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The Honolulu Advertiser

Updated at 5:20 p.m., Tuesday, January 8, 2008

How SMU lured June Jones away from the islands

By Kate Hairopoulos
The Dallas Morning News

UNIVERSITY PARK, Texas — More than two months ago, Bob Beaudine, of the Plano-based executive search firm Eastman & Beaudine, mentioned June Jones as a possible candidate to become SMU's new football coach. Even SMU athletic director Steve Orsini doubted he could get Jones to leave Hawai'i.

"A lightbulb went off; I added him to my 'A' list right away," Orsini said Tuesday. But "probably like most of America, I thought June Jones was a lifer."

What transpired since late October, after SMU fired coach Phil Bennett, obviously proved otherwise. SMU introduced Jones as its new coach Monday.

SMU and Orsini's 71-day saga to hire a new coach may ultimately be remembered for Orsini's willingness to take a risk. Even as the school explored other candidates, Orsini was open to waiting for Jones, who coached Hawai'i in the Allstate Sugar Bowl on New Year's Day.

"I wouldn't say everyone should wait to hire a coach 71 days," Orsini said. "But saying that, I truly planned to have our timeline dictated by the quality of our coaches."

Orsini began the courtship, as Orsini terms it, with many long conversations with Leigh Steinberg, Jones' agent. They intensified after Jones received permission from Hawai'i to explore other options on Dec. 24.

Dealings increased rapidly after the Sugar Bowl.

Jones ultimately wavered on leaving Hawai'i after arriving in Dallas on Sunday, but accepted the SMU reclamation project Monday.

One of Jones' qualities that stood out most to Orsini was his success at rebuilding programs. Jones, 76-41 in nine seasons, took Hawai'i from 0-12 the season before he took over to 12-1 this season.

"It is the right fit," Orsini said. "We need to rebuild this program. It has been 20 years, so it's like building from scratch because so much as been torn down and left dormant for so long."

Orsini, who had daily if not nightly conversations with SMU president R. Gerald Turner, has said all along that SMU wanted a proven coach. "We did not want on-the-job training here," Orsini said.

The coaches on Orsini's "A" list — whom he wouldn't name — fit the description.

Orsini said SMU started monitoring its possible candidates and their seasons. He did not expect to make a hire until after the regular season concluded.

Once it did, former Navy coach Paul Johnson visited SMU but accepted the Georgia Tech job days later.

Orsini kept watching Jones. Initially, Orsini was excited by Hawai'i's undefeated regular-season. But then he realized that Jones leading his team to a BCS bowl was going to severely slow SMU's process.

Orsini called it "a fly in the ointment."

Meanwhile, SMU had talks with candidates including former Texas A&M coach Dennis Franchione and former Miami coach Larry Coker.

Asked if he interviewed minority candidates, Orsini said the Black Coaches Association would publish his grade.

"I think I'll pass that course," Orsini said. "Will I get an A-plus? Probably not."

Orsini and Steinberg both said they continued talking. Daily. Through the holidays. Orsini carried his phone charger with him in his pocket.

It was through Steinberg that Orsini laid the groundwork. Steinberg called Orsini "compelling." Orsini, on Monday, called Steinberg SMU's MVP.

"I was willing to risk it because I want the best available," Orsini said.

But Orsini acknowledged putting himself in a corner, though he said he had more than one alternative.

"I'm smart enough to never not have a parachute or two or three with me," Orsini said.

Jones said he grabbed some SMU game tapes from the Hawai'i offices to watch before Hawaii traveled to New Orleans.

On Jan. 3, two days after the Sugar Bowl, Jones said he had a two-hour phone conversation with Orsini from Hawai'i.

"Do you really have to stay there?" Orsini asked. Orsini said he knew Hawai'i would make some kind of push to keep Jones. Seemingly most of the islands — including Hawai'i's governor- ultimately made an 11th-hour effort with enhanced offers and emotional pleas.

Jones, who arrived in Dallas early Sunday to meet with SMU officials, said he felt his heart was still in Hawai'i before he said his prayers and went to sleep late Sunday night. Orsini said he had trust in the relationship he had built with Jones and Steinberg.

And Orsini said Jones had not booked a return flight.

Jones said he woke up Monday excited and at peace with his decision to accept SMU's offer.

Beaudine called the other remaining canidates and informed them of SMU's decision.

Jones met with Orsini for most of the morning Tuesday.

Orsini said Jones wanted to limit his time in Hawai'i upon his return so he could get going at SMU. Jones is expected to return Monday night ready to go.

"Mission accomplished," Orsini said.