Aloha, SMU: Mustangs get 1st bowl bid in 25 years
DALLAS (AP)Between towers of red and blue balloons, underneath banners boasting "Howdy Hawaii!" and "Aloha SMU!" a round table was set aside Tuesday to show off a fancy invitation in a wooden frame.
It was for a spot in the Hawaii Bowl and it was personalized to SMU.
The Mustangs (7-5) are headed to Honolulu for their first bowl appearance in 25 years, a drought that often looked like it might never end as SMU tried recovering from the NCAA's death penalty for repeated rules violations.
"We have proven there is life after death!" athletic director Steve Orsini said, drawing raucous applause from a room full of students and boosters.
SMU officials were so excited to receive the invitation they didn't want to sit on the news until this weekend, when they'll find out their opponent. They got permission from the Conference USA commissioner to make their acceptance official, then threw themselves a news conference that was more like a pep rally, complete with a band, cheerleaders, students and alums.
As Orsini, coach June Jones and school president Gerald Turner stepped onto the stage, they received leis made of purple orchids. Where did they find such things in Dallas? They didn't; these were flown in from Hawaii, in the same package that included the invitation.
"This is the one they used to give to royalty," Jones said.
Jones knows because he wore them while coaching at Hawaii from 1999-2007. He turned that program from national embarrassment into BCS busters, and he's done wonders here, too. The Mustangs went 1-11 last year in his first season; their six-win surge this season is the best in the country.
"Whoever we're going to play over there is going to be maybe as good as or better than we are," Jones said. "But these kids have learned how to win."
In a marketing coup, the bowl might have Jones' previous club against his current one. If Hawaii beats Wisconsin on Saturday, the Warriors are in. Otherwise, it likely will be Nevada.
"This has been a very interesting, almost spiritual kind of year," Jones said. "It'll be interesting to see what happens this weekend, if Hawaii ends up winning."
Jones actually set the Hawaii Bowl as a goal for his club since the first practice of the season. He reminded them of the goal "maybe every three or four weeks." Even when SMU had a chance to play for the conference championship, "I told them we'd still go to Hawaii."
The goal wasn't merely for the obvious reasons people look forward to in going to Hawaii. It's also a tribute to his friend Frank Gansz, who was the special teams coach until he died in April.
Gansz played and coached at Navy, was a pilot in the Air Force and began his coaching career at Air Force, all before making his mark on football as a special teams coach in the NFL.
"He and I specifically talked about this, putting the kids on the buses and going to Pearl Harbor," Jones said. "It's going to be a really, rally special day when we do that."
Jones will start practices for the bowl on Monday - Dec. 7, Pearl Harbor Day.
During the ceremony, players were gathered off to the side. They were only a peripheral part of this gathering because it was meant more for folks who've suffered through the long, tough drought since the last bowl bid also happened to be in Hawaii; it was the Aloha Bowl in 1984.
"For those of you who have been so faithful for so long, we thank you," Turner said, drawing an ovation that lasted about 30 seconds.
The once-proud program of Doak Walker, Don Meredith and Eric Dickerson was discovered in 1987 to have paid players, then lied about it in a cover-up that included a former governor of Texas. Because SMU already was on probation, the NCAA shut the program down for that season and school officials chose to sit out another year to make sure things were truly cleaned up.
Since restarting in 1989, the Mustangs have been an example of how harsh the death penalty is.
They won two games that first season and have had a total of nine seasons with zero, one or two wins. They came into this season 59-164-3, having peaked at 6-5 in 1997 and 6-6 when this year's seniors were freshmen.
Jones is the schools' fifth coach since restarting and some have suggested that if he couldn't get turn around this program, then nobody could.
He's off to a heck of a start, and he's already been rewarded with a two-year contract extension.
"We'll start talking about winning championships now," Jones said. "We were just talking about getting in the dance. Now the next step is to take it to the next level. I think we're probably two seasons away from really challenging to get to build it to where TCU has gotten it, Boise has gotten it. But we can get there."