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Armed Forces Bowl has old friends, revived teams

June Jones and Rich Ellerson have another chapter to write in their long friendship.

They were teammates at Hawaii in 1974, and later spent a season there together on the same coaching staff. They played against each other in college, and coached against each other in Canada. And now the old friends will be on opposite sidelines again Thursday, coaching their resurgent teams in the Armed Forces Bowl.

Ellerson has Army (6-6) in its first bowl game since 1996, which was also the last winning season for the Black Knights. SMU (7-6) is in its second consecutive bowl under Jones after a 25-year bowl drought, playing this one at home after a trip to Hawaii last season.

"It's a threshold for our football team, for our football program," said Ellerson, in his second season as Army's coach.

SMU has done nothing but improve since going 1-11 in Jones' first season after he left Hawaii following an undefeated regular season and BCS appearances.

"I feel we have made strides," Jones said. "Last year's team, if you asked me if we were going to win eight games, no. If we're lucky enough to win this game, that will make eight games. I'll say the same thing. ... We're a recruiting class and a half away from being real competitive in the echelon that we would like to be."

But the Mustangs, who had won only 30 games in the 10 seasons before Jones arrived, are making positive strides and people are taking notice. Jones has taken his name out of consideration to be Maryland's new coach after being contacted by representatives for the ACC school.

It was 36 years ago when Jones was a quarterback at Hawaii before transferring to Portland State. Ellerson was a linebacker back then, though he moved to center after Jones left.

"I was staring him down and I never turned my back on him," Ellerson said, smiling when recalling practices at Hawaii, including an interception off his old friend. "We've remained friends. I've been a huge fan of his whether he's playing or coaching through the years."

Both got their first coaching jobs working for Dick Tomey at Hawaii.

Ellerson became a graduate assistant in 1977 when Tomey arrived at Hawaii, and was back there as an assistant from 1981-83. The last of those seasons was when Jones became quarterback coach.

"I'm proud of the job both of them have done," Tomey said by phone from Hawaii, where he lives and will be watching the game on television. "Both have taken on projects that were really difficult, but that suited them both very well. They both have taken some real positive steps forward."

Before coaching again on Tomey's staff at Arizona, Ellerson spent a season as defensive coordinator for Calgary in the CFL. That was 1986, when Jones was offensive coordinator for Ottawa.

When Ellerson was hired, Army was coming off three consecutive 3-9 seasons and had won only 30 games over 12 seasons since their 1996 Independence Bowl appearance.

"We're really excited to be able to play my good friend Rich Ellerson, who has done an unbelievable job," Jones said. "Congratulations to him for taking them that next step to a bowl game."

Jones did that last season for SMU, which hadn't been to a bowl game since 1984 — before NCAA probation and then more infractions that led to the Mustangs being the only team ever given the so-called death penalty.

SMU's program resumed play in 1989 after two canceled seasons, and the Mustangs had only one winning record in that span until last season under Jones, the fifth coach since the death penalty. Last season's Hawaii Bowl appearance came after consecutive one-win seasons.

"Since I've been here, things have changed dramatically," junior left tackle Kelvin Beachum said. "The perception of SMU is starting to change. People are starting to realize that this really is a program that is on the rise."

Now the Mustangs get to play a sold-out bowl game in their own 32,000-seat stadium, though it will be a mixed crowd.

The Armed Forces Bowl is usually played on TCU's campus, but the main grandstand at 80-year-old Amon G. Carter Stadium was brought down earlier this month as part of a $105 million modernizing renovation. Bowl officials said before the season that their game was temporarily moving to SMU, with plans to return to Fort Worth as early as 2011.

Air Force played in the last three Armed Forces Bowls representing the Mountain West Conference. With TCU playing in the Rose Bowl this season, the Mountain West couldn't provide a team, opening a spot for Army under a prearranged agreement.

"Texas is academy friendly. Certainly the greater Dallas area, we have enough posts in that area, we have enough players on our team from that area," Ellerson said. "I don't think it's going to feel like an especially enemy territory. ... We're not going to feel like the home team, but we're not going to feel like strangers either."