Biggest College Football Scandals of All Time
Few things thrill sports fans like college football — arguably the second-most popular sport in North America behind only the NFL. The fanbases and fervor surrounding the best teams are almost incomparable in all sports, as is the amount of money generated by college football programs.
Behind the limelight, the road to creating those dynasties has proven to be a pretty bumpy one. More often than we would like to admit, the pursuit of becoming an elite college football program has taken precedence over doing the right thing. Coaches and players have exploited their fame and influence in all the wrong ways, leading to some pretty tragic stories.
The latest involves the Northwestern firing of longtime head coach Pat Fitzgerald after reports of a hazing scandal, but even it pales in comparison to some of the others. Here's a look at the biggest scandals in college football history.
10. Hurricanes Taken Down by Ponzi Schemer
Bottom line: University of Miami booster and superfan Nevin Shapiro was sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2011 after he pled guilty of being the mastermind behind a $930 million Ponzi scheme. It turned out Shapiro, who was ordered to pay approximately $83 million in restitution, was using a good chunk of his ill-gotten gains to pay athletes at his favorite school.
From 2002 to 2010, Shapiro estimated he spent $2 million on improper benefits for 72 different Miami athletes — mostly football players — that included everything from cash payments to lavish dinners and nights out clubbing. The Hurricanes were eventually banned from postseason play for two seasons and stripped of nine scholarships over three seasons.
9. Motorcycle Crash Wrecks Petrino's Career
Bottom line: Bobby Petrino had the Arkansas football program on the cusp of becoming a national championship contender, following a 10-win season and Sugar Bowl appearance in 2010 and an 11-2 season and Cotton Bowl win in 2011. But that all came to a halt with one motorcycle crash, which operated on several different levels of dumb and resulted in Petrino's firing.
The key part that got him fired was his affair with former Arkansas volleyball player and assistant recruiting coordinator Jessica Dorrell. After the couple was involved in the motorcycle crash in which Petrino was severely injured, details of their relationship came to light — including a $20,000 cash present from Petrino along with securing her a job on the football staff.
Petrino lied to athletic director Jeff Long about the affair — including that she was on the motorcycle with him — and only came clean when he realized her name was going to be on the police report. Long fired Petrino, despite Arkansas being on the brink of being a national title contender.
8. Sooners Run Amok Under Switzer
Bottom line: Barry Switzer was Oklahoma's head coach from 1973 to 1989, leading the Sooners to three national championships. He also ran one of the dirtiest programs in college football history. Under Switzer at Oklahoma, star players received regular cash payments, steroid use ran amok and off-the-field arrests ranged from rape to assault with a deadly weapon.
Things came to a head in 1989 when starting quarterback Charles Thompson was arrested after being caught on video selling 17 grams of cocaine to an undercover police officer. Switzer resigned shortly afterward.
7. Northwestern, Toledo Players Fix Games
Colleges: Northwestern and Toledo
Years: Northwestern (1998), Toledo (2009)
Bottom line: Four Northwestern football players were indicted after they lied to a federal grand jury in 1998 when they were questioned about betting on their own games in 1994. One of the players, running back Dennis Lundy, was accused of fixing a game against Iowa by intentionally fumbling.
In 2009, a federal grand jury indicted six Toledo student-athletes — three from football and three from men's basketball — on charges of conspiracy to commit sports bribery related to fixing games. Four of the athletes pled guilty, including running back Quinton Broussard, who admitted he was paid $500 to intentionally fumble during the 2005 GMAC Bowl against UTEP.
6. The Johnny Bright Incident
Colleges: Drake and Oklahoma State
Bottom line: Drake star quarterback Johnny Bright was the first Black player to be featured on a team playing Oklahoma State — then Oklahoma A&M — in Stillwater, Oklahoma.
Bright was labeled a "marked man" in the A&M student newspaper in the week leading up to the game, and rumors swirled that he would be targeted by A&M's players at the behest of the coaching staff. Bright was knocked unconscious three times in the first half on late hits by A&M defensive end Wilbanks Smith until Smith finally broke Bright's jaw with an elbow to the face.
