In June 1985, the NCAA passed the “death penalty” by a 427-to-6 vote. It was the nuclear option, a last resort to punish any organization that had been repeatedly warned, a so-called “repeat violator.”

It was an option to be used if the organization was already on probation. Or in this case, already on three years’ probation for recruiting violations. It was an option to be used only for those programs previously warned. Or in this case, if the program was on probation for the seventh time (or five times since 1974.)

On Feb. 25, 1987, the NCAA unloaded the harshest sanctions in history on the SMU football program.

David Berst, then the NCAA director of enforcement, said the penalties were intended to "eliminate a program that was built on a legacy of wrongdoing, deceit and rule violations."

The NCAA’s investigation revealed that in 1985 and '86, 13 student-athletes had been paid $61,000 from a SMU booster slush fund. The monthly payments ranged from $50 to $725 per month. The payments went high up the SMU food chain, including all the way to Bill Clements, a two-time Texas governor and chairman of the university’s board. The NCAA report on SMU said the program’s record of violations was nothing "short of abysmal.” 

The NCAA penalties where harsh. They included:

  • The 1987 season was canceled; only conditioning drills were permitted during the 1987 calendar year.
  • All home games in 1988 were canceled. SMU was allowed to play its seven regularly scheduled away games so that other institutions would not be financially affected.
  • The team's existing probation was extended until 1990. Its existing ban from bowl games and live television was extended to 1989.
  • SMU lost 55 new scholarship positions during four years.
  • SMU was required to ensure that ringleader George Owen and eight other boosters previously banned from contact with the program were in fact banned, or else face further punishment.
  • The team was allowed to hire only five full-time assistant coaches, instead of the typical nine.
  • No off-campus recruiting was permitted until August 1988, and no paid visits could be made to campus by potential recruits until the start of the 1988-89 school year.

Under the leadership of president Dr. A. Kenneth Pye, SMU was quick to cancel the 1988 football season, as well. Many players expected to stay at SMU if only one football season was sacrificed, but when the school extended the ban an additional year, those players who wanted to continue to play college football had no choice but to transfer. Many alumni felt Pye, who left a position at Duke to take the SMU presidency, never grasped the history or culture of the university. As one alumni told The Dallas Morning News: “The Pye penalty was worse than the death penalty.”

SMU has a proud football history. The school produced one Heisman Trophy winner in Doak Walker, 31 All-Americans and claims three national titles (1935, '81 and '82.)

Editor's Note: Neither the 1981 or 1982 national title claims are recognized by most observers. Before the impletmentation of the BCS or the College Football Playoffs, the AP and Coaches poll winners were widely regarded as the national champion in college football. SMU's claims in 1981 and 1982 are based on poll championships awarded by National Championship Foundation in 1981 and the Helms Athletic Foundation in 1982.

So who would SMU ask to lead its program from the rubble? The Mustangs would turn to one of their own. A man Vince Lombardi said was the finest player he ever coached -- Forrest Gregg.

Gregg could not say no to his alma mater. The former two-way star was not asked to bring back the SMU glory days, as much as he was brought in to lead the program honorably. Gregg was the type of man who could rehab the program both on and off the field. Mustang Club fundraisers had a difficult time getting alumni to donate to the program. Gregg was a man alumni would be proud of and more likely to help.

The players who made up SMU’s 1989 football team where mostly walk-ons. As part of the NCAA sanctions, the Mustangs could only use 15 scholarships. Gregg had a group of undersized players; he was taller than most of his team. But he knew this was a special group.

“I never coached a group of kids that had more courage,” he told The New York Times in 2012. “They thought that they could play with anyone. They were quality people. It was one of the most pleasurable experiences in my football life. Period.”

Gregg set small goals for his team that season. One team goal was not to go winless that year.

The Mustangs lost the 1989 season opener 35-6 to Rice. The following week SMU hosted Connecticut in a game that would earn a spot in the SMU football history books.

The second game of the 1989 season was only the program’s second since 1986. It appeared SMU was headed to another loss. The Mustangs were down nine points with five minutes remaining in the game. Somehow, the Mustangs scored 17 points in the final minutes of the game, including a touchdown pass from Mike Romo to Michael Bowden as time expired. The extra point gave SMU the 31-30 victory. Many of the students who left early, not interested in witnessing another defeat, scrambled back to their seats. Fans called the comeback "The Miracle on Mockingbird," in reference to the school's stadium street address.

The Mustangs did it with just 41 scholarship players, 38 of which had never played major college football. SMU’s roster was made up of 89 players, including 73 freshmen. They were undersized and outgunned, but Gregg said this Mustang team played hard every time they stepped onto the field. He said this team loved SMU just as much as he did and they were the finest group of young men he’d ever been around.

As the 1989 season moved forward, the Mustangs had to play against four top-20 teams, including a game at No. 1 Notre Dame. Gregg told his team the night before they faced the Golden Domers, if they beat Notre Dame the team would be on Good Morning, America on Monday morning and Johnny Carson’s show that evening.

Notre Dame won 59-6.

Gregg would win three games and lose 19 while leading the Mustangs. The team that helped resurrect the SMU program are now successful adults and hold a special place in their old coach’s heart. He believes each one of those players should be honored by the school and have their number retired.

“They restored dignity to SMU football,” he told The New York Times.