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Weather: Partly Cloudy, 49° F

SMU's search ends with hiring of Jones

02:22 AM CST on Tuesday, January 8, 2008

By KATE HAIROPOULOS / The Dallas Morning News

UNIVERSITY PARK – Finally, after 71 days of waiting, SMU has a football coach. And a "wow" one at that.

The buzz in the crowded Hall of Champions adjacent to Ford Stadium was there. And – after a night of uncertainty – so was June Jones.

The same SMU program that has had one winning season since returning from the NCAA-mandated death penalty in 1989, the one that hasn't been to a bowl since 1984 and went 1-11 this season, lured Jones away from his beloved Hawaii.

Jones, 76-41 in nine seasons in Honolulu, was coming off his most successful season there, having led the Warriors to a BCS bowl, where they lost to Georgia in the Allstate Sugar Bowl last week.

After fighting off a late surge from Hawaii to keep its coach, SMU and Jones, 54, reached a five-year deal worth just under $2 million per year Monday morning. Jones, an offensive specialist and former NFL head coach, becomes easily the highest-paid coach in Conference USA.

"I'm very attached to the people of Hawaii, and I get attached to my players," Jones said. "Right up until last night when I went to bed, said my prayers. ... it was a very, very difficult decision.

"The opportunity here surpasses everything. There's a time to move on."

SMU, whose athletic department has run in the red for years, had serious money to play with – at least $10 million – thanks to boosters whom Orsini calls "The Circle of Champions." Orsini developed the group after firing coach Phil Bennett on Oct. 28. Bennett made about $500,000 per season.

"You guys ponied up," Orsini said. "You allowed us to compete at a Top 25" level.

SMU president R. Gerald Turner said Jones will also have the resources he needs for assistants and recruiting, but he didn't specify figures

Orsini, in his second year at SMU, said he brought former SMU greats Craig James and Eric Dickerson into the search process. It was just a couple of years ago when they publicly voiced their concerns about the state of the athletic program. Jones said he and Dickerson are close friends.

Booster Gerald Ford, the namesake of SMU's stadium, said the school has long set its sights on Jones but was held up because Hawaii's season didn't end until last week. SMU's search for a coach was by far the longest nationally this season.

"We knew at the end of the day, we were going to get the right guy," Ford said.

But Monday's events appeared in doubt after Leigh Steinberg, Jones' agent, said late Sunday night that Jones was wavering between accepting the SMU job and returning to Hawaii, where passionate fans and even the governor were trying to prevent his departure. Jones arrived in Dallas early Sunday to meet with SMU officials and boosters.

By the time he woke up Monday, the man who has had very sleep in the past 48 hours, said he felt at peace.

"I think SMU is ready to go," Jones said. "That intrigues me and excites me at the same time.

"The atmosphere I felt. ... everyone is pulling together and trusting Steve Orsini, and that's what you've got to do."

Jones was reportedly frustrated with Hawaii's failure to enhance his program's infrastructure – namely facilities and recruiting budget – even as the program excelled. He said there is no comparison between SMU's and Hawaii's facilities.

June Jones led Hawaii to 12 victories and a BCS bowl berth this season.
June Jones led Hawaii to 12 victories and a BCS bowl berth this season.

"You're talking about the NFL and the Pop Warner team, that's how different it is," he said.

But facilities don't fix everything. SMU is the only C-USA program that hasn't been to a bowl since 2002.

"The fact that you're where you are right now excites me," Jones said. "The only way to go is up. I enjoy going up."

Jones has experience rebuilding programs. When he took over Hawaii in 1999, the Warriors had lost 18 straight, including an 0-12 season in 1998. They went 9-4 in Jones' first season, the best turnaround in NCAA football history.

"How bad it is right now at SMU, it can't be as bad as it was here," Hawaii defensive line coach Jeff Reinebold said.

Jones said he has offered his entire staff jobs. He hasn't made official who will join him at SMU, but Reinebold said defensive coordinator Greg McMackin, a former coordinator at Texas Tech, was among those probably coming.

Reinebold said Jones and his staff utilize a "players-first" approach. And Jones' potent run-and-shoot offense is a favorite of offensive players – and can help turn a program quickly.

"What we do offensively, once everybody believes, then you can create and have a lot of fun," Jones said.

Jones spent 12 years in the NFL, including tenures as head coach in Atlanta and San Diego. He turned down the Chargers to go to Hawaii for less money in December 1998.

Jones also has coached in Texas – for the USFL's Houston Gamblers and the Houston Oilers in the 1980's.

Other known candidates during SMU's search included former Miami coach Larry Coker, former Texas A&M coach Dennis Franchione and former Detroit Lions offensive coordinator Mike Martz. Rick Neuheisel acknowledged at least indirect contact with SMU before accepting the UCLA job. Former Navy coach Paul Johnson visited SMU in early December before going to Georgia Tech days later. Louisville coach Steve Kragthorpe arranged a news conference in November to dismiss rumors he would leave for SMU.

SMU was the first Bowl Subdivision school to oust a coach and the last (before the Hawaii job opened) to make a hire.

"I do things a little differently," Jones said. "I'm a little different than your normal Texas coach, but I get it done, and we win. I'm really looking forward to the challenge."

The Mustangs are 54-147-3 since returning from the death penalty in 1989, with only one winning season (6-5 in 1997). Record of SMU coaches since 1989:
Coach Seasons Record Winning Pct.
Forrest Gregg 1989-90 3-19-0 .136
Tom Rossley 1991-96 15-48-3 .250
Mike Cavan 1997-2001 18-28-0 .391
Phil Bennett 2002-2007 18-52 .257


Oct. 28: SMU fires Phil Bennett

Nov. 11: Baylor fires Guy Morriss

Nov. 19: Michigan's Lloyd Carr announces retirement

Nov. 23: Dennis Franchione resigns at Texas A&M

Nov. 24: Mississippi fires Ed Orgeron; Nebraska fires Bill Callahan

Nov. 26: Georgia Tech fires Chan Gailey; Houston Nutt resigns at Arkansas; Washington State fires Bill Doba; Jeff Bower resigns Southern Miss; Northern Illinois' Joe Novak retires; Duke fires Ted Roof; Texas A&M hires Mike Sherman

Nov 27: Colorado State's Sonny Lubick relieved of duties

Nov. 28: Art Briles resigns at Houston to become the Baylor coach; Mississippi hires Houston Nutt

Dec. 2: Nebraska hires Bo Pelini

Dec. 3: UCLA fires Karl Dorrell

Dec. 7: Paul Johnson leaves Navy to become the Georgia Tech coach

Dec. 8: Navy promotes Ken Niumatalolo

Dec. 11:Arkansas hires Bobby Petrino; Washington State hires Paul Wulff

Dec. 12: Colorado State hires Steve Fairchild; Southern Miss hires Larry Fedora

Dec. 13: Northern Illinois hires Jerry Kill

Dec. 14: Houston hires Kevin Sumlin

Dec. 15: Duke hires David Cutcliffe

Dec. 16: Rich Rodriguez leaves West Virginia to take the Michigan job

Dec. 29: UCLA hires Rick Neuheisel

Jan. 3: West Virginia promotes Bill Stewart

Jan. 7: SMU hires Hawaii coach June Jones

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