Keeping up with Jones
The former UH coach speaks out on why he left and his prospects for reviving the SMU football program
June Jones is gone, but he will forever be linked to Hawaii and the state's only college football team. He inherited an 0-12 program and when he left nine years later, it was 12-1 and nationally ranked.
But even before the Warriors' appearance in the Jan. 1, 2008, Sugar Bowl, Jones was headed out the door, to SMU and a new reclamation project.
Mark Wangrin, a freelance writer who has covered the national college football scene for more than two decades, sat down with Jones recently in the coach's office on the idyllic Dallas campus. The result is a package of exclusive stories in the Star-Bulletin today and tomorrow. It also includes photos of Jones and the assistant coaches who went with him from the Warriors to the Mustangs.
Jones opens up about what attracted him to SMU, and Wangrin details how Hall of Fame running back Eric Dickerson, a former Mustangs star, approached Jones about taking the job.
The former UH coach also talks about dissatisfaction with his dream job festering as early as 2003 following the brawl after the Hawaii Bowl game against Houston and drafting his first resignation letter in December 2004. Jones also reveals that he would have left the team following the 2006 season if quarterback Colt Brennan hadn't decided to return for his senior year.
Only time will tell if Jones can succeed where so many have failed in attempting to rebuild the once-proud SMU program that received the NCAA Death Penalty in the 1980s. But, for now, Wangrin says, the honeymoon in Dallas continues.
"He was very open and engaging," Wangrin said after his interview with Jones. "He seems very happy."
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Jones ready to ‘Pony Up’ at SMU
DALLAS » June Jones' new office has a view -- a view of the back of a large stand of aging aluminum bleachers. His other window at Southern Methodist does afford a better sightline -- of the corner of a running track, which is just as often filled with sweaty, overweight professors as sprightly coeds.
Still, the sweet spring air is filled with sunshine, salt air, the sounds of mynahs chirping and surf hitting the beach at Waikiki ... aw, who are we kidding? SMU is built on the banks of the Crosstown Expressway, which bombards you with the hum of 18-wheelers and the roar of motorcycles. You want exotic birds? You've got pigeons. You want an ocean breeze? You get smog and an ozone alert.
It was 70 degrees and sunny in Dallas on Jan. 7, the day that Jones was introduced as SMU coach. Some omen. Then the first day of spring practice gets snowed out. So does the second. The next week a practice gets washed out by a rainstorm of near-biblical proportions. The only question seemingly then facing Jones was when the locusts would arrive.
In the grand scheme of things, all that was incidental, simply a nuisance. The former Hawaii coach's new mission -- which is to revive a team that went 1-11 last year, was once wiped out by the NCAA's infamous Death Penalty and has had only one winning season in the last 19 -- wasn't going to be derailed so easily. Even if it is a far cry from what Jones gave up -- being 12-1, BCS-worthy and deified, up there close to Kane, Ku and Lono.
Chances are you don't know any of that, though, because the Mustangs are buried in a market where a Dallas Cowboys backup center's pedicure is likely to incite more media attention than a has-been, once-cheating college program.
To top it off, there ain't a palm tree in sight.
Paradise lost? Depends on your point of view. For the 55-year-old Jones, this is nirvana. This is the ideal place for a guy who nearly died in a horrific car crash in 2001; who's using the run-and shoot, an offense most football cognoscenti think is part dinosaur, part gimmick; and, who's trying to revive a program that didn't even play for two years in the late 1980s because of the severest sanctions the NCAA has ever handed down.
It's a guy given up for dead, using an offense given up for dead trying to breathe life into a football program given up for dead.
In other words, it's perfect.
Eric Dickerson sounded almost apologetic, as if he was bound by duty to inquire to his old friend in early December if he'd consider entering the bottomless pit that was SMU football.
But he just had to ask.
As Dickerson would later tell SMU athletic director Steve Orsini, "I run with Marcus Allen, Ronnie Lott, all those SC guys. They're killing me. They keep saying, 'What'd the Mustangs do today?' "
Dickerson wanted a better answer than the one he had been stuck with the last 20 years.
So, June, Dickerson began, you think maybe you'd be interested in the SMU job?
The answer was a quick yes.
But it came with a caveat. Hawaii was preparing for the Sugar Bowl against Georgia, its first ever BCS appearance, and if word got out Jones was trolling the waters ... well, we'll talk later.
Hawaii lost the Sugar Bowl to a more talented Georgia team, 41-10. Word had leaked that Jones was being wooed. A whole state mobilized to keep Jones, but they didn't know in his heart he'd already decided. He didn't need money, a new locker room, a swankier office, more trinkets and baubles.
