SMU, a former Southwest Conference superpower brought low by the one and only death penalty ever handed down by the NCAA, has long been seen as the ultimate rebuilding job. The program has never remotely recovered from the late '80s, was relegated to the hinterlands of Conference USA, and cycled through five head coaches in the 25 years since.
Now in the American, it holds the promise of fertile Texas recruiting and football-crazed Dallas. June Jones saw it, leaving a comfortable perch at Hawaii to take over in 2008. By his second season, Jones had the Mustangs in the Hawaii Bowl, their first postseason appearance since 1984. He followed with three more bowl trips before a downturn and personal issues sent him to the exits Monday. Defensive coordinator Tom Mason takes over as interim.
There could be plenty of coaches interested in replacing Jones. Here are a few possibilities.
Tom Herman: Offensive coordinator, Ohio State
Herman was at the top of the list of hot coordinators during last year's coaching carousel. The 39-year-old offensive coordinator is an Ohio native, but has plenty of experience in Texas.
He made his name during a two-year stint as offensive coordinator at Rice from 2007-2008, and has worked as an assistant at Texas, Texas State, Sam Houston State, and Texas Lutheran. Herman has spearheaded OSU's recruiting efforts in Texas, landing four-star offensive lineman Demetrius Knox from the Metroplex. And like Jones, he is an offensive innovator who could give SMU an advantage to overcome talent deficiency.
Chad Morris: Offensive coordinator, Clemson
Like Herman, Morris is a young coordinator with ties to Texas whom many see as a future head coach. He is a native of Edgewood, Texas and a graduate of Texas A&M who coached from 1994 through 2009 at some of the state's most illustrious high school programs, including two state titles.
Since then, he's worked his way to becoming the highest-paid assistant coach in college football, earning $1.3 million per year. He was interested in the Texas Tech job two years ago, and according to Football Scoop, would be interested in SMU:
Chad Morris will deny it until offered to him but he would love to be the next head coach at SMU. Plenty of Mustangs would love that too— FootballScoop Staff (@footballscoop) September 8, 2014
SMU paid June Jones $1.9 million per season, a number it might have to increase if it is to lure Morris from Clemson.
Philip Montgomery: Offensive coordinator, Baylor
It was time
It was time
If the Mustangs want the hottest offense in college football, the ideal candidate could be just down I-35. Montgomery has been Art Briles' right-hand man for about a decade. As quarterbacks coach, he has overseen Robert Griffin III and Bryce Petty, plus Houston's Kevin Kolb before that. He also has the ties to Texas high school football needed for recruiting.
He commands almost no media attention, and in fact appears to avoid the spotlight. Former Baylor quarterback Nick Florence told ESPN last year that Montgomery "doesn't like" national attention. That demeanor might be reflected in recruiting, where despite Baylor's star-studded classes, Montgomery has been credited only with a handful of modest recruits.
Mark Hudspeth: Head coach, Louisiana-Lafayette
Hudspeth doesn't have the same Texas ties as other candidates -- he has spent most of his time in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama -- but he has one thing that most others don't: actual college head coaching experience.
He posted a 66-21 record in seven seasons at Division II North Alabama. He followed it with three consecutive nine-win seasons at Louisiana-Lafayette, doubling the number of nine-win campaigns in the 113-year history of Ragin' Cajuns football. He brought home the 2013 Sun Belt title, the school's first since 2005, and won three consecutive New Orleans Bowls.
Josh Heupel: Co-offensive coordinator, Oklahoma
Much of 2014's in-vogue offense stems from Bob Stoops. From those early Stoops teams came Mike Leach and Kevin Sumlin, who in turn boosted the likes of Briles, Dana Holgorsen, and Kliff Kingsbury. So if you're looking for the hot offense, why not go back to the source and grab Josh Heupel, quarterback under Leach and Mark Mangino and longtime assistant in Norman?
Heupel is only 36, but has ample experience, having started as a GA in 2004 and called the plays since 2011. He was quarterbacks coach for Sam Bradford, and has successfully recruited Texas for years. He was reportedly in the running for the opening at Arkansas State last year, a comparable program to SMU.
Butch Davis: ESPN analyst
The first name mentioned by many.
Davis is an Oklahoma native and former Southwest Conference defensive end at Arkansas who cut his teeth on Jimmy Johnson's coaching staffs at Oklahoma State, Miami, and with the Dallas Cowboys. He was successful in head coaching stints at Miami and North Carolina.
But while Davis was untouched by scandals at Miami and eventually vindicated of involvement in North Carolina's, the mere thought of a coach caught up in a player payment scandal taking over at SMU, home of the most notorious player payment scandal in the history of the game, is incomprehensible.
Mario Cristobal: Offensive line coach, Alabama
The 43-year-old former head coach has spent the last two years on the staff at Alabama after being the victim of an absurdly unjust firing at Florida International. FIU had been a Sun Belt also-ran, but by his fourth season, Cristobal had the Golden Panthers tying for the Sun Belt title. After a 3-9 downturn in 2012, he was terminated, and FIU went back to the bottom of the pile.
Cristobal does not have any ties to Texas, but could make up for that with dogged determination on the recruiting trail. Since joining Nick Saban's staff, Cristobal has landed recruits from as far away as Minnesota and California. His ties to Florida could actually open additional recruiting territory for SMU.
Jake Spavital: Offensive coordinator, Texas A&M
Spavital, who replaced Kliff Kingsbury as A&M's offensive coordinator in 2013 despite being just 28 years old, has flown up the coaching ranks. He has the pedigree: He worked with Sumlin at Houston before departing with Holgorsen, first for Oklahoma State and then West Virginia.
He obviously knows Sumlin's offense, which is likely enough to get him some consideration, and he successfully recruited four-star quarterback Kyler Murray for Sumlin this year. But unless A&M's offense can keep up its current top-five pace through its SEC schedule, Spavital's resume doesn't stack up with other potential candidates. And 29 is still extremely young for a program of SMU's stature.
Rick Neuheisel: Pac-12 Network analyst
There might not be a job that Neuheisel wouldn't take. He's been the head coach at Colorado, Washington, and UCLA. He was an NFL assistant. He nearly got fired at Washington for pursuing the San Francisco 49ers job. He even volunteered as a high school head coach after being fired at Washington.
Now throw in this factoid: Neuheisel's son is a sophomore wide receiver at SMU.
Neuheisel's thrived when taking over already-successful programs, but his one chance at a true rebuild, a four-year stint at UCLA, ended with a 21-29 overall record. And he has no experience in Texas. Plus, Neuheisel's really good at TV.