The Ten Biggest Scandals In NCAA History

With the release of the Freeh report, it is now clear that the level of corruption scandal is unprecedented. Before Penn State, here are the ten worst scandals in NCAA history.

1. 1. SMU Gets the Death Penalty

Southern Methodist University of Dallas, Texas was once a storied football program, winning the national title in 1935, winning 10 Southwestern Conference titles, and was the home for 1949 Heisman Trophy winner Doak Walker. However, as schools began to grow in the 1940s onward, SMU eventually became the smallest school to have a Division I-A football program. This put SMU at a disadvantageous position, and they regularly flirted (and often crossed) ethical boundaries. In the 70s and 80s, the football program was placed on probation five times, and was the most sanctioned program in NCAA history. This was all in an effort to keep up with the larger schools in the Southwestern Conference.

In 1985, former SMU lineman Sean Stopperich told the NCAA that he had been paid by the school to come to SMU after orally committing to play for the University of Pittsburgh. This resulted in a three year probation from the NCAA, as well as a ban from bowl games in 1985 and 1986 and a live television ban in 1986.

However, even with the three year probation and hefty NCAA penalties, SMU continued to rack up NCAA violations. A second round of payment scandals hit as WFAA-TV began to look closer into other reports of violations, this time involving lineback David Stanley. This was surprising, as a similar investigation by the Dallas Times Herald led to major losses in ad revenue. (The losses would play a role in the eventual death of the paper.) It was further revealed that tight end Albert Reese was living in a rent-free apartment that was paid for by an SMU booster that was banned as part of the three year probation.

As investigations persisted, it was revealed that there was a massive slush fund to pay players, and that the payments to players exceeded $60,000. These payments were made with the full knowledge and approval of athletic department staff, including the athletic director, the recruiting coordinator and the head football coach. It would eventually come out that a board of governors investigation revealed the payments dated back to the mid 1970s, but they had decided to continue to pay players for the 1986 season to ‘uphold previous commitments.’

After reviewing the case, the NCAA decided to cancel the entire 1987 season for SMU, and strip them of their home games for 1988. The live television and postseason bans were extended through 1989. They were stripped of 55 scholarships, and faced major recruiting bans. The 1988 season was eventually cancelled when it became clear the school would not be able to field a team. The Mustangs would return to the field in 1989, but would have just one winning season over the next 20 years. The harsh penalty was, in the words of the NCAA, designed to “eliminate a program that was built on a legacy of wrongdoing, deceit and rule violations.”

Since SMU, no Division I program has received the death penalty, despite calls to do so on several occasions. In fact, it has only considered the death penalty one time since then (which you can read about in No. 4 below) for a Division I program.

2. 2. The Point Shaving Scandal of 1951

In 1950 the City College of New York won both the NCAA and the NIT tournament in the Spring, defeating Bradley University. However, in January of the following year, the future of both programs, as well as five other NCAA programs would be forever changed. In January of 1951 New York City District Attorney Frank Hogan would arrest three players from the CCNY championship team in connection to a points shaving scandal.

However, Hogan wasn’t done there. Eventually 33 players from seven schools were implicated in the scandal, including Long Island University’s Sherman White, who was considered to be the be the finest player in the NCAA at the time. Players from New York University, Manhattan College, Bradley, the University of Toledo and the University of Kentucky were implicated and arrested. They were also connected to organized crime, and the scandal became a cautionary tale against points shaving for years to come.

Of the seven schools involved, Kentucky was hit the hardest (perhaps because of coach Adolph Rupp’s flat out denial of the scandal). The SEC barred Kentucky from playing in the 1952-1953 season, and the NCAA later banned them from postseason play in all sports. Furthermore, the head of the NCAA encouraged other schools not to schedule Kentucky, and eventually the entire season was cancelled. However, basketball at Kentucky survived the scandal.

The other schools didn’t fare as well after the scandal. Bradley struggled for years after the scandal. CCNY was banned from playing in Madison Square Garden, and later dropped down to Division II and eventually Division III in athletics. Long Island University was so rocked by the scandal they would close down their entire athletics program until 1957, and would not return to Division I until the 1980s. Furthermore, the NCAA decided to distance college basketball from New York City, and the Final Four would not return to the New York Metropolitan Area until 1996.

All of the players involved in the scandal were banned by the NBA for life. This was perhaps most notable for White, who was considered an surefire NBA level talent, many of the players involved were sentenced to prison time at Rikers Island, though some were given suspended sentences.

3. 3. The Murder of Patrick Dennehy

Patrick Dennehy and Carlton Dotson were both transfer students on the 2003-2004 Baylor Men’s Basketball team. After some teammates made a threat against Dotson, Dennehy and Dotson decided to purchase guns, and practiced firing the weapons at a farm in Waco. After Dennehy went missing for several days, the police were eventually called in as a missing person’s case. An anonymous tip led to Dotson’s arrest, and the badly decomposed body of Dennehy was eventually discovered with gunshot wounds to the head. He had also been decapitated. Dotson would eventually plead guilty to the murder, and was sentenced to 35 years in prison.

