October 27, 2011
Two months ago, SMU President R. Gerald Turner and athletic director Steve Orsini led a delegation to this newspaper, asking our support for what sounded like a Quixotic mission.
If the Big 12 Conference planned to expand, they said, SMU wanted in.
Two months can seem like two lifetimes amid the rapidly shifting tectonic plates of big-time college athletics. In August, remember, Texas A&M was still trying to break free from the Big 12, and TCU was headed to the Big East Conference.
Much was up in the air, and it was tough to hear over all the noise. In tighter focus, SMU’s pitch: “However this shakes out, we want to be in a conference that automatically qualifies to the Bowl Championship Series. The Big 12 makes the most sense regionally, but it’s not the only way.”
Indeed not. Now, SMU is poised to accept membership to the automatic-qualifying Big East, which went shopping after Syracuse and Pittsburgh fled and TCU flipped to the Big 12. It appears to have settled on SMU, Houston and Central Florida for all sports and Boise State, Air Force and Navy for football only.
Turner and Orsini played their cards masterfully. They argued that a city as large as Dallas should not be without an AQ-conference school. And SMU would give that conference an important foothold in a television- and recruit-rich market.
TCU’s switch opened a door. SMU’s argument took on greater intensity for the Big East; adding SMU and the University of Houston would put the conference in Texas’ two biggest markets.
So as SMU nails this down, it’s worth a quick peek back. From Ray Morrison to Matty Bell, Doak Walker and Kyle Rote to Forrest Gregg and Don Meredith , “Mustang Mania” to Eric Dickerson and Craig James, the “Pony Express” to the death penalty, as the NCAA killed SMU’s 1987 and ’88 seasons over repeated rules violations. The Southwest Conference died.
And, at last, life after death.
Orsini arrived and hired June Jones to coach football. SMU has played in back-to-back bowl games and even whacked mighty TCU over the head this fall with an Iron Skillet.
SMU’s long football road is dotted with remarkable high points. Its road back seemed even longer, at times, and not without its lows.
Big East membership is a significant milestone, assuming SMU hasn’t found the only conference in America less stable than the Big 12. Even the Conference USA-Mountain West merger Turner referenced in August has come to pass, although still outside the AQ party.
All is worth remembering as SMU begins its new journey.
According to reports, the Big East will respond to the departures of Syracuse and Pittsburgh (to the ACC) and TCU (to the Big 12) by inviting six new schools, including SMU and Houston. If everyone agrees to terms, here’s how the conference would shake out:
All-sport members: Cincinnati, Connecticut, Louisville, Rutgers, South Florida, West Virginia New: SMU, Houston, Central Florida
Football-only members (all new): Boise State, Air Force, Navy
Non-football members: DePaul, Georgetown, Marquette, Notre Dame, Providence, St. John’s, Seton Hall, Villanova (Loyola-Maryland for only women’s lacrosse)