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Conference USA Must Step Up to Avoid Potential College Football Upheaval

Posted: May 15, 2008

Last year, Tribal Fever presented a modest proposal about conference realignment for teams in the Swampland Footprint.  The proposal came from our understanding of the love and passion of college football in our region.  The SEC is the best, but there is room for everyone else to get better and better.

The Big East, however, remains a serious fly in the ointment.  Rumors are now flying that more than one Conference USA team wants to bolt for the Big East. The Hartford Courant has an article about an East Carolina rumor that is troubling.  Supposedly, East Carolina is willing to be "football only" in the Big East letting their other sports become diminished since Conference USA certainly wouldn't allow East Carolina to remain in the conference without its football team. 

Tony Barnhart has word today about Memphis going to Big East.   In the case of Memphis, basketball is the draw to help their football team.  However, Barnhart thinks that UCF is the better fit.  (For the record, Memphis denied any Big East discussions.)

In either case, both propositions are based on the idea that the Big East would boot Notre Dame from the conference since ND is a football independent.  This won't happen unless Notre Dame leaves on its own as Dave Hickman of the Charleston Gazette points out in this fine summary.

If you haven't been paying attention, here's the basic deal with the Big East: The football side has eight members and would love to have nine to balance the schedule (four home and four road league games each year). The basketball side has 16 members, half of which don't play football. It's just maxed out.

There seem to be only two ways - short of convincing perhaps Villanova to do what Connecticut did and upgrade its football program to Division I-A - to solve the football problem without further complicating basketball. The league could add a football-only member or replace one of the basketball schools with one that plays football and basketball.

Tranghese is dead-set against adding a football-only school just to balance the schedule and repeated himself in no uncertain terms recently while talking about the possibility of East Carolina doing just that....

[Big East F]ans, it seems, are always at the ready to jettison the Irish because of their refusal to join the football side of the league while enjoying the benefits of bowl partnerships and conference affiliation in most of their other sports. Sorry, but the league looks beyond that knee-jerk attitude and understands what Notre Dame brings to the table both as a member in those other sports and as a bowl partner.

Like it or not, the fact is that if Notre Dame hadn't been in the mix in 2003 as a potential participant in the Gator and several other bowls, the ACC raid of the Big East would have been even more devastating. Sure, West Virginia (and then Rutgers, Louisville, South Florida, etc.) ultimately propped up the league with its football success, but in the two or three years it took for that to happen the league could have lost any of its significant bowl contracts and made it even tougher to weather the calls for its ouster from an automatic qualifying spot in the BCS.

So forget kicking Notre Dame to the curb. It's not going to happen.

Hickman is right.  He also demonstrates why the Big East is a total mess that invites this kind of speculation.

The Big East is one of those ideas that sounds better on paper than how it plays out in reality.  The Big East, at best, is a potent sports mix that balances gate revenue from its passionate southern vs the TV audience of the teams from the northeast.

It doesn't work this way.  Look at the ACC as an example.  Tony Barnhart's had another recent piece focusing on ACC football.  Here's what he wrote about the attendance at the ACC Championship Game hosted for its first three years of existence in Jacksonville.

The first game between Florida State and Virginia Tech in 2005 drew 72,749. The second game between Georgia Tech and Wake Forest drew a crowd that was generously estimated at 62,850. Last year’s game between Boston College and Virginia Tech drew 53,212.

We know there are direct flights from Boston to Jacksonville.  Bringing in the Boston market has only created underperformance for the ACC rather than bringing in the "potential" energy of the Boston sports fan.  The Northeast may have a lot of people and spors fans, but they don't follow the college football game like they do the NFL.

In the end, it still comes down to money, and the Big East has a nice formula for making money for its teams.  This article about WVa shows how that school makes big money in Big East.  The conference has a financial structure that provides incentives and rewards for top performing teams that play on national tv.

Either way, TF feels some fear in the air around the Big East, Conference USA, and the rest of college football.  Tim Stephens of the Orlando Sentinel has a great blog about the 2003 realignments back when he worked for a Birmingham paper covering UAB and Conference USA.

In light of all of this, TF urges sanity to prevail.

Conference USA must step up and focus on becoming a better conference.  It has all of the potential advantages of the Big East in football.  It has plenty of strong markets that can attract good football talent.  It also could become a beneficiary since many Conference USA schools are better equiped to find a place for academically challenged, but talented kids that might not get a chance to play at SEC and ACC schools.

If anything, Conference USA should be raiding the Big East and bringing back Louisville, USF, and Cincinnati.  These three teams have made the Big East a better football conference in ways that UConn or Rutgers never could.  Besides, the Big East would rather see teams in the Northeast ascend since their ideal scenario is to capture NYC, not Charleston, WVa.

TF believes that all of this expansion talk is a big smokescreen because the Big East can't do anything right now in its current state.  Yes, Memphis is attractive (and yes, East Carolina is desperate), but the Big East doesn't need another basketball powerhouse or another mid tier football team from an already overtaxed football state.

(We say "overtaxed" because North Carolina's overepresentation of four teams in the 12 team ACC is part of the reason that conference has trouble making big gains on the football side.  With UNC, NC State, Duke, and Wake all undergoing upgrades, East Carolina will be picking over the bones of in state talent in future years.)

In addition, any future BCS reforms will be based on expanding the opportunities for non-automatic bid BCS conferences.  Tony Barnhart gives just one suggestion for a format. TF agrees that it is far more likely that the BCS will add bowl games and opportunities rather than creating a playoff.  The fact that new or renovated stadiums are due to come online in Dallas and Orlando, the respective homes of the Cotton Bowl and Capitol One Bowl, only adds to that speculation.

Let's see some ingenuity and boldness from Conference USA.  Programs like Memphis and UCF are solidly on the rise.  Memphis is bring in big time booster money now as well.  Continue to get better on the field and off the field (more marketing), and your conference will be a destination rather than a launching pad.


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