On February 24 SMU's basketball team welcomed a special visitor to its sparkling new Crum Center practice facility. Ushered in by school president Dr. Gerald Turner, the guest was none other than Dallas' newest celebrity resident, the Mustangs' latest fan and the former leader of the free world.
Fortunately, George W. Bush left his "Mission Accomplished!" banner in the trunk, because SMU's work is only just beginning.
"We're disappointed in the results, but not the progress," says SMU head coach Matt Doherty. "The reality of the situation is that we knew coming in that this was a total rebuilding project. It was never going to be a quick fix."
There are signs of life. There is sugar-coated progress. And there are, no doubt, better times ahead.
But after another losing season flat-lined last week with a whimper, SMU basketball is no more on college basketball's map than it was when Doherty was hired three years ago.
No one plots a career course taking them from Chapel Hill to the Hilltop, but Prince Peruna arrived at SMU in 2006 after winning the 1982 National Championship as Michael Jordan's teammate at North Carolina and winning National Coach of the Year with the Tar Heels in 2001. A lily-white guy with a CPA haircut and mechanically flawless chest passes to His Airness as a player, he admittedly made practical and political mistakes at UNC that cost him his job and eventually forced him to tiny Florida Atlantic, desperate to rebuild a career and restore a reputation.
SMU athletic director Steve Orsini hired Doherty with the perfect pedigree—skins on the wall, tail between his legs—to finally break the Mustangs' paradigm of losing.
In Doherty's first season the Mustangs started 9-1. A victory at Oklahoma in the fall of 2006 would've propelled the Ponies into the Top 25. Instead, SMU was humbled in Norman by 27 points, and the toilet has been stuck on "flush" ever since. Since the teasing debut, SMU is 24-57.
Over the last two seasons SMU has lost—at home, mind you—to the likes of Southern, Alabama State, Centenary, USC-Upstate, Arkansas-Pine Bluff and UT-San Antonio.
"Just because we knew it wouldn't happen overnight doesn't mean we're satisfied by any means," Doherty said from his office last Friday afternoon. "I'm the most disappointed of anyone because I demand more of my teams than anyone. But I also understand that losing some close games and learning from them is a big, important part of this process."
Last year's 10-20 record has been validated by this year's team finishing 9-21, going winless on the road (0-12) and being irrelevant (3-13) in Conference USA. In last week's C-USA Tournament in Memphis, the Mustangs fell behind Houston 14-2 and eventually bowed out in the first round for the third consecutive year. By my count, the Mustangs had four legitimate victories this season—Tulane, Rice, Southern Mississippi and Colorado—though all had losing records. SMU finished with 112 more turnovers than made free throws and an RPI (out of 343 teams) of 265, well behind little-known programs such as Quinnipiac, Gardner-Webb and Presbyterian and light years from this year's No. 1 seeds in the national tournament, North Carolina, Louisville, Connecticut and Pittsburgh.
Locally, despite a financial investment in coaches and upgrade in facilities, SMU's success and stature lag behind North Texas and UT-Arlington, which have each been to the NCAA Tournament this decade. Even Dallas Baptist (Division II) and UT-Dallas (Division III) trumped the Mustangs this season with national tournament berths.
SMU hasn't beaten a Top 5 team since the glory days of Jon Koncak and Carl Wright in 1985, hasn't experienced a winning season since 2003 and for the 16th consecutive year you did not have to stress over whether or not to advance the Ponies in your March Madness office pool bracket.
Furthermore, the rebuilding program isn't exactly inciting local interest. Despite the plethora of local high-school talent—DeSoto and Cedar Hill, for example, played in last weekend's Texas Class 5A championship game—the Mustangs generally play to crowds smaller than a Texas Rangers' spring training game with a roster that includes more players from outside the country than inside the state. SMU this season had three players from Senegal, one each from Arlington and Mansfield and zero from Dallas.
Digest it all and you'd figure the only Moody Madness these days is disgust toward SMU's basketball program. But you know what? The administration isn't batting an eye.
There is patience. There is optimism. There is—temporarily buried beneath the litany of losing—genuine hope for Pony Up.
"We're going to win," says Doherty, armed with five-year, $400,000-a-season security. "It's just a matter of when."
At the centerpiece of SMU's rebuilding is, in fact, a building, the $13 million, 43,000-square-foot Crum Center. With a state-of-the-art weight room, luxurious amenities like flat-screen TVs and a tunnel leading into Moody Coliseum, it tops, according to Doherty, facilities at North Carolina and Notre Dame and gives SMU a chance to land loftier recruits.
Doherty's first gem: Paul McCoy.
The cat-quick point guard from Portland, Oregon, is the face of SMU's future, this year becoming the first freshman to lead the Mustangs in scoring (13 points per game) while earning a spot on Conference USA's All-Freshman team. He is, simply, the best freshman in the conference.
"He's a star in the making, and I'm happy he's ours," Doherty says. "As we progress and grow and climb the ladder, he's going to be at the center of it all for us."
Led by McCoy and a roster that includes 10 freshmen or sophomores, SMU was led in scoring by a newcomer in 27 of 30 games this season, the highest percentage in the country. The Mustangs' scoring deficit dwindled from seven points to three, attendance continues to be up almost 60 percent from before Doherty's arrival and even SMU's losses were better, leading 31-3 Memphis with 14 minutes to play, losing on a 75-foot buzzer-beater at Marshall and forcing UT-El Paso into overtime on the road.
"We made strides this year," Doherty says. "All we were missing was some interior toughness, perimeter shooting and, the big one, experience."
The inside presence will be aided by the arrival of Doherty's top recruit, 6-foot-11-inch Nigerian-by-way-of-Maryland Julius Francis. (SMU's summer trek to Africa continues to pay dividends.) The outside shooting will improve organically. The experience will continue to be painful.
Considering how low SMU was—previous coach Jimmy Tubbs was fired for giving illegal gifts to players—and how the school's academic standards act, at times, like athletic handcuffs, nothing this side of a Ponzi scheme would catapult the Mustangs back to national prominence fast. But it appears the foundation is in place. The talent is arriving. The patience is thick.
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"The next rung for us is to finish .500," Doherty says. "Small steps."
SMU basketball is growing. Last summer the team toured Africa. Last week, after their season-ending loss to Houston, Doherty delayed the flight back to Dallas to take his squad to the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. And then there was the recent visit from the ex-prez.
The Mustangs know all about Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King and George W. Bush.
They just yet don't know a thing about winning.