Former-AD Steve Orsini’s bark was too big for SMU’s bite The struggle between ambition and apprehension

Anybody remember Steve Orsini? Yeah, I know, it’s probably been a long time since you’ve heard that name. This story is about more than just him. This two-part story analyzes the disconnect between the SMU administration and SMU athletics, and how their mutual inability to be on the same page has been detrimental to the success of SMU athletic programs.

In 2006, SMU hired Steve Orsini as their new athletic director. The decision to hire him was met with both enthusiasm and shock from the SMU community, and mostly just shock from those at the University of Central Florida, many of whom thought it was unfair to have their AD stolen from them by those with a thicker wallet.

Fast-forward to May 17th, 2012: the day Steve Orsini was fired. Very much like his hiring, canning Orsini was met with mixed emotions. The shock was still there, but many in the media were confused by the lack of comment made by SMU’s administration, namely President R. Gerald Turner.

In an official statement following Orsini’s severance, Turner told The Dallas Morning News:

“After several discussions over the last few weeks, it became apparent to me that it was necessary to make this change. While we both are committed to the support of our student-athletes and coaches, a unified effort is required for future progress.

That’s about all that was ever said on the matter.

Now sure, parties disagree all of the time. That’s business. And let me reiterate – college athletics, regardless of any “committed to the support of our student-athletes” philosophical jargon people want to spout, is a business.

In a time on The Hilltop when the athletics business was booming larger than it had in two decades, why was Steve Orsini being fired?

After all, Orsini’s tenure at SMU was revolutionary. If you’ve forgotten the changes made under the Orsini administration, allow me to give you a brief rundown:

Former SMU head basketball coach Matt Doherty at the 2011 Men's Basketball Tip-off Dinner  Photo courtesy: SMU Photographer: Clayton T. Smith

Former SMU head basketball coach Matt Doherty at the 2011 Men’s Basketball Tip-off Dinner
Photo courtesy: SMU
Photographer: Clayton T. Smith

– Hired Matt Doherty, former head coach at Notre Dame, North Carolina, and FAU, as the new head coach of SMU basketball.

– Created the “Circle of Champions,” a group of SMU donors who pledged to contribute $100,000 to SMU athletics over the course of a five year period. (Dallas Observer)

– Increased annual giving to university athletics by double, including a $4.5 million year in 2008: SMU’s best fundraising year at that time. (Dallas Observer)

– Joined the Big East Conference. (However, SMU never competed as a member of the Big East as the conference dissolved shortly after SMU joined.)

– Hired June Jones, former head coach of the Atlanta Falcons, San Diego Chargers, and University of Hawaii Warriors as the new head coach of SMU football.

-Fired Matt Doherty and led a nationwide search for the best basketball coach SMU could find, eventually leading to the hiring of Larry Brown.

A lot of that, if you can’t tell, is actually really impressive – especially for a small private school like SMU.

Now to be fair, some of these accomplishments worked out well (Larry Brown), some of them, not so well. But with Steve Orsini at the helm, nobody can deny that SMU seemed to be going places.

So, how does Steve Orsini end up on the chopping block?

Well, it’s complicated and mysterious.

Firstly, it’s important to know that four months preceding Orsini’s removal, he was offered and agreed to a contract extension that would have made him SMU’s AD through May 2015. What made the relationship between SMU and Orsini so caustic so quickly?

Many speculate the last straw came when Orsini persistently fought President Turner over the basketball coaching hire. Orsini, according to reports, was very adamant on not hiring Larry Brown, while Turner insisted the Hall of Fame coach was the correct path. To Orsini, hiring Brown as head coach was a safe move – which is debatable, considering Brown’s long history of quickly departing franchises.

Orsini eventually did hire Larry Brown, though that decision was most likely made for him by those higher in the administration. Larry Brown was a good call, obviously.

Who would have Orsini picked? Would his hire have worked out? We’ll never know, but this trend of back and forth between Orsini and SMU’s big-wigs most certainly wasn’t a new thing.

Though the hiring of June Jones was well received by the SMU community, that didn’t stop many from viewing the hire as a radical move. I can’t blame them – for a school whose athletic programs resembled more of dormant volcano than anything with any actual potential for more than 20 years, any high-profile hire would have caught some heat.

June Jones on the SMU sidelines at Gerald J. Ford Stadium during a game against UCF in 2011 Photo courtesy: SMU Photographer: Guy Rogers III

June Jones on the SMU sidelines at Gerald J. Ford Stadium during a game against UCF in 2011
Photo courtesy:SMU
Photographer: Guy Rogers III

Secondly, in an article shortly following Orsini’s termination, The Dallas Observer suggested the large amounts of cash Orsini was bringing in contributed to his downfall. In order to grow an athletics program, you need capital. The creation of the “Circle of Champions” and the overall increase of donations led to an extraordinary amount of money being exchanged by the university, a quantity of funds not seen since the days SMU paid its players. Was Turner afraid that Orsini’s work was drawing too much attention to the university? Was Turner pressured to spread any of this wealth to academic endeavors?

Thirdly, according to reports, many of Orsini’s actions and plans for SMU athletics were not as well received by SMU officials. Many believed Orsini’s style of business was too aggressive for the small private university. In fact, many speculated that he was only interested in joining the Big East because the higher power of the university was afraid to pursue Orsini’s larger goal of landing the Mustangs in the Big 12.

In an interview on September 3rd, 2011, Orsini stated, “We want stability in the regional conference that meets our objective, and that right now would be defined as the Big 12.” 

“Regionalism is a sign of strength, and we feel expansion, especially in the latest trends, is a sign of strength, and we feel we can help an AQ conference in both of those areas.”

“When we were affiliated with those schools in this region, we were competing very successfully. We have a lot of conference championships in the Southwest Conference to show for it…We’re ready. It took us a long time to rebound from the historic low that hit here, but that was 25 years ago. There are no signs of that anymore.”

Considering the Big 12 never reciprocated the love Orsini showed them, it’s easy to see how Orsini may have been thinking unrealistically. SMU was not ready, the Big 12 didn’t want the Mustangs, yet Orsini continued to pursue a direction for SMU athletics that many were uncomfortable with.

While SMU touted his accomplishments and celebrated his victories in the public eye, it sounds like the university was hiding varying levels of animosity towards Orsini behind closed doors.

If you believe any of the speculation I’ve noted above, it’s easy to feel bad for Orsini. It legitimately seems as if SMU stuck him with the short end of the stick. Turner claimed in his statement that a unified effort would be required to make progress. When SMU hired Orsini, they knew they were hiring a progressive leader who would attempt to take SMU athletics to a new level. Why did SMU hire an ambitious AD only to seemingly curb his efforts every step of the way?

Unfortunately, the buck didn’t stop with Orsini – by far.

This trend of SMU not fully committing to the growth of its athletic programs continued into some much more recent history, and may have been the leading cause of the departure of one of SMU’s most successful coaches in recent memory. June Jones…

Keep it locked on The Stable…Part 2 of this story on how the higher powers at SMU may be inadvertently creating a glass ceiling for some athletic programs is coming soon!

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2 years ago
Written by Reece Graham
Staff writer for The Stable Sports. Reece is currently pursuing Journalism and B.F.A. Theatre Studies degrees at Southern Methodist University. Passionate about country music, sweet tea, baseball, pro wrestling, and being a Mustang.