SMU expresses interest in Big 12

SMU athletic director Steve Orsini believes his school is ready to join an automatic-qualifier BCS conference and has made his case to certain Big 12 officials.

"We feel it's time. We're ready," Orsini said Thursday, shortly after Texas A&M announced it has informed the Big 12 that it's looking at other conference options. "The college landscape is shifting. We're already a top academic institution and with the re-commitment of the university already in place, we can be a top athletics program nationally."

While the Big 12 makes the most sense, SMU president R. Gerald Turner said late Thursday afternoon that he believes the Mustangs, which currently compete in Conference USA, are ready to join any AQ conference interested in getting into the Dallas-Fort Worth market.

Orsini touted SMU's alumni base, which he said numbers about 40,000 in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. And he noted the school has the facilities to play in a BCS conference.

Gerald J. Ford Stadium seats 32,000 but could be expanded to 40,000 by filling in the lower bowl, and even could increase to as much as 60,000 with an upper deck (and possibly suites) on the east side.

SMU averaged 23,515 fans in 2010, a 52 percent increase in the past five years. Much of that is owed to the arrival of coach June Jones.

SMU formed the "Circle of Champions," a group of 20 major donors willing to commit $100,000 each for five years to help attract Jones and his staff. Jones has led a resurgence of the program, taking the Mustangs to two consecutive bowl games and finishing runner-up in Conference USA last year, falling to Central Florida in the title game.

Before Jones arrived, SMU had one winning season since resuming football in 1989, after the NCAA handed the program the "death penalty."

Orsini said that SMU is happy in Conference USA and would be pleased if that league somehow could gain automatic qualifying status. But he stressed that the school also would prefer to rekindle its regional rivalries, and believes the best way to do that is to play in a conference with more nearby teams, such as the Big 12.

"We want the best regional conference we can get in this part of the country," Orsini said. "Strength is in expansion, not minimalism, like having 10 members in the Big 12, when four of the BCS conferences have 12 members. Let's add to it."

Orsini knows the biggest argument against SMU is that adding it won't help the conference's television footprint with such a large alumni base in the Metroplex already. But he believes SMU would increase the interest in the Dallas area, noting that Austin, Lubbock, Fort Worth, Waco and other cities have automatic-qualifying schools.

"Why not Dallas?" Orsini said. "We would solidify the presence of whatever conference we're in for an AQ status in the fifth-largest market in the country. This is a very important market."

Turner said that he's reached out to Dallas city officials, and they'd like to see Dallas represented in an AQ conference.

Orsini said the school did a study of the TV ratings in the Dallas-Fort Worth market the past two football seasons and discovered the average ratings for Big 12 and SEC games were at best a draw, despite the SEC having no team in Texas, much less the Metroplex. That's why he believes SMU could help put more eyes on the Big 12 in this area.

Orsini wants more weekends such as Labor Day, when a handful of former Southwest Conference foes will faceoff -- TCU vs. Baylor, Rice vs. Texas, SMU vs. Texas A&M.

"Our fans are jacked like they have not been in a long time," Orsini said. "Not only because we're playing an old rival, but we have optimism now. We expect to be competitive."

The Dallas Morning News first reported SMU reached out to the Big 12.

Richard Durrett is a reporter and columnist for ESPNDallas.com.