Resurrected: Jones rebuilds SMU more than 20 years after NCAA sanctions cripple program
Chris Banjo and his Southern Methodist teammates could not contain their emotions on the sideline. As the Mustangs put the finishing touches on a 45-10 rout of Nevada at the 2009 Hawaii Bowl, their attention shifted to a pregame poll in which only nine percent of voters picked SMU to win.
‘Oh, and America thought we were going to lose,’ said one Mustang as they let loose. Inspired, Banjo grabbed a whiteboard and scribbled down a message for the ESPN cameras to relay to the nation.
It read: ’91 percent of America was wrong.’
‘I definitely wanted to let the nation know that they were wrong in terms of who they picked,’ said Banjo, now a senior safety.
Banjo’s impromptu message announced to the nation SMU football was back. The program was used to hearing the doubters throughout a 25-year bowl drought that finally ended Christmas Eve 2009 in Hawaii. But on that night, the Mustangs’ players who once struggled to believe in themselves were no longer in doubt.
Head coach June Jones began to erase the self-doubt that plagued the SMU program when he was hired to take over a struggling team that went 1-11 in 2007. Now in his fourth year at the helm, Jones has taken the Mustangs to two straight bowl games and a Conference USA championship game. And with 18 returning starters, SMU is aiming to bring home the conference title this year.
Jones had to lay the foundation for success during another 1-11 season in his first year with SMU in 2008. Before his team could win, it had to come together as a family and believe. And that required a brand-new mindset for a program and school stuck in neutral ever since the 1987 NCAA-imposed ‘death penalty.’
Southern Methodist was placed on probation for three years in 1985 for recruiting violations, including a pay-for-play scandal. But school officials continued paying players to keep them quiet about further violations.
The NCAA then drilled SMU with the so-called death penalty in 1987, shutting the program down for a full season. The sanctions forced SMU to cancel the 1988 season as well, after many players fled to other programs to finish their careers.
The Mustangs returned in 1989 but didn’t have a winning season until 1997 — and that was the only winning season until 2009. Since the death penalty, four different head coaches came to Dallas before Jones. None could restore the winning tradition.
‘You have to change the mental condition of not just the football team, but the whole school,’ Jones said.
To do that, the head coach had to earn his players’ trust and respect.
Jones did that when he suspended three starters — including his ‘two best players,’ wide receivers Emmanuel Sanders and Aldrick Robinson — for the final two games of the 2008 season under his ‘three strikes’ policy.
Former SMU linebacker Chase Kennemer said Jones was a straight shooter from the start. Kennemer remembers the head coach giving the players a single-sheet handout outlining team rules, punishments and expectations before training camp.
There was no gray area, not even for stars.
‘Whether you were a scrub-team guy or a star, he treated you the same,’ said Kennemer, a senior captain on the 2009 team.
After the suspensions, the players knew Jones meant what he said. No one player was bigger than the team or the resurrection of the program. The head coach preached family and emphasized a system of accountability in which the players assumed control of the team.
Kennemer said if a teammate missed class or was late to practice, his entire position group would run. Teammates then made sure everyone was going to class and following the rules to prevent any punishment.
‘If one guy keeps making the whole team or the whole position or whoever else run, eventually the other guys in that group are going to start getting on them,’ Kennemer said. ‘Which is what the coaches want rather than them having to do it.’
That system worked perfectly during the 2009 season. The team became a family. There were no cliques or off-field problems.
So when SMU arrived in Hawaii for its bowl game that year, Jones did not have many rules. He did not enforce a strict curfew or dress code on the trip. At practices, the team was all business. But off the field, Jones told the players to enjoy themselves.
The relaxed approach worked. No one was late to any meetings or practices.
Kennemer remembers seeing Nevada players throughout the week always wearing collared shirts tucked into their pants. He could tell the players were tense following their coach’s strict rules.
And it showed on the field, as SMU easily handled the Wolf Pack in that Hawaii Bowl. Kennemer said he talked to Nevada players during penalties on the field throughout the game. And they were sick of all the rules and pressure.
‘‘Our coach has been on us for so long at these bowl practices, making us go so hard, and everybody’s just burnt out,” Nevada players told Kennemer. ‘‘We’re tired of (Nevada head coach Chris Ault’s) militant kind of approach to this whole deal.”
The Hawaii Bowl victory capped an 8-5 season and the largest single-season turnaround in the Football Bowl Subdivision, following the 1-11 season in 2008. The first step to rebuilding a winning tradition was complete.
In 2010, the Mustangs reached the Conference USA championship game for the first time, falling to Central Florida 17-7. Jones felt his 7-7 team last year was better than the 2009 group but said the Mustangs did not always make plays to win games.
That was true in the conference championship loss to UCF. Jones said quarterback Kyle Padron missed three chances to throw touchdown passes. The three missed opportunities could have been the difference in what ended in a 10-point loss for SMU.
Jones said this year, the Mustangs have to get back to the conference championship game and act like they belong there. The players need to develop what Jones calls that ‘walk of champions’ — a confidence that can only come with success on the field.
‘Until you do it on the field,’ Jones said, ‘you just never know if you have it.’
Jones said this year’s team reported to training camp in the best shape of any team he has ever coached. He conducts a conditioning test called the 220 test, in which players run 220-yard sprints 10 times on the first day of camp. The players must finish each sprint under a minute, with more specific times based on position.
Jones said 15 to 30 players usually fail the test, but this year only three players failed.
Banjo, the senior safety, said the players pushed each other all summer at workouts and seven-on-seven drills. The junior Padron and Banjo said nearly the entire team was at voluntary summer workouts on a consistent basis.
‘I think that’s what it’s going to take for us to be the best team in the conference,’ Padron said, ‘to have everybody working when nobody’s watching us.’
The summer of hard work in the Texas heat paid off in the 220 test. And when teammates needed an extra push, their ‘brothers’ were there to encourage them. Banjo said junior defensive back Ryan Smith ran the full 220-yard sprint alongside teammates after he had finished his own to help them through it.
Banjo also did some extra running, taking off to push his tired teammates for the last 50 yards as time ran out.
‘I’ll go out there and try to help someone, motivate them,’ Banjo said. ‘Run next to them, just talk to them and let them know, ‘You’re doing this not just for yourself, but for your team.”
For Banjo, it all goes back to family. Jones stresses the players are doing it for their brother next to them during every drill. With that system firmly in place, Banjo believes the program is ready to go big time.
It’s a belief he had as he scribbled that message for America on the whiteboard that Christmas Eve night in Hawaii.
‘That SMU is ready to play and we’re headed in the right direction,’ Banjo said. ‘And the sky is the limit for us.’
Published on August 31, 2011 at 12:00 pm
Contact Ryne: firstname.lastname@example.org