MURFREESBORO, Tenn. -– When Middle Tennessee State wanted to elevate its football program to NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision status, the Sun Belt Conference was there.
So, after more than a half century of founding membership, the Blue Raiders departed the Ohio Valley Conference in 2000 and flourished in the Sun Belt ever since. But like their long and successful run in the OVC, all good things come to an end, especially when the school can make another conference move that is generally perceived to be a huge step up.
Come Monday, when the 2013-14 fiscal school year officially begins, MTSU will become the newest member of Conference USA -– a league in which the school long aspired to join and aggressively courted, even while being the dominant athletic department in the Sun Belt the past 13 years.
“There are really dual feelings right now about the pending move,” MTSU athletics director Chris Massaro said. “One is just the sense of excitement and the notion of progress being made in making the move to Conference USA. The other is a sense of anticipation of getting it started and let’s go see what we have.
“There is still that total sense of excitement, but now the competitiveness is starting to creep into the equation a lot more and a feeling of let’s go see how we are going to do.”
The school has announced a myriad of celebratory events throughout the community to recognize Monday’s historic significance. That includes employees at approximately 52 local businesses and restaurants wearing specially designed T-shirts emblazoned with the new Conference USA logo.
Also during the day, MTSU football players, coaches and staff members will scour the city to greet fans and hand out posters and schedule cards for the upcoming season that begins Thursday, Aug. 29 against visiting Western Carolina. MTSU opens C-USA play Sept. 21 at Florida Atlantic, also a former Sun Belt member, and plays its first league home game on Oct. 5 against East Carolina.
The official celebration headquarters for Monday will be Sam’s Sports Grill in Stones River Mall. From 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m., fans can greet and discuss the move to C-USA with MTSU president Sidney McPhee, football coach Rick Stockstill, men’s basketball coach Kermit Davis, women’s basketball coach Rick Insell and Massaro. An airplane announcing the move will fly over Murfreesboro and neighboring Nashville throughout the day.
“We want people to know this is a big deal,” said Massaro, whose school paid the Sun Belt a $700,000 buyout to leave a year early to join C-USA. “July 1 marks the new day in a new neighborhood, and we are eager to get to know our new neighbors and start the competition.”
What MTSU will in find in Conference USA this coming year is a 16-school league that, like most around the country, has had several departures and additions the past few years. New members other than MTSU and FAU include Charlotte, Florida International, Louisiana Tech, North Texas, Old Dominion and Texas-San Antonio. Existing members include East Carolina, Marshall, Rice, Southern Miss, Tulane, Tulsa, Alabama-Birmingham and Texas-El Paso.
This coming season, the league will be divided into two seven-team divisions for football. The East Division consists of MTSU, East Carolina, FIU, FAU, Marshall, Southern Miss and UAB. The West Division includes Louisiana Tech, North Texas, Rice, Tulane, Tulsa, UAB and UTEP.
Charlotte and Old Dominion will not compete in football until the 2014 season when Western Kentucky also joins the league. Departing the league that year will be East Carolina, Tulane and Tulsa.
“I am very excited about the teams we are going to be competing against in Conference USA, especially in football,” said local businessman Bud Morris, a 1968 graduate who has been a season ticket holder since 1973. “There should be more income to the athletic department and, subsequently, a higher budget for athletics because of it.
“There is no doubt Conference USA gives Middle Tennessee more recognition regionally and nationally than any of our previous conference alliances. It is an exciting time to be a Blue Raiders fan.”
This coming season, C-USA has affiliations to send teams to six bowl games to face opponents from six different leagues, including its champion advancing to the Liberty Bowl on Dec. 31 in Memphis. Other tie-ins include Beef O’Brady’s Bowl at Tropicana Field on Dec. 23 in St. Petersburg, Fla.; Heart of Dallas Bowl at Cotton Bowl on Jan. 1 in Dallas; New Orleans Bowl at Superdome on Dec. 21 in New Orleans; Hawai’i Bowl at Aloha Stadium on Dec. 24 in Honolulu; Military Bowl at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium on Dec. 27 in Annapolis, Md.; and Armed Forces Bowl at Carter Stadium on Dec. 30 in Fort Worth, Texas.
Last season, MTSU posted an 8-4 record, but did not receive a bowl berth.
“We had a lot of great moments and great achievements against some excellent competition while still in the Sun Belt,” said Massaro, whose athletic department won nine annual overall sports trophies in 13 years. “The Sun Belt is going to be a real treasure as part of our athletic heritage.”
Indeed, MTSU athletics in general, and football in particular, had resounding success in the conference, winning a league-high 50 football wins in 13 years of Sun Belt play.
But a move to Conference USA has been a constant theme among Blue Raiders supporters over the years. And now that it has happened, Massaro said the results have been tangible in a variety of areas.
“The first place we saw the increase of support was in our corporate sponsorships,” he said while noting that membership and funding for the Blue Raider Athletic Association, the official booster organization for MTSU athletics, have had considerable bumps as well.
“Then came our season ticket sales for football that is also running way ahead of where it was at this time last year,” he added. “All of our indicators are up. Now, our challenge is not only to maintain that but continue to grow that in July and August, which are typically our biggest selling months.”
Recently, Conference USA announced it would not expand to 16 schools after it drops to 14 in 2014-15. But as league affiliations around the country remain fluid, C-USA might consider further expansion.
“The brand has been preserved,” C-USA commissioner Britton Banowsky said. “It is still a young brand, but it is maturing well. We are not tied to a region. We don’t have a number in our conference name.
“So, Conference USA can be as big as we want it to be. So, it can evolve and accommodate a lot of different universities in interest.”