Point Person: Q&A with SMU President Gerald Turner

The Dallas Morning News interviews SMU President R. Gerald Turner about SMU and the Big 12 conference.

R. Gerald Turner and other Southern Methodist University officials met with Dallas Morning News editors and reporters to make the case that if the Big 12 Conference were to add teams, SMU should be one. SMU’s goal is to be in a conference that’s an automatic qualifier to the Bowl Championship Series , a so-called AQ league. Turner and his team say SMU, a Conference USA member which already has the largest athletic budget among non-AQ schools, is poised to make this step.

Why would it be a good thing for SMU to join the Big 12 — for SMU, for the Big 12, for Dallas?

We want to be in an AQ conference. The Big 12 is … the most logical because it’s sort of in our district. There may be a time when the major schools in Conference USA and the Mountain West come together. We don’t know what the vehicle may be, but our goal is to be in the AQ group.

We’re pushing for it. We need as much help as possible, even from non-SMU alums, because we believe it’s good for Dallas. And I think it’s pretty hard to argue otherwise.

How do you think the Big 12 assesses the advantages of bringing SMU in? Clearly, economics has to play a role.

The Big 12 is the regional conference. Obviously, when the Southwest Conference disbanded, it really made the effect of the “death penalty” greater because the Southwest Conference was so important to us. So we’ve been very pleased to move to Conference USA because we are with some of our old Southwest Conference friends. And if we were in an AQ conference, all of that would be just fine.

Our stadium can be expanded. We have the drawings to fill in the south end zone, which would put it up to 40,000 [capacity]. We got those drawings done when we built the stadium; we just didn’t feel like we needed it at that time. But the view was that we would need it in the future. Now, we’d probably do more suites with it or something like that, but we can go to 40,000 in one year.

One of the things that will be said is that the Dallas-Fort Worth TV market is already covered, and given the footprint of the networks, that’s true. But at the same time, the competition to maintain the dominance of that market is really strong. the SEC games in the D-FW area are pretty well rated. The Big East already has gotten TCU. What if the Big East got SMU, Houston and TCU and maybe something else? That’s another bifurcation in that TV market dominance when there’s really no reason for it. … There are arguments that D-FW is already covered from a media standpoint, but there’s also an argument for protecting that market from having other slices taken out of it.

If the Big 12 were to think regionally, who would your biggest competition be?

The list seems to be Notre Dame, BYU, Houston, us.

So Texas-speaking, Houston would be your biggest competitor?

Unless TCU were to leave the Big East. But of those who are not AQs, Houston would be.

Why SMU and not TCU?

If it came down to one or the other, if they’re just looking at success in football right now, TCU certainly is ahead of us. But if you look at the city, the total university, the total programs, I think we can make a very good argument for what we’ve been able to do and what we will be able to do. … TCU has done a great job with their football program. But rather than viewing it as a negative, we basically view it as a positive. It ought to tell people we’re on that same trajectory and that it’s possible. TCU beating Wisconsin and Boise State beating Alabama were very important.

You averaged 23,000 in football attendance last year. The Big 12 average was 62,000. There seems to be a gigantic drop from the Big 12 to SMU.

When we played [Texas] Tech in our stadium, we sold out and put people on the berm. When we played TCU, same thing. There’s no doubt our average would be less than the averages of those stadiums that have 80,000 [seats], but the dominance of the market, the protectiveness of it, it prevents other AQ conferences from coming in and splitting up the Texas market and the Dallas market.

And just because there are large numbers of fans of other schools in Dallas, they leave Dallas to go watch those schools. They’re gone. The idea being that if there’s an AQ school here, at least six times a year those games are played here.

The regional aspect of it is a very strong demand in terms of fan base, what cities are involved and what comes to cities. It’s just in Dallas’ interest that some of these [games] are here, rather than everyone leaving for the weekend.

We’ve reported that the Big 12’s TV partners may have a large say whom the conference pursues if Texas A&M were to leave. What is your case to the Fox and ESPN people?

One, it’s enhancing the market you already have, making the Dallas-Fort Worth market even more real, and, two, protecting what you have.

We tell people all the time, we want to be your favorite No. 2. Particularly, North Dallas is just full of people who are not Texan by birth. They’re people who’ve moved in. In our last [fund-raising] campaign, 40 percent of our gifts were from non-SMU grads. We have people on our board who are non-SMU grads. They’re just people in Dallas who believe in SMU. If you had an AQ school in Dallas, a lot of these people who are transplants and really don’t have an affiliation will become SMU fans.

Do you have a preference whether it’s the Big 12 or some sort of Conference USA-Mountain West approach?

The best answer is, however it comes we’ll be glad to receive it. But our preference is a greater dose of regionalism. Conference USA has been good to us, and I think we’ve been good to Conference USA. However this comes out, if it involves Conference USA, that’s just fine. But The Big 12 is viewed higher than Conference USA at the moment and probably will be as long as Texas and some other schools are in it, so that brings an elevation that you don’t get otherwise.

This Q&A was condensed and edited by Mike Hashimoto, a Dallas Morning News assistant editorial page editor. His email address is mhashimoto@dallasnews.com. R. Gerald Turner’s email address is PresidentTurner@smu.edu.