Orsini out as SMU athletic director

SMU president R. Gerald Turner caught many by surprise Thursday afternoon when he dismissed athletic director Steve Orsini. Turner didn't provide any reason why, but we can take a few guesses...

SMU is clearly hungry for the national spotlight.

After a highly scrutinized 37-day basketball coaching search ended with the hiring of Hall of Famer Larry Brown last month, SMU president R. Gerald Turner has fired the man who was large and in charge throughout the hunt's entirety: athletic director Steve Orsini.

SMU released a statement from Turner on Thursday afternoon.

"After several discussions over the last few weeks, it became apparent to me that it was necessary to make this change," Turner said. "While we both are committed to the support of our student-athletes and coaches, a unified effort is required for future progress in our athletics programs."

Orsini came to SMU in 2006 from Central Florida. There, he helped transform UCF and guided them into Conference USA.

In almost six years at SMU, Orsini has done the following:

- Hired June Jones, who's rebuilt the football program from its Death Penalty days by taking the Mustangs to three consecutive bowl games

- Snagged the school a spot in the Big East (effective July 2013), a BCS conference (for now, at least)

- And most recently, he's lured a Hall of Fame coach who's won both a NCAA and NBA title to resurrect SMU's basketball program.

So what gives?

Turner gave no specifics as far as why he decided to terminate Orsini, who received a contract extension through 2015 back in January of 2011.

It's got to have something to do with academic backlash.

Note this sentence in Turner's statement: "While we both are committed to the support of our student-athletes and coaches, a unified effort is required for future progress in our athletics programs."

If that's not a knock on the battle between academics and athletics, what is?

SMU has high academic standards and there have been concerns that with the school heading into the Big East, those standards could be lowered to be more competitive on the field than in the classroom.

For example, Brown and his new staff, which includes the likes of Tim Jankovich, Jerrance Howard and Ulric Maligi, have snagged two big-name transfers in their first order of business at SMU. Josiah Turner was a troublemaker at Arizona last year as a freshman and was suspended twice before being kicked off the team. But SMU has scooped him up.

The Mustangs have also gotten Illinois transfer Crandall Head, who has a very close relationship with Howard, to commit.

Turner, who has spoken previously about the Death Penalty days and how SMU used to put too much emphasis on athletics and not enough on academics, wants to get the two sides on a level playing field.

The academics/athletics see-saw has been an issue ever since Jones came to SMU in 2008 and it will continue to be a sore subject as long as SMU wants to be Top 25 in all major sports.

Orsini has always had a Top 25 mindset and the Mustangs are close.

Another issue that's been brought to light recently is the fact that despite SMU's developing success, the athletic department is racking up quite a budget deficit. Over the past seven years, SMU has lost over $113 million, which is equivalent to almost half of all tuition and fees paid by students in the 2011-12 school year, as reported by The Daily Campus a few weeks ago.

So now what? Turner will conduct a national search for Orsini's replacement, but what type of person will he be looking for? Someone who also has a Top 25 mindset?

In the meantime, Tim Leonard, senior associate director of athletics for external affairs, will be the interim athletic director.

This is a developing story, so stay tuned.

For more SMU coverage, follow Laken Litman on Twitter!

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