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SMU fires football coach Phil Bennett

Source: He will remain in place for Mustangs' final four games

03:17 AM CDT on Monday, October 29, 2007

By KATE HAIROPOULOS / The Dallas Morning News
khairopoulos@dallasnews.com

UNIVERSITY PARK – The all-but-official mandate for SMU coach Phil Bennett entering the season was clear-cut: go to a bowl game.

When that became impossible, SMU on Sunday fired Bennett.

Bennett, 18-48 in almost six seasons, will coach the final four games of the season, through the Nov. 24 season finale at Memphis.

Athletic director Steve Orsini notified Bennett of his decision Sunday afternoon, less than 24 hours after the Mustangs (1-7, 0-4 Conference USA) lost, 29-23, at Tulsa and were mathematically eliminated from becoming bowl eligible.

SMU will fulfill Bennett's contract, which runs through Dec. 2008. Bennett lost an option for his contract to run through 2009 when he didn't win seven games in 2006. He makes almost $500,000 a year. The rest of the coaching staff's contracts won't be renewed after they expire in May.

Bennett, 51, declined an interview request.

Orsini said he made the move Sunday because he wanted to begin the search for Bennett's replacement.

"We didn't want to wait anymore for that step," said Orsini, who also thanked Bennett for his hard work. "Coach Bennett and his staff know it is about results in our business. That's the standard I'm being held to, as well."

Orsini said he was hopeful Bennett would agree to finish out the season and that Bennett didn't hesitate. Orsini also met with the coaching staff and attended Bennett's meeting with the team.

Bennett "got choked up a little bit at one or two parts," said senior captain Ben Poynter. "Whether people disagree or agree with him leaving, no one has worked harder than that guy. A lot of guys were upset. Regardless of their feelings for him, all of us respect him."

Quarterback Justin Willis said the players hurt for the coaches, but are also learning that college football is a business.

"He's a passionate coach, and he loves coaching," Willis said. "He wanted to come in here and change things, and I know it's tough to swallow."

Bennett lost his job because he and long-suffering SMU whiffed at their season of hope. The Mustangs are on a six-game losing streak.

It was a far cry from the expectations built during the preseason, when Bennett talked about going to the program's first bowl since 1984 and since it received the death penalty in 1987. Bennett said SMU should challenge for a C-USA title.

SMU poured a $750,000 increase into its marketing budget to promote the team and the new "Pony Up" campaign.

Instead, it became a weekly ritual for Bennett to discuss missed opportunities, questionable game management and preparation and the team's increasing frustration.

Bennett, who built his career as a defensive coordinator, fielded an injury-riddled, inexperienced defense in his make-or-break season.

SMU's record had improved each of the last three seasons after going 0-12 in 2003.

But the Mustangs dropped off dramatically in 2007 after going 6-6 in 2006. Last season, they missed their best chance – earning bowl eligibility, but failing to earn a bowl bid after a season-ending loss at Rice. It was only SMU's second non-losing season since 1989.

Orsini, then in his first year as athletic director, gave Bennett a long look before announcing the coach would be back this season.

Orsini said Sunday that he didn't regret the decision. He and Bennett have been working on a 71-point improvement plan since the conclusion of last season that involved personnel and facility improvements.

But Orsini said that Bennett had the tools needed to win and that the death penalty has no lingering effect on the football program. Being 1-7 does.

"We have everything here to win," Orsini said. "If we win championships in Conference USA, it will reach all our other goals – Top 25, bowls. That's what we strive for."

Bennett's East Texas charm started wearing thin with fans and boosters when he couldn't produce the conference title he had talked of since coming to the Hilltop. Bennett, previously defensive coordinator at Kansas State, replaced Mike Cavan in Dec. 2001.

Bennett came to SMU with children Sam and Maddie less than three years after the tragic death of wife Nancy. He remarried during his time on the Hilltop, to Julie, and Sam is a sophomore deep snapper at SMU.

Bennett's tenure was as long as any of SMU's four coaches since the death penalty. Tom Rossley also coached six seasons.

Phil Bennett
MEI-CHUN JAU / DMN
Phil Bennett is 18-48 as the head coach of SMU.

Every one of C-USA's 12 schools has played in a bowl game since 2002 except SMU.

SMU is 4-29 on the road under Bennett.

Recruiting is a concern. SMU still hasn't defeated a Big 12 team that was part of the Southwest Conference, and it also hasn't been consistently competitive in C-USA.

Mike Vaught, Orsini's right-hand man and executive associate AD, appeared to watch Bennett closely this season. He attended practices and the weekly news conferences, places Orsini rarely appears.

