Governor, Hawaii supporters try to get Jones to stay

Updated: January 7, 2008, 2:19 AM ET
ESPN.com news services

DALLAS -- June Jones went into the early hours of Monday trying to decide whether to accept an offer to coach SMU or return to Hawaii, where the governor is among those trying to keep him.

June Jones

Jones

"When he came here, it was clearly with the intent that if things went well -- and they did -- that we'd be moving to the next stage," agent Leigh Steinberg said as late Sunday turned to early Monday. "But this statewide outpouring has given him pause. He was clearly emotional today. Who wouldn't be faced with a torrent of love, guilt -- every type of emotion."

Jones spent Sunday in Dallas meeting with SMU officials and the search committee that has been working since late October to hire a replacement for Phil Bennett. As the day went on, more and more people from the island reached out to Jones, hoping to convince him to return to the Hawaii program he's guided to national prominence the last nine years. They were rallied in part by reports of a letter he'd sent friends saying that he was going to be resigning.

During a dinner with SMU officials Sunday night, Steinberg said he expected Jones to pick between the schools within a few hours. Around midnight, he called that prediction "unduly optimistic," mostly because of how emotional Jones had become. Steinberg said his client had tears in his eyes at times.

"Really, today could not have gone better from the standpoint of SMU. There were quality people, June loved the facilities, the support was terrific -- their actions were tremendous," Steinberg said. "On the other hand, there's been this torrent of e-mails and phone calls in the most dramatic fashion imploring him to stay.

"They talked about how unique his place is in the culture of the islands, what he means to the youth of the island, the economy, the morale and spirit, what a devastating impact it would have if he were to leave, how close he is to their heart and how much they love him. It's so unique. I haven't seen something quite like this."

Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle called to see what she could do, and the president who oversees the entire University of Hawaii system called with an updated contract proposal. It's the second in three days, but the first made by the school's overall leader.

A source told ESPN on Sunday night that Hawaii is offering Jones a five-year deal to remain at Hawaii. Under such an agreement, Jones would receive a compensation package that would begin at $1.5 million per year. Hawaii would also agree to increase the pay of Jones' coaching staff and address facility concerns that Jones has raised.

Steinberg said the latest offer included a slight raise but _ more importantly -- there was "a general statement of commitment to facilities and budgets.

"Their letter today spoke to a commitment to try to remedy those problems, with specific examples where they would move and move quickly," Steinberg said.

SMU likely can provide a higher salary and a bigger budget and better facilities. Jones also would have a more fertile recruiting base, albeit with the trade off of stiffer competition.

Then again, SMU also carries a culture of losing.

The once-proud program of Doak Walker, Don Meredith and Eric Dickerson received the NCAA's only death penalty in the late 1980s. Since returning in 1989, the Mustangs have only one winning season and no bowl berths. They went 1-11 this past season, 0-8 in Conference USA.

Jones, however, started near the bottom at Hawaii, too, inheriting an 0-11 club in 1999. They won nine games his first year, the largest turnaround in NCAA history.

With a record-setting passing attack in place, the Warriors became a perennial contender in the Western Athletic Conference. They went 12-0 this season before losing to Georgia in the Sugar Bowl.

Steinberg used the team's football banquet as an example of how Jones has changed things in Honolulu.

"The banquet had 200 people when he got there. This year it sold out at 1,500 and had the governor and the mayor there," Steinberg said. "They said, 'This is the proudest the state of Hawaii has ever been. This has finally shown the mainland we're on par with them, that things in Hawaii are not inferior.' So if you look at the whole thing, he's involved in the culture there. It's all interwoven."

Then why leave? Perhaps because even if Hawaii improves its football budget and facilities it probably will never reach the level of a football-hungry, booster-backed program like SMU. Or perhaps for the challenge. After all, Jones left a 12-year run in the NFL to take over a winless program at Hawaii.

Jones, who turns 55 next month, has gone 75-41 with the Warriors, including 4-2 in bowls. His teams finished first in the WAC twice and second two other times.

Bennett was the fourth coach to lead SMU since it came off the death penalty in 1989. The Mustangs are 58-153-3 in that span. The on-field struggles have been compounded by the long, slow hunt for Bennett's replacement.

The search has taken about 10 weeks, with SMU going from the first major college with a vacancy to the only one left without a coach. The school received permission to speak with Jones on Dec. 24.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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