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In 1986, the Mississippi football team had its best season in 15 years - eight victories including the Independence Bowl. Then the NCAA hammer fell, and the Rebels were 3-8 the next year.

The lesson was clear.Get caught cheating, and life gets rough.

The loss of television and bowl money alone is enough to cripple some programs. When scholarships and recruiting ability are taken away, it gets worse. Then reputations go down the drain.

And in the worst cases the NCAA can simply say: "Stop playing," like it did to Southern Methodist in 1987. It's called the death penalty, the NCAA's most powerful teaching tool.

"The NCAA told us we could have played seven games this year," said Forrest Gregg, who has coached SMU for almost a year without playing a game. "But we didn't have enough people left to play."

At one time or another, schools like Texas Christian, Clemson, Florida and Southern Cal also have been on football probation. In the past two months, Cincinnati, Houston, Texas A&M and Oklahoma have been punished for cheating as the NCAA seems ready to enroll more delinquent schools in its class.

"There's hardly a day went by that I wasn't thinking about it," Mississippi athletic director Warner Alford said. "Once you go through something like that, you'll do anything in your power to make sure it doesn't happen again."

The first and most obvious cost to a school comes in dollars. Not only are schools often prohibited from sharing in conference bowl and TV money, they also can be prohibited from playing in a bowls or appearing on television themselves.

"In this day and age, 62 percent of all Division I-A schools are running deficit budgets," TCU athletic director Frank Windegger said. "Anytime they hit you in the pocketbook, it hurts."

How much?

"You'd need a crystal ball to tell that," Windegger said. "And the thing about those crystal balls is people who read them all have crummy houses."

When Oklahoma was placed on three years' probation on Monday, school officials estimated it would cost between $750,000 and $1 million, taking into account loss of television and bowl revenue.

For example, the Orange Bowl, which draws the Big Eight Conference winner, pays $2.75 million per team. Other bowls range from $180,000 for the California Bowl to $6 million for the Rose Bowl. Bowl money usually is shared among all conference teams.

SMU, being a private school, won't release estimates of the money it has lost while unable to play football for the past two seasons.

Alford estimated the cost at Mississippi, which came off two years' probation this month, at $700,000, or one-tenth of the school's annual athletic budget of about $7 million.

"Take that amount of money out of our budget, and that's a pretty big chunk," Alford said. "Maybe out of $15 million, it might not be so bad, (but) our budget is only half the size of seven of the other schools in our league (Southeastern Conference). It cripples us."

Southern Cal was prohibited only from appearing on television in 1986 and '87, and that was enough to hurt.

"It hit during a time of deregulation when costs were continuing to grow at a double-digit rate," Southern Cal athletic director Mike McGee said, "so it mad a tough problem even worse."

TCU is on probation until May 1989, but it kept its losses to a minimum by cutting a deal with the NCAA.

"We did something that was pretty unique," Windegger said. "We talked to the infractions committee and told them we wanted to return television and bowl money from the years in question. ... They agreed to that, so the money ($343,203) went into an NCAA scholarship fund.

"In turn, we were allowed to be on TV. Our thinking is that we did not want to severely damage the conference television package."

It's impossible to accurately estimate full dollar losses. How could a school know what bowl, if any, it would have gone to while under sanction? How badly does the stigma of probation affect recruiting, then performance and, in turn, ticket sales?

"You can make up some of it with donations," Alford said, "but how much?"

One thing seems sure. Probation hurts performance, and that costs money.

After going 3-8 in 1987, Ole Miss went 5-6 this year and may be on the mend. Florida was 9-1-1 both in 1984 and 85, then went on probation, becoming the first school to lose scholarships under NCAA sanction. The Gators went 6-5 in 1986, 6-6 in '87 and 6-5 this past season.

Clemson had consecutive seasons of 12-0, 9-1-1 and 9-1-1 in 1981-83 before going on probation for two years. The Tigers were 7-4 and 6-6 in those seasons, then bounced back to 8-2-2 in 1986.

The loss of scholarships and limitations on the number of coaches who may recruit off campus probably are the most serious cripplers of football programs.

Oklahoma, for example, was cut from 25 annual scholarships to 18. Mississippi was cut from 25 to 15 scholarships in 1987, besides having two coaches barred from recruiting for two years. Texas Christian was allowed to give only 10 scholarships in 1986 and 15 in '87.

"You can't ever really replace the scholarships," Ole Miss' Alford said. "You can't go back and catch up. You lose one scholarship in one year, and it affects you for four, maybe five years. ...

"When they won't let you have your full 10 coaches recruiting, that doesn't sound like much, but it cuts down on the territory you can cover, and it puts a real strain on everybody else to pick it up."

While banned from football in 1987, SMU lost all its scholarships. Although SMU decided not to play this year, either, it was allowed 15 scholarships. Gregg now has 65 players, but 50 of them are walk-ons.

"We won't be thin on numbers, but we're going to lack size and experience," Gregg said. "We got in late and just sort of took what we could get this year, and we got some pretty good players.

"In three years, maybe, we'll be able to play pretty well, but to get back to where the program was, I think that'll probably take at least four years."

For now?

"Well, at least we've got numbers, and we'll be able to practice."

Since he was hired in January, that's all Gregg has been able to do - practice. He's coached for almost a year without having to scout an opponent.

"It feels very strange," he said. "We work out four days a week and scrimmage on Friday, and that gave them something to look forward to, but I think they were getting a little tired of beating on each other."

Gregg is optimistic that SMU's reputation can be restored.

"I think people understand that our problems were from the past, and we don't intend to repeat them," Gregg said. "I think we will regain our reputation - if it was lost."

It's a prerequisite for effective recruiting.

"When you're being investigated and all the rumors are circulating, even before you're put on sanctions, you start to fight the recruiting problems," Alford said. "People recruiting against you use it. ... It scares off athletes."

It all contributes to the lesson the NCAA is trying to teach.

"Your program gets hurt, and you start losing, and that hurts at the gate," Windegger said. "There's no way you can estimate what it's going to do to you. You just have to wait until everything is over and done with, and in hindsight maybe assess the damage."