June Jones, as always, wanted a challenge.
SMU offered him just that.
Boy, did it ever.
SMU is a leafy, serene campus with wide boulevards and tall steeples -- a place that seems to have cornered the market on red brick and colonial columns. It's rich with pretty coeds, BMWs and, of course, money.
What it lacks is big-time football.
Used to be a time, in the early '80s, when the Mustangs won big.
There was a national title in 1935; Doak Walker's Heisman in '48. They nearly won it all with the famed Pony Express tag-team backfield of Craig James and Eric Dickerson. They were, for a time, the best team in the state. And they weren't shy about it. The Beamers would flaunt bumper stickers that read, "My maid went to Texas."
Those were the good times. Those were the days before the big-pocketed boosters were ratted out to the NCAA, before rivers of improper payoffs to fund everything from new sports cars to abortions were uncovered.
The governor of Texas, Bill Clements, was a member of the school's Board of Governors when he was questioned about the board's role in the payoffs. First, he lied, but then came clean about his role in improper payoffs to players even as the Ponies were already saddled with a major probation and facing the NCAA Death Penalty. Asked why he lied, Clements said, "There wasn't a Bible in the room." SMU students proudly began wearing T-shirts that read, "Polos, Ponies, Porsches and Probation ... only at SMU."
Facing such chutzpah, the NCAA made SMU an example. It shut down the program.
History shows two A-bombs were used to subdue Japan. In the 22 years it's been applicable, the NCAA has levied only one "Death Penalty." Few in the NCAA, including those who put the noose around the Ponies' necks back in '87, can imagine it ever being applied to a major college football program again.
The damage, though, was done.
SMU sat out 1987 because of the NCAA violations and voluntarily scratched the next season. The Methodist Bishops, stung by the bad publicity, eliminated the Board of Governors, cleaned house and then ratcheted up entrance requirements and recruiting limitations. A prospect needed to be admitted before he could even make an official visit to the school.
Try selling that on the street.
When football came back in 1989 under coach Forrest Gregg, the Ponies went 2-9 and gave up 60 or more points three times, including 95 to Houston. He lasted two years before becoming athletic director.
Over the next 17 years, coaches came and coaches went.
Tom Rossley twice won five games in a season but was fired after the second time, in 1996. Mike Cavan coached five years and produced the Ponies' only post-Death Penalty winning season -- a fact he's not shy to point out -- at 6-5 in 1997 but couldn't recapture the magic. Phil Bennett lasted the five years of his contract, the record his last season worse than when he inherited the team.
When Bennett's contract was not renewed on Oct. 28, Orsini went looking for the next new savior. It figured to come from the usual suspects -- an up-and-coming young coach trying to make a name or a once-successful, recently fired coach trying to recapture glory.
Orsini waited 71 days to make a hire. For 71 days alums fretted, media criticized, recruits were puzzled. Orsini, thanks to a call from Dickerson, knew something nobody else did. Something even he found hard to believe.
"The day we told Phil we weren't renewing his contract, I had drawn up a list," Orsini said. "I knew who we could target; I knew who we could end up with. June Jones wasn't on that list."
Gary Cogill's eyes are weary from previewing dozens of films for an upcoming festival in Dallas. So, wearing a black wool overcoat and low-top white Chuck Taylor's, the celebrated movie critic for Dallas TV station WFAA goes for a change of scenery. He heads down the block to SMU's practice field, where his old high school teammate, June Jones, is trying for his own Hollywood ending.
Cogill watches the fast movement, no-time-to-waste attitude that permeates the practice and recalls how June succeeded him as class president at Ulysses S. Grant High School in Portland, Ore.; how he caught a no-hitter June threw and somehow still lost in PONY League baseball; how popular and athletically gifted his former classmate was -- and still is.
After some time, he's asked how he would pitch the June Junes movie treatment in typical Hollywood-speak (i.e. "Rudy" meets "Miracle on Ice"). It should be a fastball in his wheelhouse, but Cogill thinks for a long second and finally says, "It hasn't been written."
Cogill goes on. "Think about it. If you could've hired any coach to turn it around, you would have hired June. It's a rock star hire."
On the surface, though, it's Springsteen playing the local VFW Post. Why SMU? Why now? Why not the pros? Why not stay at Hawaii, keep winning big, and join the pantheon of island gods and goddesses? In a world of increasing virtual reality, why risk virtual immortality?
Put those questions to June Jones, as he sits in an office filled with unpacked boxes, stacked photos and, to the naked eye, general chaos, and he doesn't flinch.
"I think because I've had a lot of adversity, I think I know how to deal with it," Jones said. "I can turn things around."
