Commentary

Ponies aiming for return to the big stage

Originally Published: September 2, 2011
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

DALLAS -- Erik Herskind is a jeans-and-cowboy boots Texan who remembers the football glory days at his alma mater, Southern Methodist University.

His senior year, 1986, was the last of seven straight winning seasons for the Mustangs. The next two years, they would play no football after being slapped with the so-called Death Penalty by the NCAA for recidivist cheating.

For two decades after that, fall Saturdays were a hollow, humiliating echo of what used to be.

[+] EnlargeSMU
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesThe Ponies are trying to position themselves to emerge back onto the national landscape.

"I'm the last guy that had the old football," said Herskind, who runs Greenlight, an advertising and marketing agency not far from SMU's idyllic campus. "We were there when they came back, through the years of pain. Everyone's craving a return to success. People want it back."

What SMU alums and fans want is a return to relevance for a program that was dealt the harshest hand in NCAA history. What they want is a chance to once again share the big athletic stage with the most powerful programs in the state. What they want, most of all, is membership in the Big 12 Conference.

If there's still going to be a Big 12 Conference.

While the league hemorrhages schools and stability, a onetime national power sits on the sideline hoping its name will be called as a replacement. SMU's network of connected alums has been cranking up the PR campaign, touting the school's location and status as the only Division I school in Dallas as selling points.

(An August independent survey of 910 Texas voters commissioned by an SMU booster group touts the Mustangs as an ideal Big 12 member -- certainly more attractive than BYU, which seems a much more likely possibility at this point.)

SMU to the Big 12 is, as Herskind acknowledged Thursday, "a super long shot," but after a quarter century of almost disavowing athletics, the Mustangs are eager for a second act as a big-time football program.

"The last couple years has pumped new life into this thing," Herskind said.

Earlier Thursday, the guy who has pumped the life into SMU football was pumping noise into his players' ears in Gerald J. Ford Stadium. June Jones ordered up ear-splitting Texas A&M audio for the Mustangs at practice this week to prepare them for their trip Sunday to Kyle Field to face the No. 8 Aggies.

"I'd rather be playing Portland State," Jones quipped. "But to ever get to the point where you reach that level, you've got to compete with these guys. … The atmosphere we're getting ready to see is like Notre Dame, Ohio State. It's the big time."

It's also a big opportunity. In what SMU athletic director Steve Orsini termed "one of life's ironies," the school that wants in the Big 12 is playing the most recent school to want out of the Big 12.

On Wednesday, Texas A&M informed the league that it will be looking elsewhere -- almost assuredly landing in the Southeastern Conference. Last week, SMU went public with its desire to move out of Conference USA -- almost assuredly targeting the Big 12.

What better time and place to audition for an upgrade than Sunday at Kyle Field?

[+] EnlargeCraig James and Eric Dickerson
AP File PhotoThe Pony Express tandem of Craig James, left, and Eric Dickerson made SMU a power in the 1980s.

"It's a great opportunity," Orsini said. "And I believe our young men will rise to the opportunity and take advantage of it and be competitive."

This should be the best of Jones' four SMU teams. It returns 18 starters from last season, led by standout quarterback Kyle Padron. He got the Mustangs in their first bowl game in 25 years in 2009, then backed it up with another bowl trip last year -- but now the opportunity to take another step is at hand.

SMU's only victory under Jones against a team from a big-six conference is Washington State last year -- and if you've seen the Cougars in recent seasons, you know that hardly counts. So the Aggies would be by far the biggest skin on the SMU wall since the halcyon days as a marquee member of the Southwest Conference.

It has been a rapid ascent to this point. SMU was 1-11 in 2007, firing sixth-year coach Phil Bennett during the season. Orsini boldly declared that the school would get a top-25 coach, then flailed through a painfully protracted coaching search that yielded no fruit.

"We were the first to fire and the last to hire," Orsini said of the 72-day process.

But more than halfway through the process, Jones took a surprising (and secretive) interest in the SMU job. Near the end of authoring the best season in Hawaii history, with an 11-0 team that needed to only beat Washington at home to cinch a remarkable BCS bowl bid, Jones placed a call to former SMU running back Eric Dickerson.

Jones has had a fascinating coaching life, much of it spent in the NFL. Among those he coached at that level was Dickerson, the best player in SMU history and part of the Pony Express backfield tandem with Craig James that formed the foundation of the best teams in SMU history. So in the days before Hawaii played Washington, Jones asked Dickerson to pass along his interest in the dead-end job in Dallas.

"I would take that job if it was offered to me," Jones told Dickerson. "But I can't read my name in the paper associated with it in any way. If I do, I'll pull out."

"It was absolutely amazing," Jones said. "For 30 days it stayed off radar. That's when I knew I wanted to work for those guys."

It wasn't until after Hawaii lost the Allstate Sugar Bowl to Georgia that Jones was linked to the job. It seemed a stunning move, given the momentum he had established with the Warriors. Why leave paradise for the difficulty of coaching a school that had given up on big-time football?

"The real reason I wanted to come here is that they were the worst I'd ever seen," Jones said. "Just like Hawaii was the worst I'd ever seen when I went there. But it did attract me that they had been to the top before."

[+] EnlargeJune Jones
Mitch Stringer/US PresswireJune Jones has guided the Mustangs to two straight bowl games.

Jones earned hero status in his second year by taking SMU to the Hawaii Bowl and then pounding heavy favorite Nevada. When he backed that up with another bowl bid last season, that status was cemented.

Now he wants to take the program a step further in a potential final chapter to his coaching life.

"I'd like to coach here until I feel like this place is back," said Jones, 58. "That may take three to five years, where anybody can come in here and win."

By then Jones should have a sizable retirement nest egg. When Orsini declared the desire to hire a top-level coach in 2007, he raised $10 million for salary in three weeks' time solely from boosters, none from the university. (SMU, like virtually all schools its size, accepts a significant subsidy from the university proper to keep its athletic books balanced.)

That was the first signal to Jones that SMU was serious about swimming in the athletic deep end again. Subsequent facility upgrades -- like the Mustangs' ostentatious new locker room -- show that the commitment remains. So do the plans on Orsini's desk to ultimately expand SMU's lovely 32,000-seat on-campus stadium.

"We just want everyone to know we're ready to do it again," said Orsini, who played on Notre Dame's 1977 national championship team and jump-started Central Florida's athletic program before coming to SMU. "We lost a generation, but now we've built a foundation and we're ready to do it in a credible way.

"I think time heals a lot of things. Twenty-five years heals a lot. We aren't getting any pushback (from concerned faculty or alums) as long as we're doing it the right way.

"We've worked hard for 25 years to get it balanced again. We're a top-tier academic program and we want to be a top-tier athletic program. It's time."

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.