Orsini said SMU would aim high in selecting Bennett's replacement. Orsini has a pattern of hiring high-profile coaches who have suffered some level of a fall from grace. He hired former Notre Dame coach George O'Leary to lead the football program at Central Florida, and then made a splash by hiring former North Carolina coach Matt Doherty to lead SMU's men's basketball program.

Orsini said he had the support of SMU president R. Gerald Turner and the rest of the university leadership.

"It's time for results," Orsini said.

2002: 3-9
2003: 0-12
2004: 3-8
2005: 5-6
2006: 6-6
2007: 1-7*
*With games against Houston, Rice, Central Florida and Memphis remaining.

Forrest Gregg (1989-90): 3-19;.136

Tom Rossley (1991-96): 15-48-3;.250

Mike Cavan (1997-2001): 18-28;.391

Phil Bennett (2002-2007): 18-48;.273

Nov. 19, 2001: Mike Cavan is fired as football coach.

Dec. 5, 2001 Phil Bennett is introduced as SMU's 15th head football coach and says winning conference titles should be the goal. He is hired by AD Jim Copeland and signs a five-year contract.

Off-season 2002: QB David Page leaves the program to pursue a career with an accounting firm. QB Kelan Luker leaves the team to pursue a career with a rock band. The departures leave Bennett with two redshirt freshmen quarterbacks who had never taken a college snap.

Aug. 31, 2002: Bennett coaches his first SMU game, falling 38-7 to Navy, which was 1-20 the previous two seasons.

Oct. 2003: Former starting quarterback Richard Bartel is demoted to scout team and transfers at mid-season.

Nov. 29, 2003: SMU falls, 20-13, to TCU in the season finale, going winless (0-12) for the first time since 1960 (0-9-1).

"They say what doesn't kill you makes you stronger," Bennett says. "I feel like Hercules right now."

Sept. 4, 2004: Bennett and Texas Tech coach Mike Leach get into an argument and the teams brawl briefly after Bennett claims Leach tried to run up the score in a 27-13 Tech win at Ford Stadium.

Sept. 25, 2004: SMU ends a school-record 15-game losing streak with a win over San Jose State.

Nov. 2004: SMU greats Eric Dickerson and Craig James voice concern about the state of the program. Bennett and Copeland stand firm.

Sept. 10, 2005: Bennett notches perhaps his biggest win at SMU, 21-10, over No. 22 TCU. It's still SMU's only win over a ranked Division I-A team since 1986. (SMU falls the following week at Texas A&M, 66-8.)

Nov. 26, 2005: SMU beats UTEP, 40-27, closing the season with a three-game winning streak and a 5-6 record, its most wins since 1997.

Jan. 15, 2006: Bennett signs a one-year contract extension that runs through 2009 and upgrades his salary to close to $500,000. Copeland takes some heat from fans and supporters for sticking with Bennett. The extension is voided because SMU fails to win seven games in 2006.

Oct. 6, 2006: Starting quarterback Justin Willis is suspended for the UTEP game after an off-campus altercation with another student. SMU falls, 24-21.

Nov. 18, 2006: SMU comes from behind to beat Tulsa, 34-24, becoming bowl-eligible at 6-5 with one game to play. SMU reaches its highest win total since 1997.

Nov. 25, 2006: SMU falls to Rice, 31-27. Rice goes to its first bowl since 1961. SMU stays home. Bennett is injured in a sideline collision.

Nov. 28, 2006 SMU AD Steve Orsini says Bennett will return for the 2007 season after a two-day, end-of-season evaluation.

"He's my guy," Orsini says. "I believe he can lead us to reach all of our goals. ... He had the vision. Here's where we are – proud of the development. But here's where we need to be. Leadership to me is a vision looking forward."

Oct. 27, 2007: SMU falls, 29-23, at Tulsa, dropping to 1-7 overall and 0-4 in Conference USA after a buildup to the season focused on ending SMU's 23-year bowl drought and perhaps winning a conference title.

Oct. 28, 2007: Bennett is fired, with his tenure officially ending at the conclusion of the season.

POTENTIAL SUCCESSORS

Head coaches SMU may target, according to Staff Writer Kate Hairopoulos:

Major Applewhite: Alabama offensive coordinator and Texas-ex.

Terry Bowden: Former Auburn coach hasn't coached in nine years.

Dave Christensen: Missouri off. coordinator could be a hot name.

Larry Coker: Former Miami coach and Oklahoma native.

Paul Johnson: Navy head coach has longtime ties to SMU.

Glen Mason: Ex-Minnesota and Kansas coach known for reviving programs.

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