On Feb. 22, 2001, he was nearly killed after losing control of his car and crashing into a concrete pillar at the Hickam exit at 60 mph. He drifted in and out of a coma for two weeks and doctors questioned whether he would ever live a normal life, much less coach again. He was ready in time for fall practice.
Jones attended three colleges -- Oregon, Hawaii and Portland State. He sat on the bench at the first two -- and then played at Portland.
He's not just an underdog, he's a lifer.
"Every position I've been in has been similar to this situation," he says of SMU. "When we put our offense in Canada, the Toronto Argonauts were 2-14. The next year we went to the Grey Cup. In the USFL it was the same thing -- an expansion team and we win 13 games and go to the playoffs. Then with the (Houston) Oilers, they hadn't won in 10 years, and we went to the playoffs the first year. I went to Detroit and we're in the (NFC) championship game in three years."
Jones said he's got other reasons for wanting a fixer-upper opportunity over the fully furnished mansion.
"When you're at Ohio State or Michigan or Georgia or someplace like that, when you try something different they say, 'That's not the way so-and-so did it,' " Jones said. "I like going to places you can do different. At SMU, they were 1-11. Different is good."
Different is also expensive. SMU won't release his salary because as a private school, it's not obligated to do so, but Orsini says he's got a top-25 deal in terms of money and years. Published reports put the figures at $1.7 million a year for five years.
In the days after Bennett's contract wasn't renewed, Orsini and University President R. Gerald Turner began putting together the Circle of Champions, a list of deep-pocketed alums who in two weeks pledged $10 million over five years.
One of them is Gerald J. Ford, a Dallas businessman whose name adorns the Mustangs' recently refurbished 32,000-seat stadium.
"For those of us long-suffering supporters of SMU football who believe in the school, as much as we've hoped it would happen before, we're enthusiastic he can make it happen," Ford said. "This is a low-risk proposition. At this time, I don't think there's anybody better for SMU."
The Ponies are counting on it. They've got the renovated stadium, two large practice fields, state-of-the-art locker rooms, offices and facilities.
"We're not on our hands and knees begging, because we believe we have the pieces together," Orsini said.
"Maybe the layman can't see that. But I believe June Jones is the one who can put it all together."
So far so good. Fundraising is already up 33 percent and season tickets, mired around 4,000 last year, are up almost 45 percent, Orsini said. On the field, Jones said the team's stronger than he expected at every position except quarterback, but that figures to change if 2007 starter Justin Willis returns from a disciplinary suspension that cost him the spring and new recruit Bo Levi Mitchell from Katy, Texas, is as good as advertised.
Once upon a time, the Mustangs battled the Cowboys for headlines in the Dallas newspapers. Now, they're lucky to get a couple of inside stories a week. Jones is doing his best glad-handing, chamber-of-commerce schmoozing to change that. He wore wireless microphones for all four major Metropolis television stations on the first day of spring ball -- though they've returned only sparingly since --- and was planning to hit the rubber-chicken circuit full time after yesterday's spring game.
"The vision is to become the big story," he said. "If we win they will come. They've come before."
Most of SMU's early campaign to return to the big time is not focused on wins, losses, recruits or how many hands Jones shakes.
"His hiring was the 'wow' factor we were trying for," Orsini said. "You know, the 'SMU hired June Jones? How can that be?' "
To capitalize on that the school has produced an 18-by-24-inch glossy, full-color season-ticket flyer. On one side is the slogan, "SMU has a new BIG NAME coach," a photo of the stadium, a seating chart, pricing and a personal plea from Jones to "Pony Up!"
The other side is a giant "Hello My Name is." tag with the name June Jones in giant blue marker.
There's one taped to the front of the SMU football head coach's office.
Just in case anybody's forgotten just who's taken over.
For years, June Jones kept a purple orchid in his Manoa office, a gift from close friend Wesley Park when he took over the Hawaii program. For nine years, it, like the Warriors program, grew and prospered. It never withered. It kept pace.
When Jones left for SMU everything got packed up. Framed photos of Clint Eastwood and Pete Rose. A model outrigger canoe. A line of five stone elephants. Proclamations from the Governor. A letter from President Bush. A toy Harley Davidson motorcycle. It was all duly packed, all duly delivered.
The orchid stayed behind. Weeks into Jones' tenure at SMU, Park sent him a replacement. It's small but hardy, with plenty of room to grow. It sits on an end table, next to a window in the SMU head coach's office.
June Jones hopes it, too, lives a long, long time.
Tomorrow: Assistants who joined June Jones in Dallas, and former SMU head coaches talk about the challenges of reviving the program.