Bright played a few more snaps and threw a 65-yard touchdown pass before leaving the game. Des Moines Register cameramen John Robinson and Don Ultang ran a sequence of pictures on the cover of their newspaper that showed Smith's clear late hit on Bright that broke his jaw.
The pictures won the duo a Pulitzer Prize in photography. Oklahoma State eventually apologized for the incident … in 2005.
5. Nightmare in the Vanderbilt Dorms
Bottom line: On June 23, 2013, four Vanderbilt football players — Brandon Vandenburg, Cory Batey, Brandon Banks and Jaborian McKenzie — carried Vandenburg's unconscious, 21-year-old girlfriend into a dorm room and spent the next 30 minutes gang-raping and sodomizing her. When Batey was finished, he urinated on her face.
The football players recorded the assault, and it was used in trials that ultimately saw all four convicted. Vandenburg was sentenced to 17 years in prison, while Batey and Banks were sentenced to 15 years each. McKenzie was sentenced to 10 years probation and required to register for life as a sex offender after prosecutors determined he helped his teammates carry the woman inside but didn't participate in the sexual assault, agreeing to testify against his former teammates.
4. SMU's Entire Season Cancelled
College: Southern Methodist
Bottom line: From 1974 to 1985, SMU ran a "slush fund" of cash payments to players that made its program one of the best in the country, but it continually ran afoul of the NCAA and landed the program on probation five times in that stretch.
When SMU got caught again in 1987, the NCAA came down harder than it ever has on a college football program — before or since — by canceling SMU's entire 1987 season and banning home games in 1988. The school couldn't even field a team in 1988, so SMU didn't return to the field until 1989 and didn't make it back to a bowl game until 2009.
The Mustangs have never been a serious national contender again.
3. USC's Dynasty Comes Undone
College: Southern California
Bottom line: USC was the dominant college football program in the early 2000s, winning back-to-back national championships in 2003 and 2004, and was just seconds from a third title in 2005 before losing to Texas in the BCS national championship game.
In 2010, the NCAA made the unprecedented decision to strip USC of its 2004 national title and strip former running back Reggie Bush of his 2005 Heisman Trophy after discovering Bush took payments from an agent while he was at USC. The Trojans were also banned from bowl games for two years and stripped of 30 scholarships.
The irony? The man behind the investigation and punishment was former Miami president Paul Dee, who just one year later would turn out to have overseen one of the worst scandals in college football history at his own school.
2. Baylor's Cover-Up Comes to Light
Bottom line: From 2012 to 2016, Baylor covered up a series of sexual assaults involving its nationally ranked football program. When the accusations came to light in January 2016 on an episode of ESPN's "Outside the Lines," the fallout led to the firing of head football coach Art Briles, athletic director Ian McCaw and the resignation of university president Ken Starr, who led the investigation of former U.S. president Bill Clinton in 1998.
Three Baylor football players — Tevin Elliot, Sam Ukwuachu and Shawn Oakman — were eventually arrested for sexual assault. Elliot was found guilty and sentenced to 20 years in prison, while Ukwuachu was found guilty and sentenced to six months in jail. Oakman was found not guilty in 2019.
1. Penn State's Shame
College: Penn State
Bottom line: For decades, former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky used his position of influence to prey on young boys. Sandusky was eventually convicted of 45 counts of sexual abuse in 2012 and sentenced to a maximum of 60 years in prison.
The scandal enveloped all the major power players at Penn State and eventually led to the firing of head football coach Joe Paterno, school president Graham Spanier, vice president Gary Schultz and athletic director Tim Curley, who all were shown to have previous knowledge of Sandusky's inappropriate behavior with children but failed to report it in a proper manner.
The NCAA and Big Ten Conference fined Penn State $73 million, along with a four-year postseason ban, scholarship reductions and all wins vacated from 1998 to 2011.
Harrisburg (Pa.) Patriot-News crime reporter Sara Ganim, who is widely credited for breaking the story on Sandusky beginning in early 2011, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting in 2012.