SMU's June Jones says Hawaii still dear to his heart
BY Stephen Tsai
June Jones' cell phone number begins with "808." He owns two condos in Kähala and another in Kona.
During football season, between the end of the morning practice and the daily staff meeting, Southern Methodist University's second-year coach will watch the KGMB-produced news show "Sunrise" on his office computer.
Jones, whose wardrobe does not require socks, implores his staff to observe Aloha Friday each week.
It has been nearly two years since Jones resigned as the University of Hawai'i's head football coach to accept a similar position at Dallas' SMU.
"Once it's in your blood," Jones said of his feelings for Hawai'i, where he spent more than a dozen years as a player and coach, "it's always in your blood."
Jones arrived in town yesterday in preparation for Thursday's Sheraton Hawai'i Bowl at Aloha Stadium. SMU will play Nevada, the Western Athletic Conference's runner-up.
"It's exciting to come back," Jones said. "I'm excited that I'm going to see a lot of friends and people who mean a lot to me. That's the thing I miss the most — my friends."
And, he added, "the North Shore."
The day after every UH home game, Jones would ride his Harley-Davidson, painted in the Warriors' dark green, around the island.
"I miss the North Shore," said Jones, who tried to stay in touch by watching videostreams of the Eddie Aikau surf meet.
Jones donated the motorcycle to Na Koa, the UH football booster club, as an auction item. He said he might sell his O'ahu condos.
"I'm going to keep the one in Kona," he said.
He first visited the Big Island in 1975, when UH played a spring game in Hilo. Jones was a quarterback.
He returned in the 1980s, soon after the Mauna Lani Golf Course opened.
"I was just blown away," he said. "The peacefulness of the Big Island. Man, it was just something else."
Then, a few years ago, 15 miles from Kona, Jones found a paradise within a paradise.
"Hokuli'a is the most spiritual place to me,"he said. "It's more laid-back than anywhere I've been. When (football) is all over, that's where I'm going to make my home. I'm going to live in Hawai'i."
The thing is, Jones never wanted to leave.
After the Warriors' 2006 season, there was an opportunity to return to the National Football League, where he had been a head coach with the Atlanta Falcons and San Diego Chargers.
At the same time, the Warriors' star quarterback, Colt Brennan, was contemplating whether to apply for the 2007 NFL draft or return to UH for his senior season. The NFL deadline was Jan. 17. At one point, Brennan posed the what-if question to Jones.
"Colt was worried I would leave after he made his decision to come back (to UH)," Jones recalled. "I said, 'Look, you make your decision. I'll give you my word, if you haven't read about me leaving before the 17th, and you decide to come back, I won't leave. I'll coach your senior season.' "
In an emotional news conference Jan. 17, 2007, Brennan announced he would return to UH for his senior season.
Soon after, agent Leigh Steinberg called UH athletic director Herman Frazier to set up a meeting to discuss a contract extension for Jones, who was entering the final season of a five-year contract.
"I told Herman before the '07 season, I would entertain speaking with him about extending my contract," Jones said. "Nothing had been done. I said, 'If you don't extend it by the time we go to training camp (in August), then I don't want to deal with it during camp, and I don't want to see (negotiations) in the paper while we're trying to win football games.' "
Jones said he also told Frazier: "If we can get something done, something I can live with before we go to training camp in August I would consider it."
But Steinberg and Jones said UH never initiated contract talks before the start of fall camp.
"I wasn't hurt by it; I was disappointed," Jones said. "If he had come to me in May or June, I probably would have extended my contract, and we would have worked out something that would have been workable for the school and workable for me."
After that, Jones realized that "2007 would be my last season" at UH.
PROBLEMS AT UH
The problems with UH's athletic facilities had circulated nationally. In 2006, the players had complained there was no soap in the locker-room showers. Cooke Field was condemned after the turf had been stripped away. But because the Warriors were successful — 11-3 in 2006, 12-1 in 2007 — with limited resources, few changes were planned.
"To sustain success (under the conditions) would be hard to do," Jones said. "We needed to have things. We needed change. I don't think those things were going to happen if I stayed. When I got here in '99, I felt if we won, things would change. The bottom line is everybody is hurting. Everybody needs money."
At the end of the 2007 regular season, SMU showed interest in Jones.
After the Jan. 1 Sugar Bowl, SMU made a formal offer: $2 million a year for five years. Jones' contract — which was increased from $320,000 annually in the first four UH seasons — paid about $800,000 a year.
It was then that UH initiated contract talks. The first offer, from Frazier, was $1.1 million annually. After that, UH President David McClain and Mänoa chancellor Virginia Hinshaw took over as point negotiators, increasing the offer to $1.3 million annually, then $1.5 million a year, then $1.7 million.
But Jones said he felt UH's offers were more than the school could afford. The stakes were considerably higher than they were before the 2007 season, when he would have been happy to sign an extension for much less.
"I worked all my life to make a good living," Jones said. "I didn't want to feel bad that I was going to make a lot of money in my next contract. The people of Hawai'i have a lot of needs at the school. For me to be making close to $2 million, it didn't seem fair, and I didn't want to feel bad about that. With all of the needs we had (at UH), all of the things that had to be done, in my own mind, I didn't want to be unhappy about being successful."
Jones and Steinberg then went to Dallas to finalize the SMU deal. But the night before the agreement was to be announced, Jones told Steinberg: "I can't pull the trigger."
Jones recalled: "Leigh's eyes got huge. We had been in negotiations for three days, and we had finally gotten it done, and I told him, 'I can't do this.' "
Jones said he then had telephone conversations with "some friends who were very close to me."
"When I woke up the next morning," he said, "I felt this is what God wanted me to do, what I needed to do with my life."
In a news release circulated that afternoon, McClain said: "I also want to apologize to our fans and all of Hawai'i for matters getting to this stage in the first place. Exceptional performance deserves exceptional recognition, and your university was slow to step up."
The next day, UH and Frazier parted ways.
Since then, Cooke Field, now known as Ching Athletic Complex, has a new artificial turf. The new football coaches' offices will be completed in a few months. And the football recruiting budget has more than doubled.
"Those things wouldn't have happened if we stayed," Jones said.
SUCCESS AT SMU
Jones, meanwhile, has led SMU's resurgence, leading the school to its first bowl game in 25 years. He recently agreed to a two-year contract extension.
He said the Mustangs are two years away from "being where we were in Hawai'i, with enough bullets and ammo to play the game at the level to be a championship team."
His son, June Jones IV, is an offensive lineman on a high school team that won a Texas state football title.
He bought a home in a Dallas suburb.
"Dallas is a great city, one of the best on the continent," Jones said. "The people here are so hospitable. The Texas people have a lot of aloha spirit. They don't call it aloha. They call it Texas hospitality. It's very similar to Hawai'i. The people here are outgoing, very giving, very helpful."
One of Jones' regrets is he is too emotional to offer face-to-face farewells. He sent e-mails to close friends to announce he was leaving Hawai'i. His parting news conference was on the Big Island.
"It's hard," he said. "I get attached to people, friends. I tell people, 'It's not about the game; it's about the people you work with, the people you coach.' That's what it's all about. Because I'm that way, I've become very attached, especially with people in Hawai'i, and, I guess, sensitive emotionally. I think I'm way too emotional for a guy. I am that way. I've always been that way."