June Jones draws a blueprint for fast success at SMU

A feature about SMU Head Football Coach June Jones, and his approach to re-making the Mustangs.

By John Reid, The Times Picayune

Making sure he could attract a proven coach to turn around the struggling SMU football program, Athletic Director Steve Orsini got commitments from 20 boosters to donate $100,000 each over a five-year period. With the private financial backing, SMU successfully lured June Jones from Hawaii three years ago by offering a five-year contract that pays him $2 million annually.

Jones attracted SMU’s interest after compiling a 76-41 record in nine seasons at Hawaii. Before Jones arrived at the school, Hawaii had lost 18 consecutive games. In his first season in 1999, Jones guided Hawaii to a 9-4 record and led the Warriors to a 12-0 record in 2007 before losing to Georgia in the Sugar Bowl.

Since his hiring at SMU, the Mustangs’ football program has been on the upswing with two consecutive bowl appearances. When the Mustangs played in the Hawaii Bowl in 2009, it was their first bowl appearance in 25 years.

SMU finished 7-7 last season, losing to Army in the Armed Forces Bowl.

The program’s resurgence comes after having just one winning season between Jones’ arrival and the NCAA-imposed death penalty in 1989 for repeated rules violations.

“We can be successful on a national level,’’ Orsini said in a statement. “Our goal in every sport is to be in the Top 25 in the nation. Collegiate athletics can excite the whole community, build school spirit and really create a sense of community.’’

Comparable to Tulane, SMU is an urban school in Dallas that has stringent academic requirements. Jones said they struggle to land some of the top recruits in competition with Texas, Texas A&M and Oklahoma and several other schools for talent in Texas.

To offset the lack of blue chippers, Jones uses the pass-focused Run-and-Shoot offense. The scheme is designed to spread defenses using three- and four-receiver sets with one back in the backfield.

“Our offensive schemes allow us to compete against schools that are better than us; you don’t have to be physically as good,’’ Jones said.

“Instead of getting the 6-foot-4 guys that run a 4.4 in the 40 that are going to Texas or Oklahoma, we’ll sacrifice a little bit in speed and size. We’ll take the kids who run a 4.4 but are only 5-8 or 5-9. We’ll take defensive linemen that’s 6-5, 205 pounds but in a year and a half they’ll be 245 pounds and then at 285 in two years.’’

When Jones took over SMU’s program in 2008, he said it was in bad shape. He said the existing players didn’t think they could win.

“I felt when I came here it was going to be a five- year program to get it stabilized,’’ Jones said. “With the conditioning of our players, we looked like a Pop Warner team. I knew it would take time.’’

It appears Jones is ahead of his time frame. SMU played in the Conference USA championship game last season, losing to Central Florida 17-7.

After opening this season with a 46-14 loss to Texas A&M, SMU won five straight games, including a 40-33 overtime victory against nationally ranked TCU on the road.

Going into this Saturday’s game against Tulane, the Mustangs (5-3) have lost two straight, which most likely has ended any shot of returning to the conference championship game. Regardless, teams in the conference have taken notice of the Mustangs’ turnaround.

“They’ve had success, and they’ve built upon that success,’’ Tulane interim coach Mark Hutson said. “The attitude of the program and the confidence of their players took over. They’ve just built on that and they followed through in recruiting and it’s through this year. They’ve had some big wins.’’

SMU will play host to Tulane at its 35,000-seat on-campus stadium built in 2000, after Gerald J. Ford, who graduated from SMU, donated $20 million toward the construction costs.

SMU has embarked on a $60 million plan to build new facilities for athletics and improve existing ones. Jones said plans are now in place to build an indoor football practice facility similar to what LSU has on campus.

“We’ve had a number of people that were here and committed, but there were a lot of people apprehensive from the death penalty time that didn’t want football to get going here,’’ said Jones, referring to some of the drawbacks he faced after taking over the program. “What happened to us after our bowl win in 2009, (freshman) applications went up by 50 percent, and that was in a down economy. The one thing that changed is that we were on national television and played in a bowl game. That proved my point that football is the best marketing tool for a private institution.’’