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Why Did SMU Really Fire Steve Orsini?

You don't shoot the goose that laid the golden egg. You just don't -- not unless you really, really have to or the goose stops pooping out gold. Which is why SMU's firing of athletic director Steve Orsini yesterday was so perplexing, and why the non-explanation offered by school President Gerald Turner and the unnamed sources in this morning's Dallas Morning News (basically that Turner and Orsini didn't see eye-to-eye) are so unsatisfying.

Both my parents are SMU alums, and growing up my dad and I would go to a handful of SMU basketball games each year, avoiding the football games because I didn't care much for football (Editor's note: What are you, French?), and because I think my dad preferred not to see the Mustangs get slaughtered by third-rate teams in the Cotton Bowl, always embarrassingly empty. The death penalty, which came down when I was a toddler, was always spoken of with some bitterness, when it was mentioned at all.

Then came Steve Orsini.

It was with considerable relief that long-suffering Mustang fans like my dad watched as the football program was resurrected after Orsini was hired in 2006. Winning records, competitiveness, bowl games, all of which he delivered in short order, were unthinkable before his arrival.

This was all fueled, of course, by money, and lots of it. There was, until recently, a profile of Orsini on SMU's website; it's since been replaced with an announcement that associate athletic director Tim Leonard will serve as an interim replacement. But it is still available on a cached version of the site, and it praises Orsini's "fundraising prowess."

2008-09 was SMU's best fundraising year to date, as the Mustangs added over $4.5 million to the coffers in annual gifts, and SMU also set a record in royalties received. To land Jones, Orsini convinced over 20 donors to join his creation, "The Circle of Champions," and commit $100,000 a year for five years, giving SMU the ability to compete financially with top-25 institutions.

Orsini made some mistakes (former basketball coach Matt Doherty never quite earned his half-mil salary), and he may have butted heads with Turner behind the scenes over the hiring of new basketball coach Larry Brown, as the News suggests, but does that override Orsini's undeniable success, both on the field and with donors? It's hard to believe that it would, especially at a school that by all appearances aspires to join the elite in college athletics. Especially at a school that was happy enough a year ago to offer him a four-year contract extension last year.

Maybe Turner is legitimately uneasy at the money that now sloshes around the athletic department and fears an increasing shift in the university's focus toward athletics and away from academics. (In a fundraising pitch on SMU's website, Orsini urges SMU alums to "Pony Up!") Or maybe Turner just really hated Orsini.

No one's saying right now. The university is declining to comment on the matter, as is Orsini. When I stopped by his University Park house on my way home from work yesterday, his wife told me he's not ready to talk.

All of which leaves this fair game to wild speculation.

Like what if some of that money went where it wasn't supposed to go? In a Bloomberg Businessweek article on the resurgence of football team published last year, SMU history professor James Hopkins worries about the big-money culture developing in the athletic department.

"The death penalty left a black mark on the entire institution, which took years to recover. I look at the recent football scandals at Miami and Ohio State, and as a historian I think that it can happen again here, too."

Again, wild speculation, but it will have to do until more answers surface. Maybe Orsini will have them when I stop by the house again. See you around 6ish, Mrs. Orsini?


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