TAMPA - Facing the reality it could lose six members to other leagues, Conference USA is prepared to extend invitations to at least four teams from the Mid-American and Western Athletic conferences to form a 12-team, all-sports league in 2005.
UCF, Marshall, SMU, Tulsa and Rice are the leading candidates to replace Louisville, Cincinnati, Marquette and DePaul, who reportedly are headed to the Big East, and Charlotte and Saint Louis, who could move to the Atlantic 10, C-USA sources said Monday.
C-USA Commissioner Britton Banowsky would not discuss specific teams but said his league has been contacted by ``about 10 institutions'' interested in joining C-USA.
``We have no agreements in place, but we are very focused on what contingency plans will make the conference stronger in the future,'' said Banowsky, who met with C-USA's presidents Sunday in Chicago. ``If an institution or institutions leave, we have a general feel for those scenarios.''
The loss of six members - plus Army, which announced last month it was leaving C-USA after the 2004 season - would leave C-USA with eight all-sports members - USF, East Carolina, Houston, Memphis, Southern Miss, TCU, Tulane and UAB.
C-USA could then turn its sights to UCF and Marshall of the MAC and SMU, Tulsa and Rice of the WAC.
``We're trying to be ready to go so there's no lag time once the Big East makes its decision,'' a C-USA source said. ``The league is very proactive on what it needs to do. We prefer a 12-team all-sports model because everyone is then dealing with apples and apples instead of apples and oranges.''
C-USA's current membership features 11 football members and four non-football members.
``It's safe to say the conference, and USF, is looking at the opportunity to be stronger regardless of what happens,'' USF Athletic Director Lee Roy Selmon said. ``We're looking at the opportunity to get better to strengthen our position as an institution.
``With the changing landscape of college athletics, this won't be the last time this sort of thing happens. Who knows, we might find ourselves in this situation again, so we have to strive to have the best program we can overall.''
USF President Judy Genshaft, who attended Sunday's meetings, did not return calls seeking comment.
C-USA consultant Chuck Neinas, the former College Football Association executive director and Big Eight Conference commissioner, said there are a myriad of details to be addressed.
``Hopefully once the Big East makes a determination, Conference USA can act with all appropriate speed,'' Neinas said. ``I'm optimistic the outcome will be positive. In certain ways, the league can be stronger. But you play the cards you're dealt, and we don't know what cards are there yet.''
Although the MAC created a national splash this past weekend with three Top 25 upsets, C-USA offers more bowl opportunities, larger television markets and a bigger revenue stream.
C-USA has five bowl tie-ins, compared to three for the WAC and two for the MAC.
C-USA has pursued SMU, UCF and Marshall before. In 1999, SMU was expected to receive an invitation with TCU, but the league didn't want to expand beyond 14 basketball members and opted for East Carolina, already a football member.
Then in August 2001, after several attempts to convince Navy to join C-USA, the league decided to invite Marshall and UCF with the thinking Army eventually would leave the league. However, before an official invitation was extended, UCF received an offer to join the MAC.
MAC spokesman Gary Richter said MAC members giving at least two years notice of leaving must pay a $200,000 fee, or $400,000 with less than two years notice.
WAC spokesman Dave Chaffin said WAC members must notify the league before Sept. 1 of their intentions to leave the following season and then forfeit their shares of the league's year-end revenues.
``Ideally we wouldn't lose any members,'' Banowsky said. ``There is no specific timetable [to replace schools], but we will move as rapidly as we can to make sure we do a thorough job.''
Although Louisville and Cincinnati are the leading candidates to leave C-USA for the Big East, support for USF is growing, the Hartford Courant reported.
Selmon, however, said USF ``has not had any contact one way or another from the Big East.''
Memphis Athletic Director R.C. Johnson said he was informed by Big East Commissioner Mike Tranghese that the Tigers were no longer a candidate, the Memphis Commercial Appeal reported last week.
Also last week, a Houston television station obtained a letter from WAC Commissioner Karl Benson urging his league's presidents to take advantage of C-USA's uncertain future by targeting Tulane, TCU and Houston.
However, Neinas said he felt ``relatively confident Tulane, TCU and Houston aren't going to the WAC.''