This is a review of the last ESPN 30 for 30 documentary, “Pony Excess” on the SMU football program. Directed by SMU alum Thaddeus D. Matula, the documentary is a look at the meteoric rise and precipitous fall of the school’s football program.
As SMU rose to prominence between 1979-1985, it was also the target of NCAA investigations into illegal payments to players. And the documentary also looks at the effect of the “Death Penalty” on the school.
The documentary talks with former players such as Eric Dickerson and Craig James, part of the famed “Pony Express” offense that ran circles around the competition, former coach Ron Meyer who helped to lead the SMU program to prominence, writers such as Skip Bayless who covered the SMU program and saw its huge fall, and Dallas sports anchor Dale Hansen who conducted the fatal interviews that led to the Death Penalty.
Matula uses former “Dallas” series star Patrick Duffy to narrate and hold together the documentary, but the film is carried by the numerous interviews with the people who lived through the time. Eric Dickerson and Craig James are used extensively. We also hear from reporters from the Dallas Morning News and the now-defunct Dallas Times Herald, the two newspapers which underwent a war to attract readers by covering the SMU story from beginning to end.
Director Matula also uses news footage to help bring the story to life. Matula does a good job in chronicling the rise of SMU, showing how coach Ron Meyer was able to recruit the best players from the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, Houston and East Texas to make the Mustangs a national championship cotender. But the quick rise came with a price as players were paid money. For instance Dickerson appeared to be headed to Texas A&M and also had a new Pontiac Trans Am to boot. However, at the last minute, Dickerson changed his mind and went to SMU. Dickerson would not say how he changed his mind nor would he say if he was paid. Craig James joked that Dickerson would take the secret to his grave.
We also hear from boosters who were a big part of the SMU program, helping to set up what amounted to weekly payments to certain players, providing them with cars, housing and clothing. NCAA investigators were on the school practically from the outset and knowing that it was time to go, coach Ron Meyer got out in 1982, taking the opportunity to coach the New England Patriots.
The period from 1982 until 1985 is when the boosters gained more control of the program as coach Bobby Collins came into lead the program. It was here where word started leaking out about illegal payments. While SMU was on NCAA probation in 1985, a smoking gun came out about an illegal payment to a player. The player was interviewed on Dallas TV. This led to some of the more uncomfortable footage as an SMU official tries to deny the payment while his initials were seen on an envelope.
It’s moments like these that make this 30 for 30 documentary powerful. Instead of describing a moment or recreating it, Matula has obtained the footage that allows the viewer to see for him/herself what happened. He also uses fast cuts to intersperse news reports and newspaper headlines from the period to reinforce the interviews.
Matula also updates the story as SMU seems to be back on the rise, showing the Mustangs playing in their first bowl game since the Death Penalty, in the Hawaii Bowl last year.
ESPN gives us a very good story to end the 30 for 30 series. Pony Excess is a story that provides lessons about how not to run a football program and how the NCAA might have overstepped its bounds by handing down the Death Penalty.
Overall, a very good documentary and one allows 30 for 30 to go out on top. The grade for Pony Excess is a very solid A.