SMU on the verge of first bowl game in 25 years
DALLAS (AP)June Jones does not bring up SMU's dreadful history to his players. He figures they're fully aware of everything that has gone wrong the past two decades.
Instead, the laid-back coach known for reviving Hawaii's football program laid out a plan this season for the Mustangs to play in their first bowl game since 1984.
They haven't veered off course.
The Mustangs (5-4) are making strides toward respectability again. With three games left, they need one more victory to become bowl eligible.
"It's not about SMU's past," senior center Mitch Enright said. "It's about the present team right now and going to a bowl so we can enjoy it and reap all the benefits of the hard work we've put in."
SMU beat Rice 31-28 on Saturday to improve to 4-1 in Conference USA, the school's best mark since 1986. The Mustangs have two games left at home against below .500 teams, including Saturday's matchup against UTEP (3-6).
The program that produced greats like Doak Walker, Don Meredith and Eric Dickerson fell into oblivion after the NCAA handed SMU the death penalty in 1987 for paying players and violating numerous rules.
SMU had opportunities to break its postseason slump in 1997 and 2006, but the Mustangs fell short by losing the final game each season.
"They've been to this place twice in 25 years where they had to win a game to get to a bowl and they failed," Jones said. "So we have a challenge here these next three games."
At one time, bowl games were common for SMU. The Mustangs finished in the top 10 three times from 1980-84, including an 11-0-1 mark and No. 2 ranking in 1982. SMU beat Notre Dame in the 1984 Aloha Bowl to end the season ranked eighth.
Then the wheels fell off.
The NCAA placed the Mustangs on probation in 1985 and '86 for violations before the ultimate blow: The program was shut down in 1987 and the 1988 season was canceled.
"We try not to look at history," Enright said. "But it's hard not to."
While the program was cleaned up when SMU took the field again in 1989, it was usually a mess on the field. The Mustangs went 31-76-3 in the '90s, had a winless campaign in 2003 and stumbled to a 1-11 mark in 2007.
The man who turned Hawaii from an also-ran into a BCS buster left the islands for Dallas in 2008. Despite the new coach and new philosophy, it was much of the same in Jones' first season as the Mustangs went 1-11 again.
"There was not the trust in each other as players and there wasn't the trust in us as coaches." Jones said. "They thought this was too good to be true. These guys thought we were just going to be like everyone else and turn on them when the going got tough."
To help gain that trust, Jones showed his players exactly how they were going to reach six victories and perhaps end the 25-year bowl drought. He did it in one of the first team meetings before the season.
Jones divided the season into smaller stretches. He said for the Mustangs to have a chance at postseason, they needed to be 2-2 after four games and 4-4 after eight. They hit both targets.
"The main thing he was trying to stress was that last year we had a must-win mentality," senior linebacker Chase Kennemer said. "We were too stressed out about every game. (Jones) broke the season into parts and steps to show we could get what we wanted, which is a bowl. That helped everybody settle down."
The Mustangs beat winless Rice last weekend and shoot for victory No. 6 on Saturday. SMU travels to Marshall (5-4) on Nov. 21 and closes the season at home against Tulane (3-6).
"When you come into a season, every player thinks you're going to win every game," said Jones, who guided Hawaii to the Sugar Bowl in 2007. "You're not going to win every game. I've coached and played football for 40 years. I've had one undefeated season. When you come into these situations when you've been losing for so long, you have to set realistic goals to get the culture changed and to get things turned around."
Jones admitted it took a long time for the players to buy into his program.
He thinks everything changed when SMU beat UAB on Sept. 12 to snap a 17-game conference losing streak. Jones said several players were crying and he got the sense that everyone believed they could win now.
"We got into a pattern where some guys on the team accepted losing as if it was nothing," said Emmanuel Sanders, SMU's all-time receiving leader. "Coach Jones came in and he was that spark we needed. He came in and changed the whole mentality and got guys around here believing."