C-USA commissioner embraces change, MTSU
FEB 14, 2013 12:43p ET
That’s a good thing, considering Memphis, Central Florida, SMU and Houston will depart C-USA for the Big East Conference in July. Year after next, C-USA’s East Carolina and Tulane will make a similar move.
Conversely, Conference USA will welcome current Sun Belt Conference members Middle Tennessee State, North Texas, Florida International and Florida Atlantic this coming school year, pushing league membership to 16 for one year before dropping back to 14 in 2014-15.
“I probably take a different approach than most of the other conference commissioners,” Banowsky said during a visit here this week to welcome Middle Tennessee’s membership that becomes official July 1. “I believe that change is OK.”
Apparently, Banowsky has learned to embrace the inevitable. The explosion of conference affiliation shifts has hit each of the 11 Bowl Championship Series conferences in recent years. And C-USA is no exception.
“I think that it is actually healthy to have change,” said Banowsky, who is wrapping up his 11th year leading C-USA this spring. “We know that each university is aspiring to be great.”
That includes Middle Tennessee, which actively sought membership in C-USA the past few years while being a leading member of the Sun Belt Conference. The Blue Raiders entered the Sun Belt in 2000 from the Ohio Valley Conference to accommodate its move to NCAA Division I-A (now known as Football Bowl Subdivision) status in football.
“Middle Tennessee fit our strategy really well,” Banowsky said. “We were looking for a university that is big and growing. We were looking for a university that was adjacent to or in a community like Nashville that was big and growing. The more we looked, the more we felt comfortable.”
Middle Tennessee has the largest undergraduate enrollment of any university in the state, expecting to surpass 26,000 this fall. It is located in neighboring Murfreesboro and Rutherford County, which are part of metropolitan Nashville and its 1.2 million population. In as much, C-USA will have the largest membership of any conference in the country next year with schools from 14 different states. The combined total enrollment of member schools will also be more than any other league.
“The timing now was right for Conference USA,” said Middle Tennessee president Sidney McPhee, who served two terms as president of the Sun Belt Conference’s executive committee and the league’s representative to the NCAA Board of Directors.
MTSU is paying the Sun Belt Conference a $700,000 exit fee to leave the league a year earlier than originally announced.
“Conference USA has always been an aspirational conference for our university,” McPhee said. “And there was no secret about that.”
This coming year, the 16 members of C-USA will be divided into two divisions. In football only, there will be two divisions of seven teams each. The East Division will include Middle Tennessee, East Carolina, Florida Atlantic, Florida International, Marshall, Southern Miss and Alabama-Birmingham. The West will consist of Louisiana Tech, North Texas, Rice, Tulane, Tulsa, Texas-El Paso and Texas-San Antonio. Charlotte and Old Dominion will not compete in football this coming season.
In football, the division winners will play a league championship game at the home site of the higher seed. The winner gains automatic entry into the Liberty Bowl to face a team from the Southeastern Conference.
Along with the Liberty Bowl, C-USA currently has tie-ins with seven bowl games, including the Beef O’Brady’s St. Petersburg Bowl, Bell Helicopters Armed Forces Bowl, Heart of Dallas Bowl, Military Bowl, R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl, and the Sheraton Hawai’i Bowl.
“I am really re-energized by all the new stuff we can create now,” MTSU athletic director Chris Massaro said of moving to C-USA. “In a lot of ways, we are dealing with an empty chalkboard. We can write our own script from here going forward with new opponents, new challenges, new marketing.
“So, it’s really going to be neat for all of us. And it’s going to be fun.”
Banowsky has been on both ends of conference membership shifts and understands the balancing act Middle Tennessee and similar schools have to undergo while departing one conference and joining another. For him, the way schools should handle such situations is rather simple.
“You expect that when the schools are in your conference, that they be part of the team and support the conference and make contributions to it,” Banowsky said of lame-duck member schools. “You expect them to be open and honest with you and treat each other right. If the opportunity presents itself for them to put themselves in a better position in their minds, we say, ‘OK, that’s great. Just make sure you follow the rules and you are respectful of the other members.’ ”
That’s what Middle Tennessee went through while departing the Sun Belt Conference after 13 years of membership.
“That was really hard to do,” Massaro said of saying goodbye to a league that gave it an initial platform for football in particular and all sports in general. “And I think we were very honest with our partners in the Sun Belt. They knew our level of interest in Conference USA.
“But it is still a difficult thing. Even right now, we are members of the Sun Belt Conference. So, we are really trying to be part of two conferences. And when you’re that way in a lot of ways, you feel like you are not a member of any conference.”
All parties concerned realize that conference realignment is still an ongoing process with no end game in sight, meaning what C-USA will look like down the road might be different than what Middle Tennessee is getting into now.
“If we have opportunity to grow and re-position in a positive way by extending our reach, that’s something we are comfortable doing,” Banowsky said.
Even as it enters Conference USA, McPhee admits that membership in the new league might not be a long-term deal, especially when considering the volatile landscape of conference memberships.
“There are going to be more opportunities the next five to 10 years,” McPhee said. “You will continue to see movement within realignments. Hopefully, we will be ready to either continue in Conference USA or look at other opportunities available for our university.
“We just have to make sure we have positioned the university so it can make a move that is in the best interest of the university. That is what we have done the past decade that allowed us to make this move now into Conference USA.”
Conference USA entered into a major multi-year agreement in 2011 with Fox Sports as its primary television partner. The Fox Sports Networks will showcase a minimum of 20 regular-season football games per season, a minimum of 10 regular-season men’s basketball games per season, five women’s basketball games and a variety of Olympic sports.
This past season, more than 85 C-USA football games were televised, including games aired nationally on five different networks. The Sun Belt had only 18 games televised last season.
“We think it is strong nationally,” Banowsky said of the Conference USA brand. “And we think it is getting stronger. We have had competitive success.
“We also pride ourselves in doing things the right way. We don’t rough each other up. We don’t air our dirty laundry.”