Commentary

Jones plans to update Mustang decor with wins

Updated: May 8, 2008, 4:23 PM ET
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

DALLAS -- In some football reclamation projects, the aged and obsolete are difficult to unearth. At SMU, they decorate the lobby of the Mustangs' football office.

There they are, 10 neatly arranged wooden plaques, representing Chevrolet Player of the Game Scholarships awarded from 1980 to 1984. The names on the plaques, like Eric Dickerson and Lance McIlhenny, might as well be Red Grange and Bronko Nagurski.

The trophy signifying SMU's participation in the "Third Annual Holiday Bowl" comes from a bowl that just celebrated its 30th season.

There are three Southwest Conference championship trophies, looking like avocado-colored appliances waiting for a kitchen redo. SWC football died in 1995.

Of course, if your school had endured two decades like SMU has, you would have outdated decor, too. The Mustangs have had one winning season in the 19 seasons since they resumed playing after the NCAA death penalty. As SMU's former in-state rivals have thrived in the Big 12, the Mustangs have struggled to compete in the Western Athletic Conference (1996-2004) and Conference USA (2005-present).

[+] EnlargeJune Jones
SMU athleticsJune Jones is focused on turning around the Mustangs.
All of which is the perfect setup for June Jones. Over the course of his 25 seasons coaching pro and college football, Jones has made a habit of creating success where it didn't exist before.

When Jones took over at Hawaii in 1999, he and the run-and-shoot offense he learned from its developer, Mouse Davis, turned the 0-12 Warriors into a 9-4 bowl team. That remains the biggest turnaround in NCAA history.

In nine seasons in Honolulu, Jones won games (76-41, .650) and won the love and attention of the state university's fans. He became the most popular man in the islands, capping it off with a 12-1 record and a Sugar Bowl appearance this past season. He also learned that all the moral support in the world won't increase your recruiting budget, much less update your facilities.

So in January, Jones left Honolulu for SMU. He is employed on a beautiful, tree-lined campus on the edge of the wealthiest neighborhood in a city that reveres wealth. Jones' Mustangs play in $42 million Ford Stadium, opened in 2000. Ford Stadium houses the coaching offices as well as the weight-training facilities. It has a FieldTurf playing surface. Two grass practice fields are steps away.

His recruiting budget of $500,000 is ten times what he had at Hawaii.

Tracking the Ponies

Before receiving the death penalty in 1987, SMU was one of the powerhouses in the 1980s. During a four-year stretch from 1981-84, the Mustangs went 41-5-1. In the nearly two decades since returning to the college football world, however, SMU has not gone to a bowl game and has never won more than six games.

SMU football
  1980-86 1989-2007
Years 7 19
Winning yrs. 7 1
W-L 61-19-1 58-153-3
Win pct. .759 .381
Note: NCAA sanctions forced the cancellation of the 1987 season and SMU officials cancelled the 1988 campaign.

"When you think about being in the middle of the Pacific, $50,000 doesn't go very far, especially with the price of airline tickets now," Jones said.

Money, the Mustangs have. What they don't have are what Jones left behind -- namely, the love and attention of the local fans. Forget that Dallas is a pro town, with its three favorite teams being the Cowboys, Cowboys and Cowboys. It also is a winner's town, and when the Mustangs got into trouble in the 1980s, the winning screeched to a halt.

Jones might get to answer the age-old question: What's more important -- love or money?

He believes the love will come with winning. Until then, he is trying to adjust to life on the mainland. His office is strewn with packages of Kona coffee and macadamia nuts, gifts from friends in Hawaii. Jones said he has eaten at the local P.F. Chang's about 15 times, looking for a Polynesian fix. A shriveled lei hangs in his office, a gift brought from California by one of his current players.

"It will be there probably as long as I'm here," Jones said.

His first four months have been a whirlwind of speaking engagements. No group of 10 or more is safe. In other words, if you stand in line for a movie long enough, Jones is liable to show up and ask you to "Pony Up." He is finding receptive ears. Texas might be the birthplace of the triple option, but the state has come around on the spread offense.

[+] EnlargeJune Jones
John Schreiber/SMU Daily CampusJune Jones is installing his run-and shoot attack at SMU.

"When I first came to Texas in 1983, and we put in our offense with the USFL Houston Gamblers, it was basically a communist way to play the game," Jones said. "... I would say no team in the state of Texas ran four wide receivers. Now, every [recruiting] tape that comes in has four wide receivers. And that's satisfying. I called Mouse to tell him. I said, 'Mouse, you're not believing this.' We were so demeaned for what we did, basically by the ranks of the pros, everybody. 'You can't win doing that. You can't play doing that.' Now everybody's doing that. That makes it kind of satisfying. We were right all along."

And yet there's a part of Jones that can't quite believe his brand of football is accepted. When he decided to look around for a job, the two open positions that most intrigued him had defined bad football for a generation. In addition to SMU, Jones wanted to look into Duke, which has lost 25 consecutive Atlantic Coast Conference games.

If you go to a school that is used to winning, Jones said, "I would have people saying 'Wow, so-and-so didn't do it that way.' If you took one of those jobs and came up with a totally new approach, offensively and the way we teach is probably not going to be received quite as well. The opportunity [at SMU] is probably greater to realize some success. If you're 1-11, there's only way you can go."

In 1999, Hawaii lost Jones' first game 62-7 to USC, and that was the Trojans in the year 2 B.C. (before Pete Carroll). Hawaii closed that season with a 23-17 defeat of Oregon State in the Oahu Bowl. Jones won't say when SMU will win. But the renovations of Mustang football have begun in earnest.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at ivan.maisel@espn3.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com