SMU back in the big time in the Big East

DALLAS – In front of alumni, students, faculty and coaches at the Hughes-Trigg Student Center on Thursday, school president R. Gerald Turner announced that SMU has officially reached a level of national prominence that the university hasn’t seen since the days of the Southwest Conference.

At the celebration event for alumni and students, Turner announced that SMU will officially become a member of the Big East conference in all sports on July 1, 2013.

In attendance at the event, alongside Turner, was Big East commissioner John Marinatto, who personally accepted SMU into the Big East fold. Marinatto was greeted with an SMU football helmet, presented by the student body president.

The prize of this Mustangs victory, on the surface, is the chance to sit at the big boys' table in football with a BCS automatic qualifying bid opportunity through a Big East championship.

However, the treasure in SMU’s big move east is the financial gains the university will see in conference TV revenues and bowl payouts. That money will help resurrect aspects of the Mustangs' athletic department that had been downsized or eliminated due to budget cuts and financial problems faced as a mid-major school in Conference USA.

With a fatter pocketbook, SMU will make it a top priority to reestablish a marketing department within athletics to hopefully raise attendance at home events, athletic director Steve Orsini said.

Since the days of the football team's death penalty, SMU has managed to get by with little or no marketing effort that was specific to athletics. The Big East transition will not only allow SMU to make a national presence in college athletics, it will allow the school to be much more visible in its hometown.

Orsini said SMU is already beginning the planning phases of establishing a marketing department so it will be fully functional by July 2013, when the school will begin receiving its raised allowance.

“Even though it’s about 18 months until our first official day in the Big East, now is the time to start planning it because it will take a redesign, so to speak, a reallocation of our resources, plus just allocation of extra resources that we never had before," Orsini said. "Surely marketing, to meet our number one objective, which is increasing the attendance of every athletic event we have.”

SMU hopes the marketing push will add to the football attendance rise that has occurred with June Jones at the helm.

SMU averaged 23,515 at 2010 home football games, 2,167 more than the previous year. That increase was 30th in the nation, according to the NCAA. That still doesn’t explain a half-empty stadium for most contests at Ford Stadium.

“We haven’t really sat down, but right now in the priority of things, but marketing, increasing attendance - that would be priority one,” Orsini said. “I think by marketing ourselves more, by having more success, we’ll generate even more resources, more sponsorship sales, more fundraising, more ticket sales, etc.”

Once SMU can scratch off the top item on its to-do list, it then has several options for which it can use the remainder of its Big East payout, if the school decides to put the money back into athletics.

One possibility that Orsini mentioned is the creation of new sports programs. He said baseball, softball, lacrosse and men’s track could be in the debate.

SMU’s tradition in baseball spans back to the second year of the university in 1916. SMU fans could watch Dallas’ boys of summer at Reverchon Park, a few miles away from campus, headed by several big names, including Dallas coaching legend Steve Adair. The team was disbanded in 1980 for financial reasons.

SMU never had a lacrosse program, but it might be a good fit now.

“Lacrosse, as you know, is growing here, and the Big East represents the footprint of the best lacrosse in America,” Orsini said. “Those are all things we’ll discuss and see at the presidential level here.”

Lacrosse is big on the East Coast but in its infancy in Texas. It's not recognized as a varsity sport by the UIL, but high schools have formed club teams that compete throughout the state. Squads from Coppell and Dallas St. Mark's, schools just miles from SMU’s campus, have been nationally ranked.

Looking at the big picture, SMU’s move to the Big East represents movement toward a point where the school shares equal emphasis and success in both academics and athletics, Orsini said.

“I think we’re getting close to that balance now,” Orsini said. “We want both. We want excellence in academics and athletics. We’re here now, but we aren’t winning. Now we want to win. This is an example of winning because now we’re at the highest level, the field of competition for me as an administrator is level again.”