Jones says challenge of rebuilding SMU led him to leave Hawaii

Updated: January 7, 2008, 10:30 PM ET
ESPN.com news services

DALLAS -- The way June Jones sees it, staying at Hawaii would have been easy; it was the challenge of rebuilding a tattered football program that led him to take the coaching job at Southern Methodist, which stumbled to a 1-11 record this season.

"Where you are now excites me because the only way is up, and I am good at going up," Jones said Monday.

The introduction of Jones at a booster-packed press conference ended the nation's longest college coaching search this year. It had been 70 days since Phil Bennett was dismissed with four games left in the season.

School officials hope Jones can bring some of Hawaii's run-and-shoot magic, which produced 43 points per game, an undefeated regular season and a BCS bowl berth this year. They were also impressed by Jones' ability to resuscitate Hawaii, which went 0-12 before he arrived in 1999 and won nine games.

Jones' decision to leave Hawaii came after an extraordinary bidding war that even involved the governor of Hawaii.

"In 30 years representing athletes, I've never seen the emotional reaction from a state like Hawaii," Leigh Steinberg, Jones' agent, said. "There was a flood of e-mails and calls exhorting him to stay."

Steinberg said the coach accepted a five-year deal worth about $2 million per year. He said Hawaii offered about $1.6 million per year.

On Sunday, a source told ESPN's Joe Schad that the deal at SMU is expected to be booster-funded. SMU athletic director Steve Orsini reportedly has sold as many as 20 boosters on the concept of donating as much as $100,000 per year for five years.

His contract puts him on the same pay scale as new Texas A&M coach Mike Sherman ($1.8 million). Baylor, a private school like SMU, recently signed Art Briles to a deal that could pay him $1.8 million a year with all incentives included.

Besides more money, Jones will be in the middle of the rich Texas recruiting base, and he'll get better facilities -- SMU recently built a new brick-faced stadium and a modern training center.

"There's absolutely no comparison," Jones said. At Hawaii, "the office that I sat in was the same office that Dick Tomey sat in in 1986. The carpet was the same ... You're talking about the NFL and a Pop Warner team."

Jones said he has commitments from some of his Hawaii assistants to follow him but wouldn't name them for three or four days.

A handful of SMU players met Jones after Monday's press conference. The coach said he had watched tape of some SMU games and the Mustangs were "close to turning the corner." But he declined to predict how many games they'll win next season.

Jones would have faced a rebuilding process even had he stayed at Hawaii. The Warriors, who suffered a 41-10 thrashing by Georgia in the Sugar Bowl, will lose quarterback Colt Brennan, who finished third in the Heisman voting, and the school's career leading receiver Davone Bess, who is skipping his senior season to enter the NFL draft.

"No matter what he ever did or no matter how much he won he wasn't going to have the right money or facilities," Brennan told Schad. "I'm sad to see him go but after just having experienced the Sugar Bowl I understand how this is a business."

Still, the Warriors are the only football show in Honolulu, which helped turn Jones and Brennan into celebrities in paradise.

Brennan won't be back next season for Hawaii.

"My concern is Hawaii," Brennan said. "I hope it doesn't hurt our program and I don't think it has to. I would personally like to see Hawaii hire Norm Chow. I think he would be a great fit for Hawaii just like coach Jones was."

By contrast, SMU is nearly invisible in Big D, overshadowed by the Dallas Cowboys and better college programs at Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech and TCU. The Mustangs play in Conference USA, which according to popular power ratings is even weaker than Hawaii's league, the Western Athletic Conference.

Jones said, however, that recruiting for SMU will be easier than at Hawaii, where distance made mainland parents reluctant to send their kids. He added that many Texas high schools now run spread offenses featuring the passing game, just like his run-and-shoot.

"It'll be fun to watch, and we'll attract the players to come play in our offense," he said. "I know there are a lot of players within 30 miles of this campus."

Jones, who turns 55 next month, has a record of 75-41 with Hawaii, including 4-2 in bowl games. His teams finished first in the WAC twice and second two other times. He went to Hawaii after 12 years in the NFL, including stints as head coach at Atlanta and San Diego.

Bennett was the fourth coach to lead SMU since it came off the death penalty in 1989. The Mustangs are 58-153-3 and have had only one winning season in that span.

Bennett's departure was announced Oct. 28, with four games left in the season, and that was just the beginning of the long hunt for a replacement.

Orsini pursued Navy coach Paul Johnson, but he took the opening at Georgia Tech instead. Recently fired Texas A&M coach Dennis Franchione and former Miami coach Larry Coker were among those rumored to be in the running.

While the SMU search dragged on, Navy found a replacement for Johnson in one day and Texas A&M replaced Franchione in three days.

"We took our time. We did it right," Orsini said. "We have to fill up Ford Stadium."

SMU got permission to speak with Jones last month. Jones said he watched as many coaching jobs came open and were filled, but the only schools that intrigued him were SMU and Duke.

"Hawaii will always be my home," he said. "The opportunity here surpasses everything ... I just really believe this is the time for me to move on."

Joe Schad covers college football for ESPN. Information from The Associated Press was included in this report.

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