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February 12, 2008

SMU hopes lightning strikes twice with Jones

DALLAS Mansions sitting on impeccably manicured lawns and framed by large old oak trees line Mockingbird, Beverly and several other streets near SMU.

Many of those majestic homes were purchased by men who made shrewd, calculated investments that paid off handsomely. And some of those men again have made significant investments they hope will pay off just as big for SMU football, a once-proud program that comes with an abundance of baggage.

Twenty prominent SMU supporters known as the "Circle of Champions," a group tired of a foundering program that hasn't recovered from the NCAA death penalty two decades ago, each pledged $100,000 a year over the next five seasons to coax coach June Jones away from Hawaii. The hope is he can do in Dallas what he did in Honolulu: turn an abysmal team into one that is nationally relevant.

Some may question whether that's possible. Why bother investing in a barren market that has produced an average of just three victories a year over the past 19 seasons? Why does a small private school in Conference USA that typically averages fewer than 20,000 fans per game pay a coach almost $2 million annually quadruple the salary of his predecessor, Phil Bennett?

"Because everybody remembers winning the Southwest Conference 25 or 26 years ago and everybody remembers how it was when they won," Jones said. "Everybody eats and drinks and breathes football in Texas, and that's true at SMU."

Good point. Texas has two NFL franchises, 10 NCAA Division I-A programs, teams in every division of college football, including a junior college conference, and more than 1,000 high schools that participate in either 11- or six-man football.

"In any business, the consumer defines the lead product," SMU athletic director Steve Orsini said. "No matter what level of athletics, football is king in this state. That defines where our focus should be."

Besides, even before the "Circle of Champions" put up the money to make Jones the Mustangs' fifth coach since they returned from the two-year death penalty in 1989, SMU already had made a huge investment in constructing $50 million Gerald J. Ford Stadium, a 32,000-seat, on-campus jewel that opened in 2000.

"We've put too much money into our stadium to throw in the towel," said Lance McIlhenny, the former president of the SMU Letterman's Club and quarterback of the Mustangs' 1982 team, which finished 11-0-1 and second in the nation. "We can't turn it into a moto-cross track or a skating rink."

Orsini compared the hiring of Jones, who guided Hawaii to the Sugar Bowl this past season, to adding a front porch onto one of those mansions surrounding the SMU campus.

"We had to make a financial investment and hope we get a financial return," Orsini said. "You don't have to have a front porch to have a nice home, but you can add a front porch to give it street appeal so it can attract people to check out the home.

DALLAS The hot pick in any 2008 college football fantasy league might be SMU quarterback Justin Willis, who figures to flourish in coach June Jones'run-and-shoot offense.

Willis, a junior, has thrown 51 touchdown passes in his career in offenses much less quarterback-friendly than Jones'.

In the past eight seasons under Jones, Hawaii's quarterback ranked no lower than ninth nationally in passing, and each threw for more than 3,000 yards and no fewer than 19 touchdowns.

"Every quarterback loves what we do," Jones said. "Our offense makes an average quarterback better, and the great ones will be great anyway."

There is a lot to like about Willis, the 2006 Conference USA freshman of the year. Jones is impressed that Willis has a 61.9 career completion percentage.

"He has some positive traits and a good completion percentage," Jones said. "In our system, I think it will be higher, but it will take a little time. The receivers have got to learn the new system, too.

"If we go back to Hawaii, the receivers know what to do. Justin might do the right thing but the receivers do the wrong thing, so there's a learning curve. But I'm excited to see what he can do."

-Olin Buchanan
"The leaders at SMU decided to have a front porch with athletics to make SMU as attractive as it can be to attract better people to come to SMU."

Jones already has attracted considerable attention. In Hawaii, he won with flair using a high-scoring run-and-shoot offense and became the most successful coach in school history. Jones grew so popular that bumper stickers promoting him for governor became common in the islands, and he arguably was Hawaii's single-most identifiable individual since Don Ho.

His profile figures to be considerably lower in Dallas, a glamorous pro sports market that already features such high-profile figures as Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, receiver Terrell Owens and quarterback Tony Romo, Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki, Stars center Mike Modano and Texas Rangers president Nolan Ryan.

Yet in Dallas, what is new is what is chic, and June Jones already has been stopped for handshakes and autographs when he has found time to leave his office.

