Bennett aims to keep building at SMU

Updated: August 12, 2003, 5:42 PM ET

DALLAS -- Since starting his tenure as coach of downtrodden SMU with seven straight losses, Phil Bennett has bounced back strong.

The Mustangs closed last season winning three of their last five, then added a recruiting class he considers the best among schools in non-BCS conferences. He's also worked on enhancing the first-class image he wants to project by putting a new hybrid turf field into a 3-year-old stadium and by upgrading the color schemes on the uniforms and helmets.

All that's left is seeing it come together on the field.

"I'm more convinced than ever that we can win and be a top 25 team at this school," Bennett said. "Now, we have work to do, don't get me wrong. This is going to be a year that we need to show improvement. But I truly believe that with the class we were able to recruit, and where we're at in recruiting already this year, it's not probable. It's going to happen."

Bennett took the SMU job after many years as a successful defensive coordinator at top-tier programs in major conferences. He could've waited to become a head coach in a powerhouse program, but liked the idea of reviving the Mustangs, who've had only one winning season since returning from the death penalty in 1989.

His first year was pretty much set up to fail. There were no quarterbacks with college experience and big-play receiver/returner Chris Cunningham was out with an injury.

Things started changing when Bennett turned the offense over to quarterback Richard Bartel. He was 21-of-30 for 296 yards in leading SMU past Louisiana Tech. Bartel started the last five games and the Mustangs doubled their passing yardage and points over the first seven games.

Bartel was supposed to have taken over two weeks earlier, at Hawaii. His mother even made the long trek out for the game.

But he broke curfew the night before the trip and Bennett left him at home. He was one of three starters benched for the same reason last season.

Although Bennett said the flight to Hawaii was a miserable eight hours, he looks back on it as an important moment in establishing what kind of program he's running.

"You only get one chance to prove what's going to be accepted," Bennett said. "I think kids respond to consistency. When kids know what to expect, they act that way."

"It did set a tone," Bartel said. "When coach Bennett got here, he let us know he's all business. The Hawaii game showed that. I know it's a turning point for myself."

Bartel cemented his starting status in spring practices.

He also showed his leadership ability by taking his squad to the championship game of a teamwide 3-on-3 basketball tournament, then showed his dedication by opting out of a pro baseball contract with the Cincinnati Reds to spend the summer focusing on football.

The Mustangs also will have Keylon Kincade, who ran for 1,279 yards against defenses stacked against the run. And Cunningham is back, too.

SMU's defense was a curiosity last season. It allowed the fewest first downs in the WAC, but was only fourth in total defense. Why? Big plays. Bennett figures cutting down on those will cut down on the 31.5 points per game the Mustangs allowed.

The schedule isn't set up for a big breakthrough. SMU opens with three Big 12 schools and plays five teams that ended last season with bowl wins.

"For us to get this thing turned around, it's going to take two or three years," Bennett said. "I see us as being improved this year. How much, I don't know. But with each recruiting class we're going to get better and better and better."

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index