DALLAS -- On a typically hot August afternoon four years ago, the athletic director of Southern Methodist University and the soon-to-be governor of Texas paused for a moment on an asphalt parking lot outside the school's administration building.
There were problems at SMU and both were concerned those problems were not over. The school had been placed on probation by the NCAA because cash payments had been made to football players and if it happened again, SMU could be in danger of losing its team.
Classes were due to resume in a few weeks and players would be returning to the campus. Some of those players had been receiving money and were expecting to get more.
Three of them were all-conference players and if the money was not forthcoming, they would likely leave the school and tell everybody why they were doing so.
Athletic director Bob Hitch later told a group of Methodist bishops appointed to investigate the matter that this is what happened:
Although meetings of top school officials had been held in which the problem of continuing payments had been discussed, no formal decision had been made.
Then, following one such meeting, Hitch and Bill Clements stopped to talk in the parking lot. Clements, the outgoing chairman of the school's board of governors, had previously served one term as governor and now was trying for another one. Adverse publicity might affect his campaign.
Clements asked Hitch whether it was possible for the payments to be continued to the athletes expecting the money. Hitch said the payments could, indeed, be contined.
'Then do it,' Clements told Hitch.
From that moment, SMU's fate was sealed.
In the four years since, SMU has become the first victim of the NCAA's so-called 'death penalty,' the school's athletic program has undergone a painful reorganization and much stricter entrance requirements have been placed on incoming athletes.
Now, after suffering through a tremendously embarrassing period in its otherwise proud history, the school is ready to field a football team once more.
It will be an undermanned team, one that will take years to rebuild because of the strict sanctions imposed by the NCAA, and one that will now play its games in a tiny, on-campus facility rather than in the glitzy confines of Texas Stadium.
A myriad of ingredients went together to bring about SMU's downfall. But, in the end, the reason for its two-year banishment was simple.
The school cheated, got caught, said it would not do so again and did -- blatantly so at the highest echelons of power and with very little hope of having its indescretions remaining a secret. SMU has paid dearly and must continue doing so. The school could sign only 15 players in 1988 and thus will have only 42 scholarship players to start the season.
The Mustangs will play their first game on the evening of Sept. 2. The game will take place in Ownby Stadium -- seating capacity, 24,000. The opponent will be the Rice Owls, a team that has lost its last 18 games. But the Owls will be the decided favorite.
So how will the Mustangs do?
'Well, that's the big question, isn't it,' said Forrest Gregg, who left his Green Bay coaching job (which was in jeopardy) to take on the unique task of bringing his alma mater back from the ashes. 'I'm not a soothsayer. I never would make predictions, no matter where I was coaching.
'I do know we have 42 scholarship players where in most cases the teams we will be playing have 95. We only have three players with major college experience. I know this, though. We will play every game hard. To me, that is the only way to play the game.'
SMU actually will have more than 100 players in uniform as the opening game approaches, but the vast majority of them are walk-ons. The Mustangs must play a full conference schedule in addition to meeting Notre Dame in South Bend. SMU tried to talk Notre Dame out of playing, but the Irish would not let the Mustangs out of their contract.
If SMU does manage to return to competitive status, it will be a major success story. The odds are very much against them, but they have supporters in their attempt.
'I don't think SMU could have found anybody who was better suited for the job that has to be done than Forrest Gregg,' said Baylor coach Grant Teaff. 'As much animosity as I had for the other regime, I have a tremendous amount of caring for this group.'
Hitch resigned in disgrace along with coach Bobby Collins. The president of the school, L. Donald Shields, also left in the wake of the scandal. The manner in which the school is governed has been restructured in an attempt to prevent a single entity such as Clements from ruling over the institution.
And as for Clements himself, he is in his third year of a four-year term as governor.
But when his alma mater returns to the football field Sept. 2, the 72-year-old Clements will not be there. He has conveniently arranged to be where no one can find him -- on a big-game hunting trip to Africa.
adv. for weekend editions Aug.