Contrary to what you may have read lately, there’s no black cloud looming over Southern Methodist University. Ominous music doesn’t waft over campus. Unsettling groans don’t emanate from the statue in Doak Walker Plaza. Students walking past Gerald J. Ford Stadium1 don’t quicken their pace or hide their faces in shame. Inside, tumbleweeds don’t drift across a lonely, ashen field. SMU players don’t avoid eye contact. They’re not gaunt, or pale, or in any apparent need of blankets.
Named for this Gerald Ford, not the one you’re thinking of.
On the contrary: On Thursday, the Dallas morning is clear and cool, and the only sounds are of pads popping and horns blaring to signal the end of another practice. It’s a little more than 48 hours before kickoff against Metroplex rival TCU, an annual collision known locally as the “Battle for the Iron Skillet,” and the Mustangs are optimistic.
“The past is the past,” says junior quarterback Garrett Krstich, who expects to make his first career start against the Horned Frogs. “I think we’re ready to go this week.”
By “the past,” Krstich means the past three games, which — objectively speaking — have gone about as poorly as possible for football games to go. In its first game, SMU served as sacrificial lamb for Baylor in the debut of the Bears’ new stadium, finishing with just 67 yards of offense in a 45-0 slaughter. The following week, the Mustangs were trounced by North Texas, 43-6, prompting the abrupt resignation of head coach June Jones because of, in his words, “some personal issues.” (Jones’s agent, Leigh Steinberg, posted on Twitter that “June had felt for some time he had accomplished [his] mission to turn around [the] program and needed a break.”) Eric Dickerson, arguably the most famous SMU alum this side of Laura Bush, reacted to Jones’s departure by publicly blasting the administration for failing to make football a priority:
“I talked to four former players yesterday, and we all said if they don’t want to do anything, just kill the program,” Dickerson told 105.3 KRLD-FM in Dallas … “Just stick to academics and basketball and kill that program.
“It’s so frustrating for us to watch SMU become nothing but a laughingstock or almost nonexistent. It’s almost like it doesn’t exist.”
Last week, following a bye, the Mustangs reinforced their existence in an unfortunate way, showing up for an all-but-inevitable 58-6 blowout against Texas A&M. After, defensive coordinator turned interim head coach Tom Mason described his role as “a cheerleader on the sideline.” SMU ranks last nationally in total offense and scoring offense, having recorded just one touchdown, on the final play of the debacle against North Texas. (No other FBS team has scored fewer than four touchdowns.) The starting quarterback in the first two games, sophomore Neal Burcham, has been ruled out for the season with an elbow injury, leaving the job to Krstich, a walk-on who began the season as the fourth-stringer. To earn the start against TCU, Krstich had to pass two other quarterbacks on the depth chart, A&M transfer Matt Davis and redshirt freshman Kolney Cassel, whose first career start, against the Aggies, lasted just one quarter before he was pulled for Krstich.
So what does a team do when it’s been outscored 146 to 12, its head coach has called it quits, and its greatest living player is openly lamenting the state of the program? The only thing it can do: Get back to work.
“Collectively as a team we all realize that none of that really matters, what other people are saying,” says senior safety Hayden Greenbauer, one of four remaining starters from the Mustangs’ last notable victory, a 43-10 shocker over heavily favored Fresno State in the 2012 Hawaii Bowl. “If we’re going to get this thing turned around, it’s up to us to stay positive and realize that we still have nine games left to play. We haven’t even played a conference game yet, and we’ve played some really good teams. … We all realize that there’s a lot to accomplish, and there’s still a lot to play for.”
Under the circumstances, it’s easy to dismiss the power-of-positive-thinking response as boilerplate. What else is he going to say? But Greenbauer and his peers come by their optimism honestly: In his first three seasons on campus (including his redshirt freshman season in 2010), SMU won 22 games and played in three consecutive bowls. (The Mustangs also made the postseason the year before his arrival, in 2009.) From that vantage point, last year’s slide to 5-7 was an aberration, and this year’s wholesale collapse is unprecedented. Of course, the old-timers know better: In the two decades between the “death penalty” levied by the NCAA in 1987 and Jones’s arrival in 2008, SMU managed just one winning season, didn’t play in a bowl game, and fell several rungs in the national pecking order following the dissolution of the Southwest Conference. They recall suffering through back-to-back 1-11 campaigns as recently as 2007-08. From their perspective, the short-lived flirtation with respectability under Jones looks like a blip on the radar.
This isn’t the first time Mason has served as cheerleader-in-chief amid an encroaching barrage of negativity. In 1996, under arguably more dire circumstances, Mason served 10 games as the interim head coach at Boise State, which was in its first season as a I-A program;2 the Broncos went 1-9 on his watch, with the lone victory coming against a I-AA team, Portland State. This time around, Mason says, he “had no clue” before anyone else did that Jones was planning to step down, and was “not prepared for it at all.”3 He sees no reason to sugarcoat the situation, nor to call it a season before the Mustangs’ first conference game. His first day on the job, Mason told the team it had hit rock bottom in the loss to North Texas, meaning mainly that it had nowhere to go but up.
Mason’s boss at the time, Pokey Allen, took a leave of absence to undergo cancer treatments, but eventually returned for the final two games.
Understandably, no one I spoke to was willing to say on the record that Jones’s departure was foreshadowed in any way. Reading between the lines, however, it was clear that by the end of the 2013 season, some wires had been crossed or were missing altogether.
“You know, you’ve gotta give them something to believe in; if they don’t have anything to believe in, then you’re going to lose them,” says Mason, whose most tangible change has been to increase the tempo and intensity of practices. “I’m trying to be real upbeat and positive for these kids. When I took the job, that was the one thing I promised myself, that I’m doing this for the kids. Because otherwise I wouldn’t have taken it.”
The schedule is not on his side. Before the season, even the most insanely optimistic SMU partisans would have conceded the likelihood of losses to Baylor and Texas A&M, albeit not by a combined margin of 97 points. The three upcoming games against TCU, East Carolina, and Cincinnati, on the other hand, initially offered a glimmer of hope that no longer exists. TCU is coming off a thorough, 30-7 whipping of Minnesota;4 ECU and its swashbuckling offense have claimed back-to-back upsets over Virginia Tech and North Carolina; and Cincinnati was the preseason favorite to win the conference championship in the American. There are a few winnable games in the second half of the season, most notably against AAC doormats Memphis, South Florida, and Connecticut, but if a deflating 0-3 start becomes a deflating 0-6 start, how much positivity could possibly be left in the tank?
The Horned Frogs are listed as 31.5- to 33-point favorites on Saturday.
“I told them, we got nine football games left,” Mason says. “We win six out of that nine [thereby qualifying for a bowl game], we’ve done something not a lot of people can do. I really believe we can do that.”
Maybe. At this point, “believer” might as well be Mason’s full job description. The hard part, however, isn’t convincing himself; it’s keeping the locker room onboard as the outside world insists the Mustangs are on a sinking ship.