SMU looks west for plan of success

SMU athletic director Steve Orsini didn't have to look far for a set of blueprints on how to build a vibrant, winning program at a small, private university in the heart of a big city.

By the time Orsini arrived at SMU five years ago this month, TCU was already in the process of moving from a consistent top-25 football program to one that would end up in two consecutive BCS games, including a Rose Bowl victory and a No. 2 ranking after the 2010 season. TCU has turned into Fort Worth's team, enabling a university with an annual enrollment of less than 10,000 to draw 50,000 fans to big games in the fall.

"It's a great case study for us," Orsini said. "If they can do it, we can do it. I applaud them. You've got to admire the results they've achieved, and it's not just athletics. They have an all-time high in applications that want to come to that university. I don't think it's an accident that their football program, baseball and overall athletics program is at a high level. I feel there are a lot of similarities."

The first step for SMU to begin its quest to join TCU at an elite level was to generate excitement on the football field. To do that, Orsini felt the school had to hire a coach that could elicit respect from the community and be able to turn a program still feeling the ripple effects of the death penalty in the late 1980s into one that could compete at the highest level.

Orsini turned into a salesman, persuading about two dozen supporters to donate $100,000 a year for five years in what he called the "Circle of Champions" so the school could lure June Jones away from Hawaii. Jones had taken the Warriors to a BCS bowl and was looking for a new challenge. He came to SMU prior to the 2008 season and in three years has taken the program to two bowl games, including a win in 2009 in its first such game since the death penalty.

It has translated into a steady increase in fans in the seats at Gerald J. Ford Stadium just north of downtown Dallas. Football attendance is up 52 percent from 2006, going from 15,428 on average to 23,515 in 2010.

"We do think that Dallas is Mustang Country," said Brad Sutton, associate AD for public relations and marketing. "We do want to be Dallas' team and brand ourselves that way. We see Dallas residents coming out. We know we have more than enough college sports fans in even our immediate area to sell out the stadium every week. That's our goal."

They'll need about 10,000 more fans on average to do that. Winning games certainly helps. So does attracting top opposing teams.

"When the old Southwest Conference schools were coming to Dallas and playing SMU, it was special," Orsini said. "To have the highest level of product in college athletics coming to Hilltop is one of our challenges to competing here and on a national scale. It goes back to the customer. We'll attract more of them if we have better teams come play us."

SMU starts its 2011 season over Labor Day weekend at Texas A&M, and the Aggies will return the favor with a trip to Dallas next year.

Orsini believes in creating more regional rivalries and that drawing those teams, combined with SMU winning games, will only increase interest. It doesn't hurt to have a first-class facility, either. The Mustangs played their football games at a variety of stadiums over the years.

Ownby Stadium was built on the SMU campus in 1926, but the Mustangs moved to the Cotton Bowl in 1948 and then on to Texas Stadium in Irving in 1979. When SMU was a national power -- and starting to get into trouble with the NCAA -- it was doing so at a stadium that wasn't very close to campus. It wasn't until right after the death penalty that SMU resumed football back in north Dallas. But by then, Ownby Stadium was in desperate need of updating.

So the team moved back to Cotton Bowl in 1995 and eventually built Ford Stadium, playing in that facility since 2000.

"It was huge for us to come back to campus in that kind of a stadium," Orsini said. "We have a unique product and us playing in a pro venue and try to look like a pro product wasn't what we needed to do. The consumer knows it's not a pro product. Part of the college product is tailgating. We've got our Boulevard in the center of campus where we tailgate. That was the idea of our president [Gerald Turner]. He wanted to showcase our beautiful university on a Saturday afternoon and now we're doing that."

Orsini and Sutton believe that SMU isn't really competing with the local professional teams like the Dallas Cowboys, Dallas Mavericks and Dallas Stars for fans' sports dollars.

"We're college athletics and from my perspective we've got a monopoly on that on the Dallas side," Sutton said. "We want to accent the things that make college athletics unique, like the cheerleaders, the band and everything around the experience. We want to make it as enjoyable as we can with easy parking, access to tickets, great concessions.

"But beyond all of that you have to win games," Sutton said. "If we keep doing that, we'll keep building our attendance."

Richard Durrett covers colleges for ESPNDallas.com.