It as later revealed the head coach Dave Bliss had instructed his players to lie to investigators, and claim that Dennehy had paid his tuition with money he had made dealing drugs. Bliss had run out of scholarships, and had been paying Dennehy’s tuition (and the tuition of another player). He flew to New York to try and convince Dennehy’s mother to go along with the ruse, and threatened to fire an assistant coach who refused to go along with the plan.

Later, allegations of drug and alcohol abuse hit the program, as well as recruiting violations by coach Bliss and his staff. The violations with Bliss were then traced back to SMU (see above), but those were not acted up by the NCAA, as SMU had already been given the death penalty. Baylor was suspended for postseason play the following season, placed on a two year probation. The school responded by immediately granting the release of any player still on the team, and several of them transferred to other schools. Eventually the school’s probation would be extended through 2010, the school would also be banned from playing non-conference games for one season (the first penalty of its kind in college basketball). The penalty remains the largest non-“death penalty” punishment of any NCAA program, though by 2007 Baylor had recovered to appear in the NCAA tournament.

4. 4. The NCAA bans Eric Manuel

In 1989, the penalty from SMU was still fresh on the mind of everyone in college athletics when questions began to arise about the eligibility of Kentucky sophomore Eric Manuel’s college entrance exams. It was revealed that Manuel had failed to pass the SAT and ACT on his previous attempts, but was able to pass the ACT at an exam in Lexington, Kentucky, home of UK. After it was revealed that Manuel made a massive improvement from his previous test, it was found that he had answered 211 out of 217 questions identically to another student taking the exam. The ACT practitioners stated that, with those results, there was only a 1 in 500,000 chance that the two had not cheated.

Manuel voluntarily sat out of the lineup while the investigation took place, to prevent Kentucky from having to forfeit any games, despite denying any wrongdoing. It was to no avail, as the NCAA would conclude its investigation a year later, taking the surprising and unprecedented action of banning Manuel from competing in any NCAA sanctioned event. Manuel would later transfer to an NAIA school, despite attempts by the NAIA to ban him, and led his team to two NAIA titles.

Kentucky was placed on probation for three years for their role in the scandal, and forced to vacate wins and hand back money awarded for NCAA tournament games. They were considered for the death penalty, but were spared when the level of devastation at SMU was revealed to be far above what the NCAA had anticipated. The SEC would also strip Kentucky of their 1988 regular season and conference tournament titles.

5. 5. Something’s Rotten in Norman, Oklahoma

Barry Switzer is a legendary college football coach, leading the Sooners to a 157-29-4 record while winning three national championships in 16 years. He was also known for running a loose ship, allowing players to go wild, and preferring to be their friend instead of their disciplinarian. Despite his success on the field, it would be actions off the field that would end Switzer’s college coaching career.

In 1991 the NCAA banned dorms specifically for student athletes, perhaps after incidents involving the 1989 Oklahoma Sooners football team. The program was already on probation for ‘major violations’ and in a short period of time three players were arrested and charged with rape and one player shot another player, both in the athletics dorm. Furthermore, the star quarterback attempted to sell cocaine to an undercover FBI Agent and Switzer’s house was robbed by an athlete. Switzer would resign from the program at the end of the season.

The NCAA would ban Oklahoma from postseason and television appearances for two seasons, and also reduced the number of available scholarships. Switzer’s resignation would spark a severe downturn in Oklahoma football that would last for most of the 1990s.

6. 6. Michigan Erases Their Record Book

An investigation into the automobile accident during Mateen Cleaves’ 1996 recruiting trip at the University of Michigan would reveal a curious relationship between the U of M basketball program and booster Ed Martin dating back to the 1980s. What started as an investigation by the school was later joined by the NCAA, Big Ten Conference, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Internal Revenue Service (IRS), and the United States Department of Justice (DOJ).

Some unusual details with the registrations of the cars of student-athletes led back to Martin, who was later revealed to have loaned hundreds of thousands of dollars to various Michigan basketball players, including Chris Webber. The four players named and called to testify before a grand jury were Chris Webber, Maurice Taylor, Robert Traylor and Louis Bullock. It eventually became clear that all four had taken money from Martin.

Michigan self-imposed several sanctions on itself, including a ban of post-season play for the 2002-2003 season. They also placed themselves on a two year probation, and vacated several wins and removed the players’ names and achievements from its record book. The NCAA doubled the length of the probation, penalized them scholarships, and banned them from associating with the named players in the scandal until the year 2012 (and Webber until 2013).

