After morning practice wraps up and before he has to do anything else, SMU football coach June Jones likes to take a walk. Usually he goes with an assistant coach, and usually they walk around the perimeter of Gerald J. Ford Stadium. It takes Jones 15 or 20 minutes, depending on how his ex-quarterback knees are feeling.
Even if his knees are up to it, he never goes very fast. Tan and tall, Jones maintains the unhurried pace of a golfer coming off the 18th green. If you happened to see him ambling along one morning, you wouldn’t mistake it for exercise. These post-practice strolls are his way to unwind and reflect.
On an October Thursday, there was a fair amount to think about, beyond that Saturday’s game against Southern Miss. (The Mustangs would stumble on the road, 27–3.) A few weeks earlier, SMU had beaten a nationally ranked TCU team in Fort Worth, arguably the program’s biggest win since Jones took over before the 2008 season. Big enough that SMU, left for dead after suffering the NCAA’s death penalty in 1987, was almost back among the elite, suddenly rumored to be on the short list to join a reconstituted Big East Conference.
“I don’t think it would have happened if we hadn’t beat TCU,” Jones said, once he returned from his walk. His voice echoed in the cylindrical foyer of the Paul B. Loyd Jr. All-Sports Center, where his office is. “I think everything’s changed in the last 15 to 20 days.”
That change was only a precursor for what was to come. Less than two months later, on December 7, SMU did, indeed, accept an invitation to join the Big East in 2013. That morning, though, came news that overshadowed what should have been the pinnacle of a decades-long rebuilding effort: Jones was leaving, bound for Arizona State.
By the end of the day, Jones remained at SMU after (according to sources) Arizona State rescinded the contract offer that (according to sources) Jones was set to sign because (according to sources) Arizona State balked when its fans and boosters took to Twitter and various other social media to protest the hire. It was a rogue wave that briefly upset the calm waters of pre-bowl-season December. It came out of nowhere, disappeared just as quickly, and no one could (or would) explain it. The closest anyone came to doing so, on the record, was Jones’ long-time agent, Leigh Steinberg.
“Just had one of the most bizarre endings to a set of productive discussions to bring a client to a new situation,” Steinberg wrote on his blog. “Everything was set, few tweaks left, and the principal decision maker yanks the deal w no real explanation.”
What actually happened? I’ve heard plenty of conspiracy theories too far off the record to mention. Most involve former superagent Steinberg, who, according to an April Sports Illustrated story, is “a bankrupt, recovering alcoholic, plotting a comeback from the bottom,” working out of a storefront office—a far cry from the days when he was the model for Tom Cruise’s Jerry Maguire. No longer certified to represent NFL players, Steinberg’s client list now includes Jones and a handful of others.
At the time, Arizona State would say only that, yes, Jones was under consideration at one point, but the university decided to go in a different direction. (It ended up hiring Pittsburgh coach Todd Graham.) Eric Dickerson, the former SMU star from its Pony Express heyday and Jones’ close friend dating back to their time with the Atlanta Falcons, never really asked.
“I talked to him kind of after everything had settled down,” Dickerson says. “I didn’t want to get into that. I know June. June’s a real ethical guy. If something was true, he was doing it for a reason.”
Eight months later, Jones isn’t commenting, preferring to focus on the future. And Steinberg, despite his blog post, claims it never was that close to happening: “I never had the okay to make a deal.”
“You perpetually have, with someone like June, calls from pro teams that would like him back in the NFL, and calls from different college teams,” Steinberg says from his office in Costa Mesa, California. “ASU got publicized, but it wasn’t the only one. There were two other head coaching jobs he was offered. It would be irresponsible not to at least take a look at what they’re talking about. I sort of took a look at it. It was a strange set of discussions. I’ll leave it at that.”
That strange day in December is in stark contrast to when Jones decided to leave the University of Hawaii (“his dream job,” according to Dickerson), after spending almost a decade remaking the program and becoming something just short of a god in the state in the process. Knowing it was finally time to go, Jones reached out to Dickerson after Hawaii’s final regular season game, telling him that if the SMU job were offered to him, he’d take it. But—and this was important—no one could know until after the team’s appearance in the Sugar Bowl. SMU kept the secret for 70 days.
“I said, ‘I can’t interview. If my name comes out in public, if I read it in the paper, I will not come,’ ” Jones told me. “It just blew me away that my name never came up.”
As we talked back then, Jones said he had no idea when he’d leave SMU, and he certainly didn’t sound like someone who had had an agent looking into other offers. But he did say something telling. As far as the future, he said, he had only one goal for SMU: life without
“My biggest thing when I came here was that I wanted to, just like Hawaii, build it so that it could sustain if I wasn’t here,” Jones said. “But I believe there are a lot of interesting things that are going to happen.”