MELISSA – It was 20 years ago this fall that Melissa head football coach Seth Stinton was a starting safety on SMU’s first post-Death Penalty team with a winning record. And like the Mustangs’ first post-DP win — a wild 31-30 defeat of Connecticut in ’89 — the 6-5 mark in ’97 is a memorable milestone in SMU’s sometimes torturous/still not complete road back to big-time relevance. The NCAA imposed the infamous punishment on the school in 1987.

“Our class that went to SMU (in ‘93) was going to be the class to kind of get things going in the right direction,” Stinton said recently from his fieldhouse office at Melissa High School. “We played extremely hard every game. No matter who we were playing, we were going to give our very best effort. … I think we were a lot better than what our record was – every year. I really do. There had been so many things that had gone wrong for us forever.”

After highly successful years with the Van Alstyne Panthers in the early ‘90s, Stinton would learn the other side of football as a scholarship athlete at SMU — the stacked-losses side, the recurring-heartbreak side. Getting to and through that first winning season in ‘97 was a grind — ’94 and ‘95 netted one win each — and even when the Ws goal was reached, a gut-punch no one expected followed in Fort Worth.

All this and more no doubt contributed to Stinton’s quiet grit and determination today as a head coach — one with a state football title to his credit. Those SMU days, played in the DP’s destructive wake, perhaps also showed him that no matter how supposedly out-manned a team was, a resolute effort with proper leadership could have remarkable results. To wit, during that time, the Mustangs knocked off Arkansas three years in a row — once when the Razorbacks wound up SEC West champs; they tied No. 7 Texas A&M in San Antonio; and gave No. 13 UCLA all it wanted in the Rose Bowl. There were other near-misses against big-name programs as well.

This period was also marked by turbulent change at SMU: the demise of the 83-year-old Southwest Conference — the only league the school had known; a new head coach one year after the conference change; and a move from on-campus Ownby Stadium back to the Cotton Bowl.

Guard Trey Bandy, who helped blast paths for SMU’s ‘97 offense that rushed for a hair under 200 yards per game, coached with Stinton at Frisco Liberty High for a time. The two remain close.

“Seth was a consummate team guy, just like he is as a coach,” Bandy said by phone. “I think anybody would tell you Seth (at 6-feet, 200 pounds) really played above himself. And he was definitely not one afraid of contact either. You combine those things with his intelligence — Seth was a dad-gum good football player. He’s one of the most athletic guys I’ve ever played with.”

Early winner

Though Stinton lives in Melissa with his wife Holly and their three children, Ally, Avery and Knox, he still calls Van Alstyne “my home town.”

“I always bleed a little bit of blue,” he said.

Stinton’s parents, Tom Stinton and Kate Keating, are in Van Alstyne as well.

Growing up there, Stinton idolized ‘80s Panthers stars like quarterback Derek Bengston and running back Billy Wilson.

“They were seniors when I was in the fifth grade,” he said. “Those were the guys I wanted to emulate.”

Then-Van Alstyne head coach Marc McDaniel had also established a winning tradition, he added.

For young Stinton and his teammates the winning came easy. Well, not easy — but quite doable. Starting in sixth grade through their freshman years in high school, the group never suffered a loss. And with Stinton as the varsity Panthers’ starting quarterback and free safety from his sophomore year on, the wins kept coming — with only a handful of defeats. In 1990, Van Alstyne posted an 8-2 mark; a year later they advanced to the regional semifinals with double-digit wins; and in ‘92, the Panthers made it to the regional finals, finishing 12-1-1.

By phone from Mt. Pleasant, McDaniel called Stinton “a true leader, both on and off the field.”

He noted that Stinton was also the team’s punter, point-after kicker, and punt and kickoff return man as well.

“He rarely came off the field,” he said. “Certainly, Seth was a dedicated player and also an all-out player. He got hurt a couple of times, just playing all-out. He was always going 100 percent.”

