Steve Orsini Has SMU Buying Into Big-Time Sports
How's this for a daunting job description?
• Lure successful, high-profile head coaches to a small, private university that has minimized sports for 20 years.
• Nurture revenues and raise funds all by your lonesome, while simultaneously trimming fat from a $7 million operating deficit.
• Reincarnate a moribund athletic program into a Top 25 contender, putting butts in seats and wins on records.
• And, while you're at it, could you do something—anything—to obscure our discomfiture at George W. Bush's Presidential Library heading this way?
"A reasonable person might not have been so sure this could all work," says the man who not only accepted the challenge but, I'll be damned, is well on his way to pulling it off. "But I've always aimed high."
Steve Orsini, turns out, could sell green bananas to a suicide bomber on the way to work. Only slightly less plausible, he's got SMU buying into big-time sports.
While the Texas Rangers resort to the default leadership of Nolan Ryan, Orsini is re-booting SMU and performing one of the most extreme makeovers in the history of Dallas. In just 20 months on the job, the visionary athletic director has hired former basketball National Coach of the Year Matt Doherty, reigning football National Coach of the Year June Jones and infused our city's only Division I school with something it hasn't had since the 1980s—hope.
Overlooking Ford Stadium's north end zone in an office suite adorned with contemporary steel fixtures, classic brick walls and absolutely no boundaries, Orsini greets me on a gloriously sunny Friday morning by speaking in tongues that eventually, somehow, translate into motivation.
"SMU will come back." Um, can you repeat that?
"We've got so much to sell." Surely you jest?
"It's a culture shock. We've started by changing the perception, instilling a new mind-set." Hmm. Go on ...
"The administration, the faculty, the fans—they're all ready to accept athletics again." OK, now that actually makes some sense.
"We've got that first spark, and it's grown into a small flame. Now it's up to us to fan it like crazy." Chaaarrrge!!!
And to think, SMU's football and basketball teams are a combined 9-24. Beat them while they're down because, thanks to Orsini, the Mustangs will get a lot better before they get worse.
"Everything," he says with all the confidence of Tiger Woods stalking a 2-inch tap-in, "is in place."
I know, I know. SMU absorbed the NCAA's only death penalty in 1987 and Satan will be doing double Salchows on his backyard skating rink before the Mustangs crack the national rankings, right?
Wrong. This isn't the old SMU of David Stanley and Jimmy Tubbs and Phil Bennett and Peruna Patheticness. This is the new SMU belonging to Orsini, consumed with producing a Miracle on Mockingbird.
"We've got the facilities, the resources and the people," he says. "Next is the support...and, of course, the results."
The imminent happiness on our Hilltop began in Hummelstown, Pennsylvania, where Orsini grew up with enough guts and guile to overcome his grades. The feisty fullback went to Notre Dame on scholarship, befriended quarterback Joe Montana and was a captain on the '77 team that won the National Championship in the Cotton Bowl.
"I wouldn't have gotten into Notre Dame without football," Orsini admits. "That's what drives me, giving kids like me those same kinds of opportunities."
He was working as a CPA in Manhattan when his alma mater called three years after graduation. And just like that, the guy who spent his days dreaming of becoming a partner in a Big 8 accounting firm suddenly became a...ticket manager?
"Yeah," he chuckles, "that was a pretty significant fork in the road. I always gravitate toward challenges."
Orsini eventually landed in Dallas, working first for Tex Schramm and then Jerry Jones during a 10-year career as the Cowboys' director of administration. A five-year stint as the Navy's associate athletic director followed, before stepping stones at Georgia Tech and Central Florida led him back here, to SMU.
When school president Dr. R. Gerald Turner informed the job candidate he'd ultimately be judged on wins and losses, he was sold.
"That told me they were ready," says Orsini, 51. "The pendulum here had obviously swung too far in the '80s, and the correction of that went too far as well. Now there's middle ground, a balance. We're primed to win."
In Orsini's short reign, SMU has constructed the $13 million Crum Center basketball practice facility, spent $1 million upgrading Moody Coliseum, splashed Dallas with a $750,000 "Pony Up" marketing campaign, drawn blueprints for a new outdoor tennis center, eased admission standards, maintained a 97-percent graduation rate and rekindled thoughts of a sport axed in '80.
"Baseball," Orsini says, "is at least on my radar."
Despite this year's 8-13 record that includes humiliating home losses to Alabama State, Centenary and USC Upstate, Orsini isn't distraught with his basketball program. Doherty recruited a Top 25 class in '07 but regularly played four freshmen together during last week's 29-point loss at No. 1-ranked Memphis.
"You have to tear it down before you can build it back up," explains Orsini, so proactive that he hired Doherty five weeks before he officially joined SMU's payroll. "Remember, that was the big hire. Trustees and supporters had heard the talk around here for a long time, but hiring Matt showed everyone that we actually had a commitment to break the paradigm of losing."
An excruciating 71-day search confirmed the philosophical transformation when Orsini hired Jones, fresh off leading underdog Hawaii to an undefeated season and the Sugar Bowl. SMU? A team that hasn't been to a bowl since 1984? Landing one of the hottest coaching commodities in college football? How in the name of Doak Walker did this happen?
Simple. Some liaison work by former Mustang star Eric Dickerson and a financial commitment from 20 boosters to make Jones the 15th-highest-paid coach in America, higher even than Texas A&M's Mike Sherman. Alerted to the public disgust of Dickerson and former Pony Express partner Craig James, Orsini and Doherty visited Eric in Los Angeles last summer. His confidence in SMU restored, Dickerson later received a call inquiring about the Mustangs' job from an old NFL acquaintance—June Jones.
"I wish I could take credit for pinpointing June," Orsini shrugs, "but, through Eric, it was him that approached us."
The coup wouldn't have been possible, however, if not for the uncanny salesmanship of Steve Orseesneeds.
It took him only three weeks to assemble the "Circle of Champions," a prestigious conglomeration of rich folk led by Gerald J. Ford and Carl Sewell, each pledging $100,000 a year for five years to foot the bill for Jones' five-year, $10 million contract.
"Was I leaping off the cliff? Sure," Orsini says. "But you know what? I never once got turned down."
Welcome back, SMU. We missed you.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.