The end result were two Final Four appearances were stripped from Michigan’s records, as well as Webber’s 1993 All-American honor, Traylor’s 1997 NIT and 1998 Big Ten Tournament MVP awards, and Bullock’s standing as the school’s third all-time leading scorer and the Big Ten’s all-time leader in 3-point field goals. It effectively wiped most of the major achievements of the Fab Five from the record books and hampered Michigan’s program for several years. It would be until 2009 before the Wolverines would make another NCAA tournament berth. Mateen Cleaves would end up playing for rival Michigan State.

7. 7. Tulane Ends Men’s Basketball

An all too close game against Memphis State eventually led to the discover of a point-shaving conspiracy with four of the starters for Tulane University’s men’s basketball team, including standout John “Hot Rod” Williams. What started as rumors in the student section and elsewhere eventually resulted in an investigation the would mark the complete unraveling of Tulane’s program.

Williams had arranged and conspired with his teammates to keep certain games close in scoring, and they got paid to do so, with much of the money going to Williams. Eventually the police caught up with the scandal, and eight people, including three players, were arrested in connection with the crime. While two of his teammates testified against Williams, he was never convicted, as his case was declared a mistrial.

Meanwhile, as often happens, once one piece of dirty laundry got into the wind, more followed. Allegations hit the coaching staff of various improprieties, including paying athletes on the team. It was also revealed that members of the team had purchased and used cocaine. With the head of media relations for the athletic department laid up in the hospital, the situation quickly devolved out of control. The entire staff resigned within days. Tulane President Eamon Kelly had enough.

Kelly discontinued the program, with the intent of the cut to be permanent. “The only way I know to demonstrate unambiguously this academic community’s intolerance of the violations and actions we have uncovered is to discontinue the program in which they originated,” he said. Tulane was the only Division I school at the time with a football program but no basketball program. Kelly would eventually be convinced several years later to restart the program by students who believed they were being penalized for events that occurred before they attended Tulane. The Tulane scandal was the first major gambling scandal to shut down a Division I program

8. 8. Louisiana Western gets the death penalty

The largest penalty in NCAA history does not belong to SMU football or Kentucky Basketball, but rather to Southwestern Louisiana (now University of Louisiana at Lafayette). Following a successful 1972–73 season, which saw the Ragin’ Cajuns end the season ranked in the top ten, an investigation into alleged violations in the school’s men’s basketball program turned up a number of results.

The staff was found to have committed multiple recruiting violations and allowing players to receive improper benefits. Most damning was the revelation that the school had falsified documents to allow players who failed to meet the minimum high school GPA requirements to compete in Division I basketball. Among the evidence was a high school transcript where an assistant coach had forged the signature of the principal of one of the player’s high schools.

The NCAA took the violations extremely seriously, and issued their harshest penalty in history, banning the school for competition for the next two years. The penalties were noted for being particularly harsh because the school had already been placed on probation in 1968 for violations involving the men’s basketball program. While the program would return to modest success, it would never achieve the heights it did prior to the violation.

9. 9. Loss of Institutional Control

Perhaps no single athletics program has seen more scandals over the years than the University of Miami’s football program. However, the one that sticks out the most is the massive Pell Grant scandal in 1995. The University was able to avoid judgment on the scandal for a period of time as a federal investigation took place, limiting the University’s ability to conduct a concurrent investigation.

It was later revealed that over a quarter of a million dollars in Pell Grant money obtained under false pretenses went to University of Miami football players. At the same time a “pay for play” program was going on at the school, where players would pool money together and award a prize for the player who delivered the best tackle of the field.

While this remains the only major violation since 1987 for Miami, it is the fifth largest single infraction in NCAA history, and the school was hit with a “Lack of Institutional Control” charge, which resulted in a single year postseason ban, a three year probation and the loss of 31 scholarships.

10. 10. Charley Pell throws out the rulebook

When Charley Pell took over the University of Florida’s football program in 1979, the problem was in a state of disrepair. In fact, the school failed to win a game in Pell’s first season, and the 0-10-1 record remains the worst in school history. Still, Pell gained the attention of the nation when he quickly turned around the program the next season, finishing in the top ten in the rankings at the end of the year.

This quick turnaround caught the attention of the NCAA, who began to investigate Pell for possible violations. Prior to the 1994 season, it was revealed the Pell had committed violations, and he was planning to resign at the end of the season. However, when the NCAA announced that they planned to charge him with 107 major violations, University President Marshall Criser fired him three games into the season.

In the end, it was revealed that Pell had committed 59 major infractions, including paying for no-show jobs, scalping athletes’ tickets and spying on opposing teams. Florida would be banned from post-season and live television play for the next two seasons, and lose 20 scholarships. However, Pell’s success allowed the University to invest in long-term improvements to the facilities that eventually helped Florida become a football powerhouse.

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