From the New Orleans Times-Picayune
OPTIMISM STILL REIGNS IN C-USA
Departures, arrivals have league in flux
Monday February 09, 2004
By Ted Lewis, Staff writer
Depending on who's talking, Conference USA's glass is half full or half empty.
But one thing's for sure -- the league lineup in 2005 will be radically different than 2004.
The defection of Texas Christian to the Mountain West Conference brings to eight the number of C-USA schools moving to other conferences at the end of the next school year -- nine counting football-only member Army, which is opting to become an independent.
That leaves six holdovers, including Tulane.
And while five new members are on board for 2005, there is no consensus on what the league should do about adding more.
"We had a good plan from the time all of this started, and until this past week it has been executed to a T," said Tulane athletic director Rick thingyson. "So, TCU's leaving is somewhat disappointing because otherwise we're 11/12ths of the way there.
"Now we've got to step back and make sure we're not burying our heads so deep we can't see the possibilities. To me there are a lot of scenarios out there."
The plan was for C-USA to be a 12-school league with all members playing football, a change from the mixed-bag lineup of schools, some playing football, some not, since C-USA's debut in 1996.
The all-football scenario still is preferred, but it's not a certainty. And at the least, no decision is expected for 45-60 days.
"We might be better off staying at 11," said Memphis athletic director R.C. Johnson, who also has said strengthening basketball is his top priority. "We at least need to let the dust settle a little bit before making any decisions. It's not a question of expanding or not expanding. It's who it is."
That's the problem.
While incoming members Southern Methodist, Rice, Central Florida, Marshall and Tulsa all brought a variety of solid assets to the league -- market size, location, a history of success in football and/or basketball -- the list of replacement candidates is not nearly as strong.
Louisiana Tech, isolated from the rest of the Western Athletic Conference by the moves of SMU, Rice and Tulsa, is the only school publicly lobbying for membership, citing its location, the strength of its football program, which shared the WAC title in 2001, an improving men's basketball program and its nationally ranked women's basketball team.
"We think we're a good match," said Louisiana Tech athletic director Jim Oakes. "We have quality programs, we fit into the footprint of the conference, and as an academic institution we're probably stronger than we have ever been."
But thus far the Ruston school has drawn no endorsements from any of the current or future members.
Temple, which is losing its football-only membership in the Big East after 2004, also has been prominently mentioned, but the school's location (Philadelphia) goes against the grain of the league remaining solely in the South. And while the Owls' football program is in need of a conference home, there would be a reluctance to leave the Atlantic 10 in which Temple competes in all other sports.
"I think we're in a great league now," Temple basketball coach John Chaney said. "I'm not interested in Conference USA at all."
But Temple athletic director Brad Bradshaw is slightly more open-minded.
"We are seeking solutions to our football dilemma," he said. "But we're also very committed to the Atlantic 10."
thingyson suggested that the most feasible way to add Temple would to be to expand to 14 teams, most likely inviting Miami of Ohio and Toledo from the Mid-America Conference. That would add three Eastern time zone members to go along with East Carolina, Marshall and Central Florida.
But officials at Miami of Ohio and Toledo have expressed little interest in deserting a league they have been a part of for more than 50 years.
"Having 14 schools isn't as neat and tidy as having 12," thingyson said. "But it's worth considering."
North Texas also has drawn mention, with its location in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex and its run of three consecutive Sun Belt Conference football titles. But like Louisiana Tech, North Texas has no public champions yet.
Texas-El Paso is another potential candidate, but its remoteness works against it.
"It's obviously pretty important to finalize our membership," C-USA commissioner Britton Banowsky said. "We are moving with all deliberate speed, but we don't feel like we have to make a decision tomorrow.
"We have to balance geography, plus the quality of the institution from the academic and athletic standpoint and the amount of interest in their major revenue programs. Then you ascertain which institution brings the most to the table."
After the new member or members are identified, C-USA has several other items to address in the coming year.
-- A football championship game. Having 12 schools would allow C-USA to stage a football championship game, but it is not a certainty when, or even if, there will be one.
The $1.5 million offer from ESPN to televise a game expires after this year, and there is uncertainty if it is financially viable to stage a game, even if it is played on home sites rather than a neutral one. A possible short turnaround for the loser of the game to play in a pre-Christmas bowl, such as the New Orleans Bowl, is another consideration.
"There's certainly a showcase value to having a championship game," Banowsky said. "But we have to analyze the cost benefit."
-- TV contracts. One of the reported chief reasons behind TCU's move to the Mountain West was that C-USA's eight-year, $80 million contract with ESPN will be renegotiated after the loss of flagship basketball programs Louisville, Cincinnati and Marquette.
"Right now, everything is speculation," Banowsky said. "I know we've lost some quality basketball programs, but we feel that we've added quality programs as well. Our contract will be restructured, but whether or not it goes down, it's too early to say."
-- Bowl tie-ins. One of C-USA's strengths has been five football bowl tie-ins, more than any other non-BCS league. But the Fort Worth Bowl seems likely to follow TCU's lead and align with the Mountain West, and the GMAC Bowl was unhappy with TCU's virtual refusal this season to accept a bid to the game in Mobile, Ala., straining relationships with the league.
Banowsky has said that the bowl assignment structure would be better-defined, but maintaining more than four bowl tie-ins appears unlikely.
-- Football divisions and schedules. Until TCU left, the divisional setup was pretty clear-cut -- Tulane, Houston, SMU, Rice, Tulsa and TCU in the West, and Central Florida, UAB, Southern Mississippi, Memphis, Marshall and East Carolina in the East. Now the lineup will depend on which school is added.
Once that is done, the league must decide if there will be permanent inter-division foes, such as the Southeastern Conference has, or will rotate non-division opponents, as the Big 12 does.
-- Basketball divisions and schedules. While basketball divisions would be primarily for scheduling purposes as well as seeding for the conference tournament, the league must determine the number of conference games to be played.
-- Basketball tournament. The 2005 tournament has yet to be awarded, although Memphis has a $1 million bid on the table. While the Tigers are now the league's flagship basketball program, there would be little desire on either side to play the tournament there every year. The problem would be finding another city willing to offer similar financial guarantees.
-- Automatic berth in basketball. The league will actually fail to meet the NCAA's continuity of membership rule (at least six members for five years) in 2005, and will need to receive a waiver to be assured of a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
-- Conference headquarters. This one already has been settled. The league is relocating from Chicago to Dallas, Banowsky's home, this summer. But the move already has caused turnover in the conference office.
Athletic directors from the holdover and incoming schools agree that unless the Big East decides to expand beyond the eight-team football lineup it will have starting in 2005, there will be no more changes that affect C-USA realignment in the near future.
Such stability will be welcomed.
"My sense is that we have 11 schools that are very much committed to making this work," Banowsky said. "It's remarkable to see the enthusiasm around the table we have already."
One major factor that will make the new C-USA compatible, Banowsky said, is that the schools will be much closer in their athletic budgets than before, especially after Louisville's departure.
"Top to bottom, we're going to be very competitive in all sports," he said. "That's important when you feel that you can't compete simply because you're being outspent."
And while some schools, particularly Memphis and East Carolina, were spurned in their bids to join the Big East, there does seem to be a developing sense of unity, even if there is disagreement on the direction of expansion.
"This is not the burial of Conference USA," Houston athletic director Dave Maggard said. "We survived losing some schools last fall, and we'll survive losing TCU.
"If for nothing less than self-preservation, we're going to work hard to make this a better conference than it was before."