Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Small Steps toward Revival Former Coach at Southern Methodist Recalls How That School Slowly Came Back from Death Penalty

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Small Steps toward Revival Former Coach at Southern Methodist Recalls How That School Slowly Came Back from Death Penalty

Article excerpt

Forrest Gregg has a tremor in his hand, his once granite shoulders are stooped and his booming baritone is now a halting whisper. His memory comes and goes, but the NFL Hall of Famer doesn't blame it on the Parkinson's disease he is battling, which he suspects is the product of too many concussions.

"I'm old," Gregg, 78, said with a chuckle.

Vince Lombardi wrote that Gregg "was the finest player I ever coached." Gregg was reminded of that the other day on a phone call after the NCAA levied a stiff penalty on Penn State's football program in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse scandal.

Gregg was eager to speak about the finest bunch of players he said he had ever been around. He could tick off most their names, but no one outside the most die-hard Southern Methodist University football fans would ever recognize them.

They were small and not all that talented and most of them did not have scholarships or really any business playing major college football on autumn Saturdays.

They were proud, though, and loved SMU as much as Gregg did. In the early 1950s, he had been a two-way standout on the Hilltop, as the university's Dallas-area campus is known. He was horrified when the NCAA gave the Mustang football program the so-called death penalty for paying players, sidelining the team for the 1987 season.

Gregg could not refuse his alma mater when it asked him to not so much return SMU to glory but merely to the football sidelines honorably in 1989. He was not hired for the six championships he won as a player or his acumen with X's and O's that had been enough to win 75 games as a NFL head coach and lead the Cincinnati Bengals to Super Bowl XVI, which they lost, 26-21, to the San Francisco 49ers.

SMU needed a coach who could simultaneously restore integrity and endure a beating on and off the field. Gregg had 15 scholarships to use his first year and when he looked at his practice field, he saw the equivalent of 80 pocketknives hardly ready for a season-long fight with a flotilla of college football's aircraft destroyers.

"I never coached a group of kids that had more courage," he said. "They thought that they could play with anyone. They were quality people. It was one of the most pleasurable experiences in my football life. Period."

In two seasons under Gregg, the Mustangs went 3-19. In 1991, he became the university's athletic director and watched his guys fight through a 1-10 season, followed by one in which they went 5-6. Gregg believes each one of them should have their jersey number retired.

"They restored dignity to SMU football," Gregg said.

He knows what Bill O'Brien, the new Nittany Lions coach, is up against. Penn State did not get the death penalty, but a four-year bowl ban and drastic reduction in scholarships threaten to tumble it from the heights of college football for years to come. …

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