It's the most illustrative sobriquet in sports, if not the most accurate one (even figuratively): the NCAA's infamous death penalty. It's meted out for only the greatest of transgressions and it's the harshest punishment that college sports' main governing body levies.
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Officially, it's called "repeat-violator legislation." To summarize, if a school gets punished for one major violation, then commits another within five years, it's subject to the death penalty. That includes prohibiting the school from playing that particular sport for up to two years. This mean banning the coaches from coaching anywhere, withholding grants and dismissing any school official who sits on an NCAA board. Contrary to its name, incurring the death penalty doesn't mean barring a college from competing in said sport forever.
Like impeachment, the NCAA death penalty only happens in the rarest and most extreme of circumstances. It might surprise you to know that the NCAA has administered the death penalty only three times. That excludes two recent, lower-division instances in minor sports. The minor sports infractions were from Morehouse College soccer in 2003 and MacMurray College's 2004 tennis team. The former signed ineligible professional players, the latter offered grants to foreign players. Neither team has participated at the varsity level since. That leaves three instances of the death penalty imposed on Division I schools, and all of those were in the traditional "revenue sports" like football and men's basketball.
University of Kentucky
In 1952, long before the concept of a repeat violator had surfaced, the NCAA imposed its first-ever de facto death penalty on one of the most illustrious programs in any sport: the University of Kentucky basketball team.
Kentucky had won the national championship in both 1948 and 1949, going a combined 68-5 under legendary head coach Adolph Rupp. Seven of those Wildcats were selected in the NBA draft, including Alex Groza who was the second overall pick in 1949 and the rookie of the year.
Two years later, Groza and two of his Kentucky teammates were arrested for having shaved points in a 1949 postseason game. A judge singled out Rupp and the university administration for "covert subsidization of players, cribbing at examinations, illegal recruiting, matriculation of unqualified students and demoralization of the athletes by the coach. In other words, everything we've come to expect from big-time college sports in the ensuing decades.
The NCAA banned Kentucky from fielding a basketball team for the 1952-53 season, and banned the school's other sports teams from postseason play. Meanwhile, the NBA commissioner barred the offending players for life, which cost Groza a chance at a Hall of Fame career. Somewhere between irony and coincidence, 60 years later Kentucky is the defending NCAA Division I basketball champion. The current coach hasn't been charged with any violations, but is bemoaned by his contemporaries for gaming the system and exploiting players, six of whom, in an eerie parallel, were selected in this year's NBA draft.
University of Southwestern Louisiana
Another generation elapsed before another NCAA member institution suffered the death penalty. Again, it was a Division I basketball program, albeit a far less renowned one. The University of Louisiana-Lafayette, then the University of Southwestern Louisiana, was found guilty of violations similar to Kentucky's that included academic fraud and recruiting violations. The formal documentation cites what seem like unremarkable transgressions. From 1970 to 1972, head coach Beryl Shipley let players use his car and buy gas with his credit card. The school had admitted players with weak high school academic credentials.
Southwestern Louisiana had already been placed on a two-year probation from a 1968 incident. Shipley was promptly fired, and the program disappeared with him. The Ragin' Cajuns didn't field a team for either the 1973-74 or 1974-75 seasons, setting a new standard for duration of a death penalty.
Southern Methodist University
The most famous application of the death penalty was to Southern Methodist University's football program. The Dallas school was a powerhouse, going undefeated in 1982 and posting the best record in all of college football over the first half of the 1980s. SMU also led the nation in another category: times on probation, with an unprecedented seven. The probations were assessed mostly for recruiting violations, including that of one player who confessed that he reneged on a commitment to a different school after SMU showered him with cash.
Unfortunately for SMU, by 1986 the NCAA had developed its formal policy for administering the death penalty. The NCAA investigated and determined that 13 Mustangs had received cash payments while the school was already in one of its several probationary periods. What was most noteworthy was how trivial the amounts were. Care to guess the total money lavished on the players?
It was $61,000. Even in 1986 that wasn't a life-changing sum, especially when split among 13 players. SMU's football program had grossed millions during its heyday. By earmarking a tiny fraction of that to the players responsible for generating all that revenue, the school suffered the heaviest punishment in the history of college football.
SMU didn't play football in 1987. For the 1988 season the NCAA offered the school the dubious opportunity to play only road games. Understandably, SMU declined, and didn't play in 1988 either. The school was prohibited from playing in any bowl games in 1989. SMU also had to forgo dozens of scholarships, rendering the football team ineffective for subsequent years, too.
The death penalty indirectly resulted in SMU's conference being torn apart and its other schools going their separate ways. SMU itself has hopped from mid-major conference to mid-major conference ever since, rarely sniffing .500 and not even attempting to regain the cachet it once had.
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The Bottom Line
NCAA member schools will continue to break the rules. Some of them will do so this year. The smart school administrators will punish the culprits as early and severely as possible, before the NCAA has a chance to, saving themselves millions of dollars and public admonishment in the process.