Jones Leads Mustangs Onto Familiar Turf

December 23, 2009 by · 2 Comments 

By Robby Gillespie
rgillespie@smu.edu

HONOLULU — In his first year as head coach at the University of Hawaii, June Jones led the biggest turnaround in the NCAA by winning nine more games than the Warriors had won the previous season. In 2009, at SMU, he achieved the same feat.

After consecutive 1-11 seasons, Jones led the Mustangs to a 7-5 record in his second season, and again achieved the largest turnaround in the NCAA.

Jones has become a symbol of revival for collegiate football programs. He’s been described repeatedly as a “players’ coach” by many of his current and former players and says it’s those relationships he remembers most of his coaching stints more than the important games he has been a part of.

“He understands what’s important,” said SMU special teams coach Dennis McKnight who worked on Jones’ staff during his entire tenure at Hawaii. “June knows X’s and O’s, schemes, but that’s not what does it. It’s bringing a group of guys together as one. He knows the most important thing is mental and that’s what he works on from day one.”

Jones’ strategy to turn a program around begins with instilling confidence and the belief in the players that the feat is attainable. When he came to Hawaii after the Warriors went 0-12 the previous season, he set high goals for the team.

“He comes in for a team meeting and tells us we’re going to win the [Western Athletic Conference],” said former Warrior linebacker Chris Brown, who played under Jones in the coach’s first season. “Everyone thinks this guy is out of his mind, this guy’s crazy. He broke it down to who we’re going to beat, how many games we have to win, he knew exactly what we were going to do…to actually believe it was hard.”

Sure enough, Hawaii won the WAC that year, even after falling to a Carson Palmer led USC squad 63-3 in the opening game.

“After we won the second game, third game, it just started clicking,” Brown said.

A similarity expressed by Jones when the Mustangs beat UAB on the road. He saw the team’s attitude change when SMU won that second game and he says he knew right then that this team “had it.”

Brown, like many former players of Jones, still keeps in touch with the coach. He will root for Jones at whichever school he is coaching, including SMU.

“People love coach Jones out here. I think you’re going to see a lot of Hawaii fans cheering for him,” said Brown, who now works at the hotel the Mustangs are staying this week. “We miss him out here, but we understand he moved on. We knew it was a matter of time before he turned [SMU] around.”

Brown, a native of Hawaii, labels Jones as a “father figure” and someone who stays strong to his word.

“He’s a great players coach, you can tell him about anything,” Brown said. “He’ll tell it straight. When he says something, he’s going to do it. We learned that the first week. Everything he said happened.”

When Jones departed the islands for a higher paycheck at SMU, many on the island were more upset with the school rather than the coach.

“The program was great, he was filling the stands, everything was going well,” Brown said. “When he left there was nothing more he could really accomplish, but [UH] could have paid him to stay.”

Jones took his coaching staff with him to SMU, including McKnight whose coaching style is a stark contrast from Jones’ business-like attitude. McKnight’s voice can be heard at every practice by every player and on-looker.

“A lot of the players get pumped up with the intensity that McKnight brings to the field,” said senior Kellis Cunningham. “He’s very much a players’ coach but he brings intensity.”

At a practice at UH, McKnight dressed in camouflage and face paint and jumped out of a tree to scare some the players.

“You’ve got to keep it fun, and keep the kids always guessing,” McKnight said.

When asked about whether that would happen in Dallas, McKnight spoke about a story of when he jumped out of a plane before practice and landed on the field with a parachute.

There are contradicting reports from some Mustang players about the truth of that story, but the McKnight-Jones coaching duo has proved to be validly successful.

Jones won four bowl games in eight seasons at Hawaii. On Thursday, he’ll be looking for his first bowl win with the Mustangs in his second season, and to officially complete another turnaround.

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