"Believe it or not, that has happened, and I was surprised," Jones said. "That says a lot about Dallas. They're really tuned into football. I was taken aback when I got out that there are already people shaking my hand."

Jones' arrival has prompted much more than warm greetings. Orsini said the season-ticket renewal process will be moved up a month because there has been so much response, and he said several local businesses have called to express interest in sponsorships; TV and radio stations also have initiated conversations.

Across the street from the SMU campus, Mary Mebus, manager of the SMU Bookstore, said she hasn't noticed any spike in sales of apparel since Jones' arrival. But she anticipates there will be when the 2008 season nears.

"We're gearing up for it," she said. "It's going to be really big. I hear a lot of customers talking about the football program."

Adam Rice, a freshman from New York studying political science, is among those talking about Jones.

"I think it was a great hire for this school," he said. "Bringing him in here after he went to the Sugar Bowl there is a lot of hope for the future."

But Todd Baty, a senior history major from Dallas who writes for a campus newspaper called Hilltopics, wasn't as enthusiastic. "I think he's overpaid," he said. "Two million dollars a year can be spent a lot better ways. I have nothing against football or June Jones as an individual, and he seems like a great football coach. But I feel $2 million is a lot of money that can be spent in more meaningful ways on this campus.

"People will come out of the woodwork if athletics needs money, but the university honors program needs more money and is still underfunded."

A perfect fit?

Jones has been on the job about a month. Sitting in a corner office in the Paul B. Loyd All-Sports Center, he looks tired. He just finished assembling his first recruiting class and has been watching tape of his new team. He's planning the schedule for spring football, which begins March 3. He's still living in an apartment because he hasn't had time to look for a house.

"I probably won't until after spring football ends," he said.

Despite his salary, which easily makes him the highest-paid coach in Conference USA, it might seem stunning that he's even in Dallas. Nine years ago, he took over a Hawaii program that had endured 18 consecutive losses. He went 9-4 in his first season the greatest turnaround in NCAA football history.

What followed were eight winning seasons in nine years, including a 12-1 record in 2007 and an appearance in the Sugar Bowl against Georgia.

"We want a season comparable to our season in '82 when we went 11-0-1, went to the Cotton Bowl and won 7-3 Who's to say we can't get back up there? I think it's realistic. We want to be in the Sugar Bowl against Georgia."
-Former SMU quarterback Lance McIlhenny

Why leave a program that he'd built practically from scratch to take over a team that has managed one winning season 6-5 in 1997 in 19 years? And why leave Hawaii? The old money neighborhoods of Dallas are lush, but they surely can't compare to Waikiki.

Jones said those who know him best weren't surprised he left. They knew he'd become increasingly frustrated at Hawaii, where the facilities and budget were so bad that All-American quarterback Colt Brennan complained last summer about the lack of soap in the locker room showers.

"The condition of (SMU's) program is better than the condition was at Hawaii," Jones said. "We have the people in place, money and facilities.

"Hawaii was a unique situation. I knew what it was when I took over the job and felt in time it would change and get better. Nine years later, there hadn't been any changes. I had the same budget they had when they lost 18 straight."

Jones said he contemplated leaving Hawaii in 2005, but was rejuvenated after hiring Jerry Glanville as his defensive coordinator. He said he also thought about leaving after the 2006 season, but promised to stay if Brennan decided to pass up the NFL Draft.

"Colt had to make a decision on whether he was coming back or not, and I knew my decision would affect his decision," Jones said. "I told him if he had not entered the NFL by Jan. 17, when he had to decide, that I wouldn't take another job. I'm glad I went back.

"But I think the people who knew me in Hawaii the last three or four years knew I was frustrated."

Those who follow SMU have been even more frustrated. The Mustangs once were a national power, and they drew national attention in the early 1980s during the "Pony Express" era of running backs Eric Dickerson and Craig James. From 1981-84, the Mustangs posted four consecutive 10-victory seasons, and in '82 capped that 11-0-1 season by posting a 7-3 Cotton Bowl victory over Pittsburgh in Dan Marino's final college game.

But after repeated NCAA violations and periods on probation, a slush-fund scandal that included former Texas governor Bill Clements was the last straw and the program was shut down for the 1987 and '88 seasons. Since then, the Mustangs have managed just that one winning season and had one victory or less in six seasons, including a 1-11 finish in 2007.

