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December 23, 2009

Jones has SMU believing once again

MORE: Hawaii Bowl: Who gets the edge?

Twenty-one years have passed since SMU rose from the dead, but it has taken 25 for the Mustangs to return to among the living in college football.

Two years after hiring coach June Jones away from Hawaii for $2 million per season, the Mustangs head to a Hawaii Bowl clash with Nevada for their first postseason appearance since 1984.

Perhaps no bowl game is more appropriate for SMU, and not just because it's a homecoming of sorts for Jones. The Hawaii Bowl is played in Aloha Stadium, and "aloha" is a word used to welcome and bid farewell. The Mustangs are hoping this game serves as their platform to do both.

They feel they're welcoming in a new era of optimism and possibilities under Jones, who took Hawaii from winless in 1998 to the Sugar Bowl in 2007. At the same time, the bowl game could be viewed as the Mustangs' final step to put behind them the aftershocks of the NCAA-imposed "death penalty" that crippled the program for more than two decades.

Last season, the Mustangs finished 1-11, their seventh season with one or fewer victories since returning from the death penalty in 1989. No one honestly could have seen a six-win improvement coming this season.

Well, no one except Jones.

"It's pretty awesome to set a goal for ourselves and reach it," Jones said. "In the first [team] meeting on Aug. 2, we said we had to win six games to go to Hawaii. I felt pretty good we could accomplish that goal, and we went one win over. We talked about this and how much I wanted these kids to go to Hawaii and show them things like Pearl Harbor. It's really nice to see it come to fruition.

"It's been fun to see it all happen and the reaction from the alumni. There's been a lot of emotion. Twenty-five years of losing takes a toll on you."

Losing has taken a massive toll at SMU, which entered this season with 19 losing records in the past 20 seasons. The only winning record in that span was a 6-5 finish in 1997 under Mike Cavan.

That was quite a fall for a program that had posted at least 10 wins in every season from 1981-84. But after repeated NCAA rules violations, SMU received the death penalty and its football program was suspended for the 1987 season; the school decided to also suspend it for the '88 season.

Actually, in a perverse way, the NCAA ruling enhanced SMU's football reputation. The Mustangs became known as a national power that was ruined by extreme sanctions. In truth, SMU historically has been a struggling program that only had brief periods of success.

The Mustangs posted consecutive nine-win seasons in 1947 and '48 behind the running of legendary Doak Walker, but won as many as eight games just twice in the next 31 seasons. They surged to national prominence in the early '80s with the "Pony Express" offense led by Eric Dickerson and Craig James, but slumped to consecutive 6-5 showings in '85 and '86 before the death penalty.

Still, no period in SMU's largely mediocre history was as dismal as the post-suspension years. The tough times moved a group of 20 prominent boosters dubbed the "Circle of Champions" to pledge $100,000 a year for five years to create a fund to hire Jones, who had overseen a miraculous turnaround at Hawaii. In 1999, he took over a Warriors program that had endured 18 consecutive losses, then posted a 9-4 record in his first season. That was the first of five nine-win seasons under Jones, capped by a 12-1 finish in 2007, when Hawaii played Georgia in the Sugar Bowl.

Jones' arrival at SMU again gave hope to a hopeless program.

"I knew this was going to happen when Coach Jones signed on that dotted line," said senior receiver Emmanuel Sanders, who endured 28 losses in his first three seasons in Dallas. "I just hoped it would happen before I got out of here.

"I'm glad to be part of the team that was able to finally get rid of the 'death penalty,' put that stuff behind us and give SMU a new start."

The new start began with the same old results.

The Jones era started with a 56-27 loss to Rice to open a 1-11 season. Jones was trying to build chemistry, belief and camaraderie within the program, and it was more difficult than he had envisioned.

"The No. 1 thing we had to change was the mindset of people here," he said. "It took longer to change that mindset that it did at other places. I think I underestimated the depth of the hole everybody was in.

"We had to make a lot of changes. We had to make hard, tough decisions."

That included suspending former starting quarterback Justin Willis, who threw 26 touchdown passes in 2007. Willis, who had a tumultuous three-year career at SMU, moved to wide receiver last season, then quit the team before the start of this season.

Bo Levi Mitchell replaced Willis and passed for 2,865 yards and 25 touchdowns in 2008. This season, he threw for 1,725 yards and 12 touchdowns in seven games before suffering a separated shoulder in a 38-15 loss to Houston. Freshman Kyle Padron has stepped in and passed for 1,462 yards and eight touchdowns while leading the Mustangs to four wins in his five games as a starter.

That run seems to have made football a big deal on the Hilltop again.

"It used to be like, 'SMU lost again? So what else is new?' " Sanders said. "But now there's a new excitement about coming to games. I've had professors talking about football for the first 20 minutes of a 55-minute class.

"There is definitely a lot of excitement around here. People are not used to SMU football winning. Now, everyone is patting you on the back and saying 'good job' and supporting us. People are walking around Dallas proud to wear their SMU gear. I'm having the time of my life."

As good as this season has been for SMU, it almost was a whole lot better. The Mustangs blew second-half leads in overtime losses to Washington State and Navy; they also lost to Marshall by a field goal.

"We could easily be 10-2 and we could easily be 2-10," Jones said. "We're not as talented as some of the teams we beat this year. We had to do other things to have a chance to win.

"We have seven wins, and five teams we beat are probably better football teams than us. The only team I felt we really beat we lost to - Washington State. That's how it is when you're learning to win."

The obvious question: Will the Mustangs keep their teacher? Jones made Hawaii relevant and has done a remarkable restoration job at SMU. No doubt, athletic directors of high-profile programs in need of a coach will notice. But Jones said he's not interested in leaving.

"I'm looking forward to the next 24 months to get the kids we need and we'll be on our way to do what we want to do," he said. "I get attached to these kids. We've tried to teach them to trust in each other and believe in these values, so it would be hard for me to go anywhere."

Maybe that's just coach-speak. After all, coaches have been known to stay they're rooted in a program one week, then take a more lucrative offer the next.

But the SMU community believes Jones is staying. And they believe even better times are ahead.

"I think the program is on the rise," Sanders said. "Coach Jones is turning the program around. You saw what he did at Hawaii. Now, he has a bigger budget and the state of Texas to recruit. He'll really get it going when he gets recruiting classes with all those three-star players."

In the four years before Jones' arrival, SMU signed 16 players ranked as three-star recruits by Rivals.com. Last year, Jones signed seven three-star prospects and one four-star player. This year, he has 13 commitments from three-star prospects.

Finally, there seems to be reason to pay more attention to SMU's optimistic future than its unfortunate past.

But like all good coaches, Jones is concentrating on the present. There is a game to be played against Nevada, which leads the nation in rushing offense. SMU's defense has been vulnerable to the run, so Jones hasn't allowed himself to enjoy the Mustangs' success.

"I haven't had time to think about it," Jones said. "I'm sure some day I will feel like it's a job well done. Now, we're just taking the approach that we're going against a good rushing team and how can we stop them.

"The kids are excited. Everybody is excited. But I'm still just trying to get through the football game."

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

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