The worst kept secret on campus is out of the bag: The SMU Mustangs will be traveling to Hawaii to play in the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl on Dec. 24. While rumors continued to gain momentum following the team’s win over Tulane, the official announcement was not made until Tuesday afternoon, but it still came six days early.
SMU will play -Fresno State, University of Nevada or University of Hawaii. While they are all bowl eligible, Hawaii needs a win this weekend against Wisconsin to keep them in the running.
“Whoever we’re going to play over there is probably going to be as good or better than we are, but these kids have learned how to win,” head coach June Jones said.
The Mustangs could also see a rematch of the 1984 Aloha Bowl against Notre Dame if ESPN and bowl executives get their way.
“It’s been 25 years since the University had the opportunity that was provided by the team this year,” SMU President R. Gerald Turner said. “I know many of you have been apart of all 25 of those years and have waited a long time for today. As always, the coach and team made it exciting till the very end.”
Snapping a 25-year bowl drought, the fourth longest in the nation, the Mustang’s 11th bowl game appearance will be the team’s first return to the Islands since they defeated Notre Dame in the Aloha Bowl in 1984. The Mustangs, posting the biggest turnaround in the nation and in the program’s history, ended the regular season tied for first place in the West division of Conference USA with the same 6-2 conference record as nationally ranked Houston. After posting 1-11 records for the past two seasons, SMU made a complete 180-degree turn, winning four of their final five games.
“What they did was not topped this year around the country,” Steve Orsini, SMU’s athletic director said. “They had the biggest turnaround in wins in the whole nation this year. Congratulations on 1-11 to 7-5.”
Posting their best record since receiving the death penalty in 1987, SMU has gone through five coaches in over two decades, racking up only a handful of wins before the 2009 season started this fall.
“We’ve proven that there is life after death,” Orsini said.
What Orsini is referring to as the dawn of a new era, the SMU football program has made tremendous leaps and bounds, all at the helm of head coach June Jones.
Having earned the reputation of turning distressed football teams into postseason contenders, Jones was recently awarded a two-year contract extension as an acknowledgment of his success in his second year on the Hilltop.
Coming to Dallas after a nine-year coaching stint at the University of Hawaii, accepting an invitation to play in the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl is particularly special.
In memory of special teams coach Frank Gansz, the team will be visiting Pearl Harbor while in Hawaii in honor of their former coach.
“Frank Gansz and I talked about the day we would load the kids on buses and take them to Pearl Harbor,” Jones said. “It’s going to be a really, really special day when we do that.”
Going to Pearl Harbor is what senior wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders is most excited about.
“We envisioned that: Stepping off that bus, going to Pearl Harbor and seeing all the tradition and all the stories that we’ve been hearing the past couple of months,” Sanders said.
There’s also the fact that Junes could possibly play against his former team.
“This game is going to be special to me for many reasons. Of course, going over and just being together is what it’s all about,” Jones said. “It would be exciting for the game, and I think it would be really exciting for the marketing and promotions of SMU.”
In the end though, clinching a bowl berth came down to raw talent and dedication.
“I’m very appreciative of the student athletes hanging together through adversity,” Jones said. “I really, really knew we got it when we beat UAB on the road. The emotions that were shown that day when we won that game, was the first time I said we could do this. The kids really believed me and hung in there.”
The Sheraton Hawaii Bowl airs Dec. 24 on ESPN from Aloha Stadium in Honolulu, Hawaii at 7 p.m. CDT.
“It’s going to be a great, explosive game,” Sanders said about the chance to play Hawaii. “We both run the same kind of offenses, and I feel like the state of Hawaii really wants to see that game. But at the end of the day it doesn’t really matter who we play. We all just want to experience a bowl game.”