November 12, 2008
By Bret Bloomquist
El Paso Times
EL PASO -- When SMU hired the architect of the greatest turnaround in NCAA history, there was plenty of hope in the Metroplex that better times were on the way for a program that went 1-11 last year.
June Jones, however, hasn't brought instant prosperity to SMU like he did at Hawaii, when the Warriors improved from 0-12 in 1998 to 9-4 in Jones' first season as head coach.
What he has done since becoming the highest paid coach in Conference USA is give a sense that the Mustangs finally are heading toward the success that has eluded the program since it was hit with the death penalty in 1987.
"It is frustrating," Jones said of his team's 1-9 start that includes only a victory over Division 1-AA Texas State. "We have to do everything right to win a game. We've had four or five chances and just come up short.
"But we're getting better every week. We just need to keep staying on track. Eventually we'll get a win, then we'll get another win."
The progress has been obvious. Despite listing 18 freshmen in its two-deep, SMU played Tulsa tougher than any other C-USA team before falling 37-31 and had a last-minute lead against Houston before losing 44-38. Last week against Memphis they lost true freshman quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell to an injury, put in true freshman backup Logan Turner and only lost 31-26.
Four of their last six losses have been by a touchdown or less after getting blown out three times in their first four games.
"The hardest thing about this type of (rebuilding) situation -- and I've been in six of them -- is changing the mindset, the culture, everything," said Jones, a former head coach of the Atlanta Falcons who led Hawai'i to an undefeated regular season and a Sugar Bowl apperance last year. "I've come in a situation where they haven't won and teaching them what it takes to win, off the field more than on the field, sometimes."
The team got a harsh lesson in that Wednesday when receivers Emmanuel Sanders and Aldrick Robinson, ranked fourth and 10th in the nation in receiving yards, were suspended for the remainder of the year for what has been termed an accumulation of minor infractions.
That could be a blow for a team that has averaged 27 points per game in conference play.
"Offensively, the quarterback (Mitchell) is much improved," said Jones, who was interviewed before the suspensions were announced. "The receivers are talented and getting better. The offensive line is starting to understand."
The problem is the other side of the ball. SMU ranked dead last in total defense before moving up a spot to 118th after last week (485.3 yards per game allowed, ahead of only North Texas).
"The biggest challenge is on defense," Jones said. "We decided to play a lot of young kids. We have 100-something guys on our roster, and 70 are freshmen -- 70 of our top 100. That will pay dividends as we go.
"The important thing is to keep believing."
Price thinks the biggest thing SMU has going for it is a head coach with a proving track record of turning around programs.
"I like June Jones' demeanor on the sideline," Price said. "He's calm. He has his own plan, kind of like (New Mexico State coach) Hal Mumme or (Texas Tech coach) Mike Leach. "It's his deal and he's just smart. He's a smart guy who's very creative and always successful throwing the football. I think he was an excellent choice for SMU."
Jones, meanwhile, is far from getting beaten down over the 1-8 start.
"The Hawai'i program was in this condition when I took it over," he said. "All the pro jobs I took were in this situation. I kind of get energized coming into these deals, the jobs nobody wanted.
"It's my makeup, I guess."
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