Sitting in a burgundy leather chair in the Nineteenth Hole of the luxurious Dallas Country Club where he meets every Thursday with former teammates from nearby Highland Park High School, McIlhenny reflected on SMU's past and its hopes for the future.

"We had it going in the early '80s," he said. "It was a lot of fun, and there was a lot of national attention associated with the team. We want to be good again.

"We want a season comparable to our season in '82 when we went 11-0-1, went to the Cotton Bowl and won 7-3. We could have won the national championship, but (Joe) Paterno and Penn State were awarded the national championship. But SMU was on the map then. If we can get to where we win our conference and a bowl game, who's to say we can't get back up there? I think it's realistic. We want to be in the Sugar Bowl against Georgia."

A year-by-year look at June Jones' tenure at Hawaii:
McIlhenny is confident SMU is taking the steps to be competitive again. And, no, that does not mean resuming the "$100 handshakes" to players that led to the program's downfall.

"If people want to go there and want to believe that, that's OK," he said. "It's college football. It's not life or death, but it's something a lot of people attach themselves to. At some point we're going to put a team on the field that will win eight or 10 games, and we'll have a successful season."

To help bring about that success, SMU has relaxed some of the academic rules it set after the death penalty.

Forrest Gregg, who had coached the Green Bay Packers and Cincinnati Bengals and took the Bengals to the Super Bowl, was hired to rebuild SMU after the death penalty. He already was at a disadvantage recruiting against giant public schools like Texas, Texas A&M and Oklahoma. He was further limited by SMU's in-house policies.

"The recruiting situation was not good because (recruits) had to be admitted to SMU before they could even come to visit," said Gregg, now retired and living in Colorado Springs, Colo. "A lot of kids don't take their SAT or ACT until late, so sometimes it's hard to get those kids into school. That was part of it right there.

"That's been taken care of. They don't have to do that anymore. And when we first came back, the facilities were terrible. We put a band-aid on old Ownby Stadium, and wasted that money and time and so forth. That's been taken care of. They've got a facility as good as any school that size."

A curriculum in education also has been re-established, and kinesiology - a course popular with athletes - now is being offered as a major.

"The curriculum is expanding because the university wants to do that," Orsini said. "We're adding back a School of Education, which we had before. It's not just for athletics, if that's what anybody wants to imply. Will offering more majors help athletics? Of course it will. We'll offer kinesiology and teaching certification that offers the possibility to be a coach, and that's attractive to athletes."

McIlhenny put it more succinctly. "They're considering a curriculum for a degree path that you don't have to be a rocket scientist," he said.

New vision, old vision

Facilities and curriculums can get the attention of recruits, but a coach and his system are much bigger draws.

Four players who signed with SMU last week originally committed to Hawaii to play for Jones. The chance to play in Jones' system surely will sway others in coming years.

"After I got here, I got a lot of phone calls from kids reconsidering their commitments," Jones said. "We signed a quarterback that, if he was 6-3 or 6-4 instead of 6-1, maybe we wouldn't have gotten him.

"To me a football player is a football player and it doesn't matter how big he is. We got a couple of kids we wouldn't have gotten if they were 6-6. But eventually we need to get the 6-6 guys, too."

A few top-level recruits are required for SMU to join Boise State, BYU, Utah and TCU (its former Southwest Conference archrival in nearby Fort Worth) as non-"Big Six" conference teams that can annually contend for status among the top 25.

"Everything is structured to turn around," Jones said. "The people are hungry. They haven't had a winning program since the death penalty. Everybody understands what a successful football program would mean to the whole school."

Quick reversals of fortune aren't uncommon in Conference USA. UCF posted 10 victories this past season, just four seasons after going winless. Houston, which was winless in 2001, has made three consecutive bowl appearances. Tulsa, which went 1-11 in 2002, also has made three bowl appearances in a row and won its division in Conference USA in two of the past three seasons.

It took Jones nine years to get Hawaii into a BCS bowl, but he said he doesn't have a timetable for SMU.

"We accomplished great things at Hawaii," Jones said. "Did I know we were going to make the biggest turnaround in NCAA history? No. That year I said we needed to (start) 2-1.

"I don't think about the big picture. We'll talk about winning with small steps. Ultimately, winning is what gets people excited, and that's what we're here to do be a winner."

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.

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