Was McDaniel surprised Stinton would play four years of Division I-A ball then win a state title as a head coach?

“Not at all,” he said. “Besides being a good player, he was a student of the game and thus became an excellent coach.”

With good grades and his Panther resume, Stinton was highly recruited to play college ball. The Air Force Academy showed some interest as Van Alstyne ran a similar offense, but loads of smaller schools also contacted Stinton. He’d about decided to play quarterback for Abilene’s McMurry University when SMU stepped up with an offer after weeks of steady attention.

“That was a no-brainer,” Stinton said. “It was a good opportunity — to go to a place like SMU and get an education and to get to play Southwest Conference football. … It was a good time for me, for my family, to get to do that.”

Big league

It didn’t take long for Stinton to realize SWC football would be quite different than his Panther days.

“I can remember being one of the biggest guys in my high school,” he said. “And leaving Van Alstyne and going to SMU, I was not a very big guy. That was really eye-opening for me. … I knew I had a lot of work to do.”

Then-SMU head coach Tom Rossley had logged a 5-6 mark in ’92 which earned him SWC Co-Coach of the Year honors with A&M’s R.C. Slocum. But in ’93, the Mustangs dropped back to 2-7-2, with ties against Houston and Missouri.

As a redshirt freshman in ‘94 Stinton saw playing time, including at UCLA in a game the heavily-favored Bruins survived, 17-10.

“That was a great experience,” he said. “We had a chance to win.”

Other tough pills and highlights from ‘94 included a 28-24 home loss to Mack Brown’s No. 18 North Carolina Tar Heels and a stunning 21-21 tie with No. 7 Texas A&M in San Antonio. The next year, in Stinton’s first game as a starter, No. 22 A&M got by SMU in College Station, 20-17, on an iffy touchdown grab with 8 seconds left. That season had kicked off with a 17-14 win over Arkansas in the Mustangs’ first game back in the Cotton Bowl.

Stinton said the team welcomed the ’96 move to the Western Athletic Conference.

“We just felt like we had an opportunity to win the conference,” he said. “There were some good teams in there — BYU was one of them. … But just leaving and getting to go play different people, I know our administration and everybody was excited about getting the opportunity to go to different places.”

In ’96, after opening 2-0 for the first time since ‘85 a 1-point loss to Missouri at home was SMU’s third narrow defeat in four weeks. The Mustangs rallied for three wins down the stretch to finish even in the WAC, but at 5-6 overall Rossley was fired at season’s end. He went on to coach nine years in the NFL, including six as the Green Bay Packers’ offensive coordinator. Rossley closed out his career with a three-year run as quarterbacks coach at Texas A&M.

“He was just a solid man, a good person,” Stinton said. “You could tell he was well respected everywhere. … It was one of those things where he needed to win that year. We were close.”

Cavan cometh

Mike Cavan, a former Georgia quarterback who’d led the Bulldogs to an SEC title, took over in ’97. Stinton recalled, “It was totally different. He was a lot more enthusiastic.”

Quarterbacking the Mustangs were senior dual-threat Ramon Flanigan — still the school’s career total-yardage leader (7,437) — and Flower Mound Marcus’s Chris Sanders. Donte Womack and Kelsey Adams were the workhorse running backs. On defense, SMU had future NFL players Chris Bordano at linebacker and cornerbacks Donald Mitchell and Jacoby Rinehart.

“There were some good football players in there,” Stinton said. “I felt blessed to be on the field and get to play.”

After a season-opening loss at Ole Miss, SMU picked up its third-straight win over Arkansas, this time 31-9 rout in Shreveport. With his grandparents in the stands seeing him play for the first time, Stinton had one of his best games: a team-high eight tackles (with Bordano), a 16-yard sack, a fumble recovery and two pass breakups.

“We’d had their number for some reason,” Stinton said. “I guess they thought we weren’t very good or something. I’m not sure. But getting to play them and beat them was a big deal for us.”

