New SMU coach June Jones is the 15th highest-paid coach in college football. Fifteenth. Let that sink in for a second. At five years and $10 million, the Mustangs are paying for -- and actually expecting -- to field a Top 20 program. Now ponder this: After two dead decades, SMU football is suddenly alive and -- sooner or later -- well.
Give SMU athletic director Steve Orsini credit. First he raised the money, convincing 20 “Circle of Champions” donors to commit $100,000 a year for five years. Then he took his time finding the new coach. Took two and a half months, in fact. But he got it right. Amazingly, tiny, crappy lil’ ol' SMU landed Jones, a coach on his way up, when it appeared they’d have to settle for one (Larry Coker or Dennis Franchione or Mike Martz) on his way down. And instead of Navy’s Paul Johnson and his antiquated run-oriented wing-T, the Mustangs will be blessed with Jones’ Run & Shoot. Better for points -- and selling tickets.
Saw where one ESPN talking head already pegged SMU for his “most improved team of 2008.” Another mentioned Justin Willis as suddenly “one of college football’s most productive quarterbacks.” Even The Pony Express (Eric Dickerson and Craig James) signed off on the hiring. Wake up the echoes, indeed.
And to think, Jones almost died on February 22, 2001, on a Hawaiian highway off-ramp. Falling asleep at the wheel and not wearing a seat belt, Jones’ car rammed into a concrete pillar. When paramedics arrived they called in a “DOA.” Yep, dead on arrival. But after a week in a coma, Jones awoke and survived despite head trauma, a bruised liver and massive internal bleeding.
Perhaps even more amazing, he took a Hawaii program that was 0-12 in 1999, handcuffed by a scrawny $50,000 recruiting budget and besieged by faculty pleas for its abolishment, and turned it into a 2007 BCS bowl team with a Heisman Trophy finalist. And somehow, Orsini convinced him to leave paradise for Park Cities? (After hiring basketball coach Matt Doherty last season, by the way, make Orsini 2-for-2.)
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Maybe it was the 77-degree weather that tricked Jones this week. Certainly the $10 million didn’t hurt. Or maybe, finally, SMU has some legit appeal. Next season the Mustangs will pass and score and be entertaining. And, with this hiring, they’ll even expect to win.
Which brings us to last night’s BCS National Championship Game and Ohio State, heretofore known as THE Team That Always Gets Its Ass Kicked. That’s it. No more Big Ten. We’re tired of teams playing their regular season on shaggy grass fields in cold and windy weather that renders offenses one-dimensional. That, of course, leads to slow, plodding, run-stuffing defense amassing fraudulent No. 1 rankings, only to have their heads spin off their big, thick necks when they face speedy, skill-position athletes in elite bowl games.
Last year Ohio State surrendered 41 to Florida and last night, another 38 to LSU. If not for a late, phantom pass interference call on Miami in 2003, Ohio State would be 0-3 in BCS National Championship Games. In a season crazier than Dr. Phil trying to give advice to Britney Spears, two-loss LSU won a title when it isn’t the best team.
The Tigers lost at home to an Arkansas squad that got spanked by Mizzou in the Cotton Bowl. Southern Cal is better. Georgia is better. West Virginia is better. But, no, Ohio State isn’t better. The Buckeyes, who didn’t beat a Top 20 team all season, never belonged in this game. Stay patient and, before you know it, maybe Jones and SMU will. OK, who are we kidding? But it is a good hire. Small steps, Peruna, small steps. --Richie Whitt