By KATE HAIROPOULOS
The Dallas Morning News
UNIVERSITY PARK – SMU coach June Jones normally looks anywhere but at the field at the end of close games. But Saturday afternoon at Ford Stadium, he took it all in.
"Gotta see this one," he said.
The Mustangs had regained the lead with 5:23 to play and held on to edge Tulane, 26-21. Most significantly, SMU secured the program's second winning season in 20 years and first bowl bid since 1984 and the NCAA-imposed death penalty in 1987.
SMU (7-5, 6-2 Conference USA) will almost certainly head to the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl for the Dec. 24 game and multi-colored leis and aloha signs were easy to spot in the announced crowd of 20,335. An official announcement is pending. David A.K. Matlin, the executive director of the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl, was in attendance the only time he's attended a game this season.
SMU still has a slim chance it could play at East Carolina in the C-USA title game if Rice upsets Houston tonight.
"They're excited, and they realized the goal," said Jones of the 12 seniors SMU honored after the game. "But I don't think they really get it yet. They talk about the Pony Express and all that, well, guess what, they're going to talk about you guys from here on. I really believe that."
SMU, coming off its second straight 1-11 season, has improved by six wins from 2008, the best single-season improvement ever at SMU.