By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Amid grumblings throughout its coaching staff, disappointment among its recruits and an uprising from its alumni, SMU football found itself under duress last week. As two incoming freshmen were denied admission to the school despite having the academic qualifications to play at almost any other NCAA program, coaches wanted answers, boosters sought changes and reporters asked questions.
The result: SMU audibled into damage-control mode.
In an attempt to douse the spark before it becomes a flame, the Mustangs on Friday sent out prepared statements from athletic director Steve Orsini and head coach June Jones.
"I fully support SMU's academic standards and view them as an asset to our football program," read Jones' statement. "I am as confident as ever that SMU can offer the best both academically and athletically, and I look forward to many years of our collective success."
Sorry SMU fans—Kumbaya be damned—things aren't happy on the Hilltop. The way the Mustangs want it to be eventually, just isn't the way it is currently.
Otherwise, why is Jones putting off signing his new contract?
Jones arrived in Dallas in 2008 determined to tackle what he called SMU football's embedded "culture of losing." With last season's 8-5 record and the school's first bowl game victory in 25 years, that mission is accomplished.
But now, an even tougher task: blocking the SMU administration's academics-over-athletics society of stubbornness.
"June and his staff aren't getting the support they were promised," says a source within the SMU athletic department. "There's a lot of head-butting taking place."
Jones desperately wants to comfortably coexist with SMU's administration, and if part of that process requires him to temporarily swallow his pride and camouflage the truth via a warm-n-fuzzy statement, then so be it. But so disillusioned is Jones that he has yet to sign a contract extension offered to him last November. That extension, presented near the end of SMU's first successful season since 1984, was trumpeted in a press release indicating Jones would remain the Mustangs' head coach through 2014. But Jones not only has refused to sign the extension, he has also privately expressed doubt this summer about remaining on the Hilltop for the remainder of his initial five-year, $10 million deal.
"Everyone in the program is frustrated," says the source. "There's the thought of, 'If they want to go 1-10 every year fine, but they'll do it without us.'"
Though Jones and school president R. Gerald Turner declined to directly address the issues with the Dallas Observer, and despite multiple sources indicating those two, along with Orsini, plan a clear-the-air summit this week, SMU associate provost Tom Tunks is attempting to preach harmony.
"I don't sense any friction, and if there was any I'd pick up on it," says Tunks, who has overseen the school's undergraduate admissions since 1998. "Things are fine. I don't think there are any problems at all. We are really unified here."
Darryl Jackson and a host of hostile alumni vehemently disagree.
After Jackson and co-recruit Jeremy Hall were recently denied admission by SMU's Faculty Athletic Admission Subcommittee, an irate group of fans formed a "We Are Not Going Back" committee. The faction, headed by members of the school's Lettermen's Association, asked for $300 donations to, in part, pay for an anti-Turner ad proposed to run this week in an issue of The Dallas Morning News unless the president apologized in writing to Jackson and Hall and allowed them to enroll at SMU in time for fall classes and football season.
"We are fed up, and no longer willing to accept the administration's position with regards to (specifically) the refusal to admit certain incoming student athletes to SMU," read an e-mail circulated within the group last week. "If these demands are not met, the gloves are coming off. It will be ugly and it will be very public. Enough is enough. We are not going back to the days of Phil Bennett and 1-win seasons."
In conjunction with Jones' arrival in January '08, SMU remodeled its admissions policy to be, according to Tunks, clearer but not necessarily more lenient. Though competing schools like Texas Tech and Baylor accept NCAA qualifiers, prospective SMU athletes are automatically referred to the admissions board if their SAT is below 900 or their high-school GPA below 2.5.
The five-member committee is charged with granting admission to athletes who have a "reasonable chance of success," defined by SMU as having at least a 50-percent chance of graduating.
"You'll never get a perfect system because it involves judgment calls," Tunks says. "But I think it's working. No university wants a losing team. But at the same time, it's not fair to ask these students to do something they can't do. That would be setting them up to fail."
Sounds simple and, at least statistically, it's efficient. Tunks said that since Jones' arrival 25 incoming freshmen football players have gone before the committee and 23— either initially or after a maximum of two appeals—have been admitted. It's the two who were denied—Jackson and Hall, the last two to go before the board—that have alumni pissed and coaches perplexed.
Jackson is a 6-foot-7, 290-pound offensive lineman from Lakewood, California, who could have played almost anywhere, including LSU, Arizona, UCLA, Oregon and Texas Tech. He was lured to SMU by Dallas' vitality and Jones' enthusiasm, arriving at SMU one day after his high-school graduation.
Three weeks later, after familiarizing himself with the city and his new team, he was told by SMU's admissions committee that he wasn't smart enough—not good enough. Justification be damned, reneging on scholarships is a suicidal reputation for a school to be burdened with on the recruiting trail.
"I could've gone to a bigger school but I chose SMU because I really liked it here. It's embarrassing," Jackson said last week. "The coaching staff did everything they could, I believe that. I just got caught up in the battle here, I guess."
"Yeah," Jackson clarified. "The battle between the football program and the school. It's pretty ugly."
In limbo for three days while scrambling for another school, Jackson was surprised when Turner asked to meet with him. According to Jackson, Turner back-tracked and described him as "an exception," urging him to attend one semester at a local junior college to assure being welcomed back to SMU.
Jackson's response after being discarded in the clusterfuck? He plans to enroll at UCLA.
Hall, a cornerback from Brenham who will now play baseball at UT-San Antonio, was also an NCAA qualifier that SMU ultimately rejected. And it took offensive lineman Ben Gottschalk—who was accepted by Ivy League member Penn, for crying out loud—two appeals to earn admission on the Hilltop.
Said Turner at Jones' introductory press conference in '08, "We certainly intend to have a lot of people attracted to coming here. We've made changes in the admission process. We have a nationally competitive student admissions process."
Now, just beneath the apparent fallacy of a unified front, Turner and Jones are waging a tug-of-war for control of SMU's class and classrooms. In this corner, a faculty that refuses to compromise its intellectual integrity. And in this corner, a football program cherishing W's as much as A's.
It's always treacherous, this collegiate marriage of athletics and academics. And with SMU and June Jones, divorce—or at least an estranged relationship—is suddenly a possibility even before the honeymoon is over.