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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, July 25, 2002

Along came Jones, long after the others

By Ferd Lewis
Advertiser Columnist

He is the man in black, the guy with the NFL head coaching resume, the signature offense and the most lucrative contract in the Western Athletic Conference.

He coached last season's final game with a former NFL general manager, Bobby Beathard, and a big-name agent, Leigh Steinberg, on the sidelines. When he drops names, usually without meaning to, they are invariably All-Pro ones.

When June Jones came to the University of Hawai'i in 1998, the WAC rank and file hardly knew what to make of a man who walked away from a multi-year NFL contract to resuscitate an 0-12 program.

Going on four seasons later, they still don't.

At times, they would like to hoist Jones on their shoulders and celebrate him as their poster coach, the offensive genius working in college football's most wide-open conference. At other moments, frustration at a boiling point, you get the feeling they would just as soon hang a "kick me" sign on his back and invite the membership to punt him into the Northern Sun Conference.

In a tenure highlighted by surprising turnarounds and eye-opening offensive explosions, Jones has done wonders for the WAC. But there have also been run-ins with game officials that have taken him to the brink of suspension, a barely disguised disdain for the conference office that prompted a frank closed-door session with commissioner Karl Benson this week and tight-lipped vows by members to even scores with UH on perceived slights.

Conference coaches who would have given a left ventricle to get their games on ESPN were upset when, because of Jones' and UH's initial reluctance to accommodate television last year, the WAC almost had its TV deal fall through. Then, Jones and UH benefitted most from the agreement that showcased their victories over Fresno State and Brigham Young on national TV.

Perhaps not since Earle Bruce or Rick Majerus has the WAC had a high profile coach who inspires the spectrum of emotions like Jones.

Take the WAC Football Preview this week in Boise, Idaho. Jones showed up late — an excused tardiness, he says — but an improvement over some previous gatherings, when he either didn't show up at all or sent a subordinate.

At a Monday night function a speaker lampooned the absence, saying, "I guess June doesn't work in July," a line that was recounted with glee at a coaches meeting, which he also didn't make.

In one story making the rounds before Tuesday night, a coach told his contemporaries, "Since I've been in the conference, the only place I've met June was at midfield."

Few coaches at this time of the year look forward to these gatherings, believing the time better spent on getting in a round of golf before New Year's. But it is something they do, especially in non-Bowl Championship Series conferences where it is in everybody's interest to promote the conference.

So, when Jones was a late arrival, there was a rolling of eyes and a mumbling about different standards for certain coaches. When Rice's Ken Hatfield arrived in the early morning, reportedly the result of flight delay, the joke was he wanted a "Jones Exemption."

Not for the first time has Jones been the talk of the WAC.