C-USA covets SMU, Rice, Tulsa, UCF for membership Sept. 25, 2003
By Tony Mejia
SportsLine.com Staff Writer
The round of conference reshuffling begun by the move of Miami and Virginia Tech from the Big East to the ACC has pitted Conference USA and the Western Athletic Conference against one another in a power struggle for survival, and C-USA has a plan to gain an upper hand.
A source close to the situation, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said inviting Southern Methodist, Rice and Tulsa, along with second-year MAC member Central Florida, seems to be the most viable option to keep C-USA afloat as a 12-team league and stay in the business of big-time college athletics.
UCF and Tulsa have conditionally accepted bids, the source said.
(UCF athletic director Steve Orsini denied that was the case Friday, saying, "I don't know who that source is, but that is not true. We have not even received an invitation to join Conference USA, conditionally or otherwise.")
Even potential new divisions have been set, the source said. Houston, TCU and Tulane would be joined by WAC newcomers Rice, SMU and Tulsa in the West, while UCF would join in-state rival South Florida, Southern Miss, UAB, Memphis and East Carolina in the East.
Charlotte and Saint Louis would then likely accept invitations from the Atlantic 10.
"We have had numerous healthy discussions over the last 10 days about the future of our conference and have been developing contingency plans," C-USA commissioner Britton Banowsky said in a statement. "There are a wide variety of options that are being discussed and nothing has been decided.
"I am confident, however, that, as these events unfold, we will reach consensus on a plan that positions the conference very well in the future."
Ultimately, the fate of the plan might rest on TCU.
Of the schools in limbo (TCU, Houston, Rice, SMU, TCU and Tulane), the Horned Frogs have the most prosperous athletics program of the bunch, complete with a nationally ranked football team. If TCU heads to the WAC, or even the Mountain West, there might not be enough of a southwestern influence in C-USA to keep Houston and Tulane.
But if TCU stays put, Rice, Tulsa and SMU would likely come aboard.
Said SMU AD Jim Copeland: "What we'd like to do is be in a conference that makes sense geographically, whether that be in a division of the WAC or somewhere else. I believe that's most important for my university, and I'm paid to do the best thing possible for SMU."
What schools like Copeland's decide might ultimately determine the survival of both C-USA and the WAC.
"It's been described as a tug of war, and I think that's fair to say," WAC commissioner Karl Benson said. "Geographically, it just so happens we're after the same schools. The question for us as a league has been, how do we fix our geography? We've looked for schools that can add to our league's prestige and value, specifically TCU, Houston and Tulane."
Another MAC member, Marshall, might also be an active part of the reshuffling. Sources said the school was not given resounding approval by C-USA league presidents in recent meetings, but that could always change once the bullets start flying.
The Huntington, W.Va.-based school could also figure into the WAC's plans, especially if the league is decimated by defections to C-USA; at that point, it would need an eighth member.
"No invitations have been tendered at this point," said Houston AD Dave Maggard. "There are contingency plans in place with the thought of being prepared (for when the Big East makes it's move).
"At one point, everybody anticipated that BC and Syracuse to the ACC was a done deal. Obviously that wasn't the case. You just never know how things are going to shake out. But C-USA will not be caught by surprise when moves are made."
Wednesday's AP report that the Big East has targeted C-USA members Cincinnati, DePaul, Louisville, and Marquette was not news to any of the parties. Re-strengthening its position in basketball, which is how the league gained prominence in the 1980s, was paramount in commissioner Mike Tranghese's mind once Miami and Virginia Tech announced their intentions to leave.
Official invitations aren't expected to come until as late as November, but barring any unforeseen developments, the Big East will add the four institutions, with Cincinnati and Louisville slated to participate in football.
"We met in Chicago a little over a week ago and the presidents and chancellors met this past Sunday to look at some of the areas we may be looking to move into," Maggard said. "I anticipate these meetings will go on with some frequency in the coming weeks."
In a letter obtained by KRIV-TV in Houston, the WAC's Benson urged his conference's teams to actively recruit C-USA's southwestern-most members: Houston, TCU and Tulane.
"The WAC has a golden opportunity to secure its future and the athletic future of each of its members by creating its own 12-team league with two divisions," Benson wrote to league presidents.
"Without stability in the (WAC) West, it may also make it very difficult for Rice, SMU or Tulsa to decline a C-USA invitation if extended."
That "if" appears to be a near-certainty.
"I think it's going to be an interesting couple of months," Copeland said. "I expect that the situation will definitely be resolved by Christmas."