ESPN’s “30 for 30” documentaries have been a real bright spot on the channel, providing filmmakers a chance to delve into topics with the kind of depth that’s a rarity in journalism, much less sports journalism.
So it is with “Pony Exce$$,” a 107-minute documentary (and that’s without commercials) about the recruiting scandal that earned Southern Methodist University the NCAA-imposed “death penalty” in 1987, disbanding the school’s football program for two seasons. It remains the only time that punishment has ever been meted out.
Directed by SMU alum Thaddeus D. Matula, “Pony Exce$$” (the final doc, by the way, in the “30 for 30” series) is meticulous, almost to a fault, hunting down practically everyone ever associated with the program, as well as its NCAA investigator and the Dallas-based and national journalists who covered the story.
One of the most interesting aspects, in fact, has to do with the journalism — how a newspaper war between the Dallas Times Herald and Dallas Morning News drove coverage of SMU’s transgressions, which were jaw-dropping, paying players thousands of dollars and even giving them “contracts” coming out of high school. (Former star Eric Dickerson, who played for the “Pony Express” backfield with ESPN’s Craig James in the ’80s, still won’t discuss what he received, though he raised eyebrows at the time by showing up to school in a gold Trans-Am, apparently provided for him by another university.)
In addition, the big break in the story that triggered the final blow came from a local TV station, WFAA, which blew the lid off what had been happening while the school was on probation through an exclusive interview with a whiste-blowing former player. You don’t see much of that level of enterprise journalism out of local broadcasters these days.
With USC facing sanctions and Auburn under suspicion over Heisman Trophy finalist quarterback Cam Newton — whose father allegedly asked for $100,000 or more from at least one university — “Pony Exce$$” could hardly be more timely, even if Matula takes a bit too much time before finally crossing the goal line.