Cory Mccartney
Friday January 25th, 2008

It was Dec. 1 and Steve Orsini was sitting in his Dallas home watching unbeaten Hawaii, which had designs on crashing the BCS party, clawing its way back from a three-touchdown deficit against Washington.

"I'm like, 'If they win, they'd be the only undefeated team in the nation and our society would love to see that team get a chance to move up to a BCS bowl,' " he said.

That, of course, was the fan in Orsini speaking. But he just so happens to be SMU's athletic director, and from that standpoint, this comeback was what he called "the fly in the ointment."

"I started to say to myself, 'Wait a minute Hawaii, don't win,' " he said.

That was because June Jones, the coach leading the Warriors back from that 21-0 deficit was at the top of Orsini's list of candidates for the Mustangs' next coach -- and a BCS bowl berth for Hawaii would only further draw out Orsini's search.

"One thing I said to myself was, 'I am not going to hurt the opportunity of a coach and the student-athletes at that university,' " he said. " 'Let's let them finish out the year because SMU is in this for the long run.' "

Orsini, too, was in it for the long run. Seventy-one days after firing Phil Bennett, who was in the midst of a 1-11 campaign, Orsini had his man in Jones. SMU is hoping Jones can duplicate the turnaround he pulled in Hawaii with a once-proud SMU program that has never fully recovered from receiving the death penalty in the late 1980s -- which stemmed from players allegedly receiving money from a booster with the help of athletic department staff.

"Yes, it took 71 days, but I look back on it and I hope we look at it years from now and say that's the best 71 days invested in SMU football in the history of SMU football," Orsini said.

But why would Jones leave one reclamation project for another? Why would he move from Hawaii, after seeing the Warriors go from 0-12 before he arrived in 1999 to 12-1 and a Sugar Bowl berth in 2007, to take over a team that has gone 58-153-3 since 1989?

Well, there's always the money: he went from making $800,000 a year in his deal with Hawaii, which was set to expire on June 30, to receiving a five-year deal worth $10 million from SMU. There are the facilities: the Mustangs play in the seven-year-old Gerald J. Ford Stadium and have a state-of-the-art training center, while Hawaii plays in 33-year-old Aloha Stadium, on which the state is spending $12.4 million to free of rust and corrosion. "I was there for nine years and basically nothing changed in those years," Jones said.

More importantly, Jones says it was about the chance to revitalize another program -- and himself. He says he was twice prepared to leave Honolulu because the athletic department was "in a paralysis state of doing the things that were necessary to maintain a high level within the department," once before the 2005 season (but the hiring of Jerry Glanville as defensive coordinator re-energized him) and again before last season (but no NFL position he was interested in materialized).

Just before Christmas, he told agent Leigh Steinberg there were only two programs he was interested in: Duke and SMU, two teams that posted 1-11 records in 2007.

"He thought I was crazy for even saying that," Jones said.

But he believes his players-first approach -- which is rooted in positive-reinforcement instead of yelling -- is better served at a school looking to rebound.

"I think by nature these things have been attractive to me because I know the philosophy I have in treating the players and dealing with the players, and offensively it works and can turn these situations, and it kind of motivates me to be a part of it," he said.

Steinberg contacted Orsini and within 24 hours of the Warriors' 41-10 Sugar Bowl loss to Georgia, Jones had a two-hour phone conversation with the SMU athletic director. The next morning he was in Dallas for a face-to-face meeting and Orsini pitched an opportunity that was "low-risk, high-reward."

"'We're 1-11. We haven't been to a bowl in 23 years. If you're 7-5, we'll probably have a parade for you because we're going to our first bowl in 23 years,'" Orsini says he told Jones. "And the high reward is you'll be successful in this very successful market called Dallas, a la Cowboys and Mavericks and Rangers and a lot of successful businesses, and the rewards will be high as well. You will be known as the guy to rebuild SMU football and its proud traditions. That's something that would be attractive to you.'"

Under SMU policies, Orsini had to form a search committee to find Bennett's replacement, and he made it clear that the school would be looking for a proven commodity at coach, instead of bringing in a coordinator (which it did in hiring Bennett, who was previously defensive coordinator at Kansas State). Orsini is unwilling to disclose who else was on his short list, but it definitely included former Navy and current Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson, who visited campus, and is rumored to have also included fired Texas A&M coach Dennis Franchione and former Miami (Fla.) coach Larry Coker.

But it was Jones who Orsini had targeted all along. Hawaii did try to keep him after Orsini's pitch, offering a reported five-year deal with a base salary of $1.3 million annually and a $1 million bonus if he stayed for the duration of the contract. But Jones' mind was made up. It was time to leave Hawaii with a 76-41 record, the most victories in school history and seven winning seasons.

"I think I had made the decision three years ago that I needed to go and it was just time to go," Jones said. "I needed to be re-energized, and SMU has done that for me already. People here are very motivated to win. They have everything in place that I dreamed about having in place when I was at Hawaii. It's ready to go and now it's my job to get it done on the field."

To do that he's enlisted some coaches familiar with the Jones way. Several assistants followed him to the mainland, including Dennis McKnight (offensive line), Dan Morrison (quarterbacks), Jeff Reinebold (special teams) and Wes Suan (running backs). Bert Hill, a former Detroit Lions and Miami Dolphins assistant, will coach the defensive line, while Jones has yet to hire a defensive coordinator.

It won't take a remarkable turnaround to make SMU a player again in Conference USA. He should be able to lure players from the talent-rich Dallas area to properly run the vaunted Run 'N' Shoot, which propelled the Warriors into the top 10 nationally in total offense five times in the last eight seasons. His teams shouldn't have much trouble matching Hawaii's offensive output from the past few seasons, as C-USA defenses yielded an average of 31.6 points a game last year.

But can Jones truly breathe life back into program that has a Heisman Trophy and a national title in its trophy case but hasn't been relevant in 20 years? It's unlikely the school will ever fully regain the upper-echelon place it held in the Southwest Conference as long as it's in C-USA, but Jones' track record indicates he should be able to bring a level of success that has been missing since the death penalty. SMU has invested $10 million in that notion, hoping that in plucking Jones out of paradise, he can bring a piece of it to The Hilltop.

"I think after losing for 20-plus years, they're ready to go," Jones said.

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