When Chad Morris first took over at SMU in 2015, he knew turning around a once proud program marred by the notorious ‘Death Penalty’ would be an uphill battle.

Yes, SMU had seen some moderate success under June Jones, who was once deemed as the program’s savior, but he ultimately dipped out of Dallas just one game into the 2015 season and left the program in a state of disarray.

Jones seemed to simply give up after accepting the head coach job at Arizona State in 2011 only to see the Sun Devils rescind their offer. Jones failed to recruit, and all the good he did on the field was for naught.

So what did SMU do following the end of the June Jones era?

The Mustangs went out and hired the anti-June Jones. Morris embraced Texas high school coaches, charmed fans with his East Texas twang as opposed to alienating them with a stoic attitude. He promised a true culture change.

While the latter isn’t completely finished, Morris is delivering. The Mustangs picked up their coveted sixth win of the year as they knocked off Tulsa on Friday night on national television to earn bowl eligibility for the first time since 2012.

SMU Head Coach Chad Morris. Courtesy USA TODAY Sports
“This is something we’ve worked hard for,” Morris said. “We talked all week about hope, about belief and about the journey we’ve been on. It started 1,062 days ago. The first day and every day along the way, we’ve piled decisions and work ethic. It truly has been one day at a time. “There has been great says, but there has been dreary and rainy days. Growth was happening. The roots were underneath the soil. The culture was taking shape. While this is just the sixth win, this is a big win.”

SMU finished 2-10 in its first year under Morris but showed signs of improvement last year, seeing a three-win increase. This season has truly been the breakout year for Morris and the program.

SMU is 6-2 for the first time since 1984 and 5-0 at home for the first time since 1982. In those years, SMU was known as one of college football’s true powerhouse programs.

The Mustangs received the ‘Death Penalty’ following the 1986 season due to multiple infractions, including paying players. SMU was not allowed to play in 1987 and suspended itself in 1988 as a number of players transferred out of the program.

Though the ‘Death Penalty’ has haunted SMU ever since, Morris and his Ponies may be back on the right path.

“This is a step in the direction we have to have to raise the bar for this program,” Morris said. “It’s been said that this is a program trending across college football. There is no doubt in my mind that the SMU Mustangs are trending with what we have been able to do.”

Morris is doing everything the right way on the Hilltop. His first two classes of recruits at SMU were all from Texas high schools, and he welcomed more than 1,000 coaches on campus for spring ball.

Gordon Deloach/TexasHSFootball

Not only that, Morris upped SMU’s recruiting game with innovative videos and graphics. He also introduced the ‘TempoCopter,’ which he uses to see key prospects on Thursday and Friday nights.

But it’s not just about recruiting. At the end of each week, Morris immerses himself with the student body and gives them rides to class. He’s also welcomed back several former players, including Eric Dickerson, who actually served as an honorary captain in that iconic win over Tulsa.

It’s never been about just winning football games at SMU. Morris’ blueprints called for an entire program facelift.

“This is why these guys came to SMU,” Morris said. “We talked about it in the hotel — why you chose to come to SMU when it wasn’t popular, why you chose to believe in a coaching staff that was just coming in, why you chose to stay when others said it wasn’t going to happen. The why became the how. The how is what you saw (against Tulsa). The how was the fight. The how was an opportunity. The 1,062-day journey started with a single mentality. That’s how.”

But the journey isn’t quite over just yet.

If Morris decides to spurn some potential big suitors this offseason, SMU has the chance to be a truly special program for years to come. While it might not be in the position to return to its Southwest Conference glory day, it can be a yearly contender in the American Athletic Conference and possibly the next P5 school to rock the college football world.

All of that starts this weekend as SMU takes on undefeated UCF, which came in at No. 18 in the new College Football Playoff rankings. It offers a tremendous opportunity for the Mustangs, who are alive in the race for a spot in the conference title game, to make an even bigger statement.

“We’ve got a lot of things that are in front of us, but we have to worry about being 1-0 today,” Morris said. “We’re bringing in a very very good football program in Central Florida. They are one of the few undefeated teams in college football.

“You set yourself up for these opportunities. You work extremely hard for these opportunities. To be able to know that in the month of November that this program can control its own destiny is all you can ask for, especially considering where we were just 24 short months ago.”

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