SMU finally finds winning formula through unconventional approach of pass-happy June Jones

By Schuyler Dixon, AP
Sunday, August 29, 2010

SMU finds new life under pass-happy June Jones

DALLAS — June Jones watched four quarterbacks take simulated shotgun snaps while four receivers scattered across the SMU practice field. Moments later, four footballs went flying.

Route after route and throw after throw, the drills went on for more than two hours, Jones surveying all the while. He talked to one receiver or another after nearly every pass-and-catch quartet, fine-tuning the heart of an offense that is pumping life into a football program many had given up for dead.

The SMU coach has followed his record-setting turnaround at Hawaii a decade ago with an equally improbable revival of the Mustangs, who endured a quarter-century of losing after the only “death penalty” shutdown for cheating in NCAA history. The formula, boiled down to its simplest form, was the same each time: Score points. Lots of them.

“A lot of guys take these jobs that have lost forever and it’s old school, you gotta be tougher, you gotta be more physical,” Jones said. “But to come to this school and build a team on defense is not going to happen. The turnaround stuff to me is playing an exciting brand of football where you go and try to win the game on every play.”

It worked right away in Hawaii, where Jones set the NCAA mark in 1999 with a nine-game improvement from 0-12 to 9-3. It took a year at SMU, where the Mustangs matched the 1-11 record of Phil Bennett’s final season in the first go-round for Jones.

A year ago, though, SMU went 7-5 to qualify for its first bowl in 25 years. The Mustangs were the biggest underdog of bowl season but had the largest margin of victory, 45-10 over Nevada in the Hawaii Bowl. Their eights wins were the most since 1984, three years before the program went dormant for two seasons.

The Mustangs almost never tackle during practices that are so quiet, a librarian could be in charge. (”We’re positive reinforcement rather than cursing, yelling, hollering and screaming,” Jones says.) He believes in establishing the offense first, then bringing the defense along later — the opposite of the championship formula so many coaches follow.

Then again, SMU needed different. Twenty-five years of the same carved a path to nowhere for the school made famous by running backs Doak Walker and Eric Dickerson, plus a pay-for-play scheme that included a six-figure slush fund and involved Bill Clements, the once and future governor of Texas and a former chairman of the SMU Board of Governors.

SMU’s football program was killed for two seasons. The Mustangs were reborn on Sept. 3, 1989, and got clobbered by a Rice team that had lost 18 consecutive games. It wasn’t until 1997 that the Mustangs had another winning season, going 6-5.

“I have to admit that because of the way that I do it, these are the only jobs that I really want to take. Because they’ve tried everything else,” Jones said. “If I went to Florida and tried this approach, there would be 42 coaches in the press box saying, ‘This guy screwed up. We can’t do this and be SEC champions.’”

Critics said similar things when Jones coached the Atlanta Falcons in the 1990s, dismissing his pass-happy offense as trickery that would never win a Super Bowl. He was fired in Atlanta and passed up a chance to lead the San Diego Chargers, heading to the islands instead. Hawaii fans fell in love with the offense — and the coach — in Jones’ nine seasons.

“He could have been governor of Hawaii,” SMU athletic director Steve Orsini said. “I’m not sure I’m even being a little facetious.”

A similar infatuation is brewing at the small private school in one of the most exclusive parts of Dallas, a place with enough rich donors to raise $10 million in a matter of weeks so that Orsini could offer Jones $2 million annually over five years and give his assistants competitive salaries. The Mustangs have replaced the first two years on that contract with an extension, although Orsini declined to discuss specifics.

Suffice it to say SMU wants to keep the 57-year-old Jones, and has the means to do it.

“He’s not a flash-in-the-pan kind of guy,” said booster Paul Loyd, who played for SMU in the 1960s. “He’s got a systematic approach that leads to winning over the long term. It’s like a successful corporation that’s got a good strategic plan. If it works, it’ll work over the years.”

Jones says the demands on his workers are simple: Go to class, come to practice and give maximum effort.

“It’s not that hard,” he said. “If you can’t play for me, you can’t play for anybody.”

As for those who can’t, Jones will suspend them or kick them off the team. He doesn’t care who they are. He did that to a pair of his best players before his first year at Hawaii, and he did it to a couple of his best receivers late in his first season at SMU.

Emmanuel Sanders wasn’t offended. He came back for his senior season and led the Mustangs with 1,339 receiving yards and seven touchdowns. The Pittsburgh Steelers drafted him in the third round in April.

“It definitely woke up the whole team,” said Sanders, who missed two study halls and was late to practice once. “I think that’s part of the reason why coach Jones turned the program around because so many guys knew that from then on, he wasn’t playing any games. If you didn’t have your act right, you weren’t going to be on the team no matter who you were.”

Jones isn’t expecting another 12-0 BCS-busting season like he had in 2007, when Hawaii lost to Georgia in the Sugar Bowl. He says it’s tougher to go undefeated in Conference USA, so right now he has his players shooting for a league title.

Quarterback Kyle Padron will be the key. He took over at midseason as a freshman last year and went 5-1 as a starter, throwing for a school-record 460 yards and two touchdowns in the bowl win. He’s the star of those relentless passing drills.

“We’re trying to be perfect out here,” said Padron, who learned a similar spread offense nearby at Southlake Carroll High School. “Coach Jones expects nothing less.”

The Mustangs are closer to perfect than they’ve been in a generation.

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