Adversity returned, though, with a blow-out loss to Navy, an OT decision to No. 23 BYU and a one-TD defeat at New Mexico. Slumping then at 1-4, SMU gutted out a 20-19 win at Utah to ignite a five-game win streak, the Mustangs’ longest since ’84. The 42-41 win at Tulsa in Week 10 clinched a winning season.

“It was a 1-point game,” Stinton recalled, “but we were beating them pretty good. … As a big group of seniors, we were really excited about leaving SMU knowing we were going to be winners.”

Still needing another victory in those days to secure a bowl, 6-4 SMU faced winless TCU in the regular-season finale in Fort Worth. The Mustangs looked to be on their way to the WAC championship game and their first bowl in 13 years. Stinton was sidelined on crutches for this one after an injury at Tulsa.

“I knew for sure we were going to win and get to play in a bowl game,” he said. “But it was one of those deals where you realize it’s going to be your last college game.”

Indeed, the crushing 21-18 loss brought the curtain down early on SMU — but still, the benchmark had been reached.

“A big reason we went there,” Bandy recalled, “was to try and build something – from the ashes, so to speak. That season we felt like we kind of accomplished something, we were on the right path to bringing SMU back. … It would’ve been nice to have been more than 6-5 but, for who we were, 6-5 was pretty special. It’s been 20 years ago now and, personally speaking, I think about it often.”

Cavan coached for four more years at SMU, without another winning season. Today, he is Director of Football Administration at the University of Georgia.

On to Melissa

After graduating SMU in ’98 with a B.A. in History, Stinton returned to Van Alstyne as a varsity assistant coach. He moved up to defensive coordinator in 2001 — the year the Panthers advanced to the 2A Division I state championship game.

“I wasn’t a very good defensive coordinator,” Stinton said, “but we had a bunch of great kids. Randy Matthews was our head coach. He kind of mentored me, helped me be a better defensive coach. It was a good learning time for me.”

After stops at Frisco Liberty and Allen, Stinton arrived in Melissa in 2007 and assumed the program’s reins two years later. From there, Cardinals fans know the rest: Melissa topped Hempstead, 28-15, for the 2011 2A Division I state championship at then-Cowboys Stadium in Arlington – and Stinton had come full circle. But while overjoyed for the team and for the community, perhaps the winning wasn’t what he valued most.

“You don’t realize it at the time,” he said, “but as a coach you get to impact young people’s lives. That’s really why, as a coach, you’re doing what you’re doing. It’s not about winning football games or any of that other stuff. It’s about that fact that you get to mentor young people and be around a bunch of good young kids and coaches. That’s the most important part for me.”

Stinton said he remains grateful to former Melissa athletic director and football coach Ronny Williams, who hired him at both Van Alstyne and Melissa. “He gave me an opportunity to be the head coach at Melissa and was a great mentor.”

And all these years later, Stinton still sees his SMU playing days in positive terms.

“That experience has helped me be a better coach,” he said, “because things don’t go well all the time. … That’s one of the biggest things I talk to our kids about: How are you going to respond when bad things happen to you? In life, when you get to be older, and even as a young kid, bad things happen.”

“The decision for me to go to SMU was one of the best ones of my life. To get an opportunity to say, ‘Hey, I graduated from SMU’ is a pretty big deal. … Some of my very best memories are being there, being around the guys in that locker room. We were a close group.”

By no means done, Stinton is preparing for his ninth head coaching campaign at Melissa. Last year, the Cards rebounded from a disappointing 2015 season with an 8-4 bi-district-champion team — and they appear primed for a deep run this fall.

As for the future of SMU football, Stinton said he thinks the school has a winner in current head coach Chad Morris.

“I think he is passionate and so enthusiastic, and kids love him,” he said. “The coaches that come by here love working for him. … They’re going to win. They’re building momentum right now.”