Far from the national championship chase, SMU celebrated on Saturday.
A drought older than any of its players came to an end. By beating Tulane, the Mustangs are going bowling for the first time since 1984. As bowless streaks go it was only the fourth longest in the country. In terms of historical significance, it was No. 1.
SMU was the first, and to this point only, school to be given the NCAA death penalty. The program was shut down by the NCAA in 1987 due to widespread cheating. The school took itself out of competition in 1988 as well, perhaps out of shame.
No school has been given The Big Haircut since. Maybe schools have gotten the message, maybe they’re just getting better at cheating. Maybe the NCAA has been a bit reluctant too.
Some came close – Oklahoma State in 1988, Alabama this decade – but the wrongdoers always seemed to have an innate sense of putting a toe on the line, but not going over it. That’s because SMU’s case gave rise to “fixer” attorneys and former NCAA investigators who, for a price, could lead a school through the maze that is an NCAA investigation.
While other schools test the NCAA enforcement process, SMU has stayed clean. That’s a plus. On the field, SMU has found it impossible to get back to the competitive heights it enjoyed in the 1980s. Back then it was a top five program featuring the Pony Express – Eric Dickerson and Craig James at running back. It was competing with Southwest Conference and national powers.
But the reason for most of the excellence had a dark side. There was an extensive pay-for-play scheme that was so entrenched that it reached the state governor’s office. Four coaches have tried and failed since the death penalty to get SMU to a bowl.
The school had to scale down just to attempt to stay competitive. It built a smaller, on-campus stadium. It joined Conference USA where, until recently, it was fodder even at that level. Saturday, then, was a history on some small and most unnoticed level in the sport. SMU was “back”, assured of a bowl at 7-5 (most likely the Hawaii) Bowl after defeating the Green Wave.
The fixer, in this case, is June Jones who knows about resurrecting programs. In his second season at SMU, Jones completed on odd circle. The Mustangs are going to Hawaii where Jones coached for nine seasons. So entrenched is his legend that the coach who left the Warriors for more money, the mainland and a modestly better chance of long-term success, is seen as a drawing card for the Hawaii Bowl.
Ten years ago Jones led Hawaii to the biggest one-year turnaround in NCAA history (from 0-12 to 9-4). Despite a small budget and deplorable facilities, Jones then did the unthinkable. He led Hawaii to its first major bowl two years ago, the Sugar Bowl. The fact that the Warriors were 12-1 was less important than what the game meant.
Seeing 20,000 or so islanders walking around downtown New Orleans should stand as state of Hawaii, Sugar Bowl, BCS and college football lore for decades.
So Jones has worked his magic again. Saturday’s result means SMU has the best turnaround in the nation this season (from 1-11 to 7-5). Only one of the seven victories came by more than eight points. Shawnbrey McNeal became SMU’s 1,000-yard rusher since 2003. He was declared eligible the day before the season started.
Former Estonian track Margus Hunter blocked seven kicks. Freshman quarterback Kyle Padron beat out two-year starter Bo Levi Mitchell.
Rival recruiters no longer can no longer lob that 25-year thing around like a grenade. It isn’t going to end with this season, either. These Mustangs are scaled down but they’re much easier to like.
“They talk about the Pony Express and all that, well, guess what, they're going to talk about you guys from here on,” Jones told reporters Saturday. “I really believe that.”