Catching up with Jones


POSTED: Wednesday, September 30, 2009

DALLAS » Nearly two years and thousands of miles removed from the last time June Jones ran a practice in Manoa, so much remains familiar about the scene.

Practices still start at 7 a.m. Over much of the next 2 hours, Jones stands behind the secondary, overseeing the operation of the run-and-shoot, just as he did throughout nine seasons as Hawaii head coach.

He remains decked out in black sweats for practice on a crisp Dallas morning, though the ensemble is now topped by a red cap and “;SMU”; stretches across his chest.

Even the stickers once awarded to Warriors for big plays now adorn the Mustangs' white helmets.

And like he did a decade ago, Jones is working to alter the culture of a program whose recent history has been defined by futility.

“;This is a challenge, but we're getting better,”; Jones said yesterday after the Mustangs' workout at a practice field adjacent to Gerald J. Ford Stadium. “;I think we get one more recruiting class and we'll really be competitive in our conference.”;

After a 1-11 inaugural season in Dallas, Jones has the Mustangs at 2-1 coming off a bye week. Like his former team, SMU came tantalizingly close to a 3-0 start until a fourth-quarter rally by Washington State snuffed that prospect.

Still, there are signs the program's fortunes may be turning, though perhaps not quite as dramatically as in 1999, when Jones led Hawaii to a Western Athletic Conference championship a year after the program's 0-12 campaign.

“;I kind of see it more as 2000 more than '99,”; Jones said, referencing his second year at UH, when a rebuilt squad struggled to a 3-9 season.

“;Right now the guys are buying like they did in '99, but the battle has been like the 2000 season for our first 15 games (at SMU). The kids are hanging in, bought into what we're doing and getting better.

“;The department, the kids in the locker room, the attitudes, the equipment guys, the trainers, everybody. That whole culture has been pounded of losing for 25 years, so everybody's got to buy in.”;

Aside from Jones' presence, the practice field is dotted by familiar faces and sounds from his Hawaii days. Dennis McKnight's voice still booms across the field during special teams periods, while Dan Morrison, Jeff Reinebold and Wes Suan monitor their position groups. Former UH standout Adrian Klemm joined the staff this season as offensive line coach.

For Morrison, relocating in the wake of UH's Sugar Bowl season in 2007 actually brought him closer to family. His daughter, Nikki Mitchell, is an SMU graduate and lives in Dallas and he's enjoying watching his granddaughter, 2-year-old Malia, grow up.

“;I had some phone calls from coaches that I don't really know in the country when this occurred,”; Morrison said. “;They were very happy because they said this business has a tendency to pull families apart, not put them back together.”;

The Hawaii transplants on the staff maintain their ties with the Warriors' current staff, and a few visited the team's hotel Monday night.

Morrison said he keeps in close contact with Nick Rolovich, a pupil in 2000 and '01 who succeeded him as UH's quarterbacks coach last season.

“;We talk quite often about how things are going,”; Morrison said. “;He's going to be a terrific coach. He's got a great temperament for what he's doing right now and he really loves to learn.”;

If the Mustangs can squeeze out a win or two over a rigorous five-game stretch starting Saturday against No. 11 TCU, the Mustangs could put themselves in position to send Jones and crew back to Honolulu.

With the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl contracted to take a “;preferred selection team”; from Conference USA, the Mustangs would be an intriguing choice if they become bowl eligible.

That remains a considerable IF, given the Mustangs' youth and the challenging schedule, but it's a target Jones has put before this team.

“;That's our goal, and we're going to fight our ass off trying to win six games,”; Jones said. “;I hope we can be good enough to get there, but we've got a long way to go.”;

For all the similarities, there remain several major differences between Jones' current and former situations. For one, this week's road trip to TCU will require a 1-hour bus ride across town. A stark contrast to the Warriors' 7-plus-hour flight to get here on their way to Louisiana Tech.