and I graduated with two degrees.”

Like Anderson, Blewett has come to believe that maintaining the continuity of his education ended up being a wise move, however disappointing it was to give up football at the time. “Most of my teammates left to pursue another year or two of college and the hopes of the NFL,” he said. “Most didn’t graduate, and few made the NFL.”

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