Mustangs hit another turning point
With Hawaii Bowl, SMU program emerges from lingering death-penalty darkness
UNIVERSITY PARK, Texas -- The moment sophomore running back Eric Dickerson witnessed the sudden jubilation, he knew he would never forget it.
It was Oct. 25, 1980, and the unranked SMU Mustangs had just walked into Texas' backyard with a freshman quarterback and laid a 20-6 whipping on the second-ranked Longhorns. Dickerson couldn't believe the celebration going on around him -- not by his teammates, but by the old-timers who had waited what seemed a lifetime to rejoice.
The victory, one of eight in that turning-point season, signaled the start of an era forever known as the Pony Express. It wiped clean 13 years of frustration against Texas and redeemed more than a decade of mostly lamentable SMU football seasons.
I went, 'Wow, it's like that. I hope we don't have to wait that long,' and lo and behold, we're those guys; we're just like them. We've been waiting 20 years for our program to come back.” -- Eric Dickerson
"A lot of the old alumni came in [for the game], in wheelchairs, on canes and on walkers. They were so excited, and they were crying; they had been waiting 20 years for this," Dickerson said from his home in Southern California. "I made a comment; I went, 'Wow, it's like that. I hope we don't have to wait that long,' and lo and behold, we're those guys, we're just like them. We've been waiting 20 years for our program to come back."
On Thursday at the Hawaii Bowl in Honolulu, a new generation of Mustangs led by their second-year savior, coach June Jones, will make it official. SMU's cruel 25-year bowl drought will cease on Christmas Eve when the Mustangs face the Nevada Wolf Pack. The Ponies are shooting for their eighth win in a season that could be considered another turning point.
These Mustangs appear to be forging a proud new era that, with any luck, will finally eliminate the lingering black cloud of the 1986 death penalty.
At the time of college football's worst nightmare, today's players weren't even born.
"But," said SMU senior receiver Emmanuel Sanders, "just being around this community and just hearing the stories and just feeling their emotions towards what went on and what has been occurring, I felt like I was born during that time.
"And, you know, when I go out and play I have that on my sleeve, just this tradition and let's go out and try to turn this thing around."
In two short seasons, Jones, the former Hawaii coach, has done exactly that. The 56-year-old's island calm, his inner desire to awaken slumbering programs, and his high-scoring run-and-shoot offense has filled SMU football with a quiet confidence after three near-revitalizations, all under different head coaches, failed since football returned to the Hilltop in 1989.
"It's a challenge for him," freshman starting quarterback Kyle Padron said of Jones. "He doesn't want to take over an esteemed program like Notre Dame or Michigan. He wants to bring somebody, like us, back from the death penalty. It's a personal challenge for him. Obviously, he's accomplished that by bringing us to a bowl game."
A diverse offense led by Padron, a midseason replacement for injured starter Bo Levi Mitchell; the senior Sanders, who has rewritten SMU's receiving records the last two seasons; and junior running back Shawnbrey McNeal, a Dallas native and Miami transfer who averages 93.8 yards a game, guided SMU to a 7-5 record and 6-2 in Conference USA, good for second behind Houston in the West Division.
SMU reveled in its first winning season since 1997 and a six-game improvement from Jones' 1-11 inaugural campaign. It was the biggest turnaround in the nation this season. While the Ponies won five games by five points or fewer, they also lost three by three points each, two in overtime.
Fully believing in Jones and his system, the Mustangs say they view those tough losses as building blocks.
"The biggest thing is the kids have come together as one," Jones said. "We had a bunch of guys [last season] that just kind of didn't buy into what we were talking about every day, about team and team success has to be a prerequisite to personal success. They didn't really understand that, and this year they understand that."
About the time SMU officially accepted a bid to the Hawaii Bowl on Dec. 1, the school rewarded Jones, who just two seasons ago took Hawaii to the Sugar Bowl, with a two-year contract extension, keeping Jones on the Dallas campus through at least the 2014 season.
It was Dickerson, the school's all-time rushing leader, who helped unite his alma mater and Jones in the first place. Dickerson travels to Hawaii each year for the NFL's Pro Bowl and on each trip had dinner with Jones. This time, with SMU looking to fill its vacancy, Jones again told Dickerson how much he enjoys coaching Hawaii.
"I had just talked to [SMU athletic director] Steve Orsini a couple days prior," Dickerson said. "I said, 'You know who I'd really like to see get that job is June Jones, but I know he said he loves the University of Hawaii and isn't ready to move yet.'"
Soon after Dickerson returned to the mainland, his phone rang.
"Lo and behold, [Jones] called and said: 'Are you talking to anybody at SMU? I think I might be ready to make a move,'" Dickerson said. "I said, 'June, we were just talking about you. I will call [Orsini] right now.' That's how the ball got rolling."
If it keeps rolling, SMU could once again generate college-football excitement in Dallas. Fans didn't catch on quickly this season, but the blueprint for patience and success lies 40 miles west in Fort Worth. TCU's continuity was established by coach Gary Patterson, and his ability to recruit and develop Texas high school players has elevated the Horned Frogs to national prominence and a BCS berth in the Fiesta Bowl.
With fertile recruiting ground surrounding them, Jones and SMU have a chance to compete annually for Conference USA titles.
"The big thing is recruiting," Dickerson said, "and June knows how to recruit."
Dickerson is hosting a family gathering over Christmas in California, so he's sorry to say that he won't be attending the Hawaii Bowl. But he does have a message for this new crop of breakaway Mustangs.
"I will most definitely be watching," he said. "No doubt about that."
Jeff Caplan covers colleges for ESPN Dallas. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.