Middle Tennessee sacrificed a lot for early jump to C-USA
MURFEESBORO, Tenn. — Everybody associated with Middle Tennessee athletics knew what stood in the way of early membership in long-coveted Conference USA.
Included in that group were 20 Blue Raiders senior football players, whose class had played integral roles in the team becoming bowl-eligible three of the last four seasons.
Sure, the Blue Raiders had already been approved for C-USA membership in all sports, starting with the 2014-15 school year. But to get out of their 12-year membership in the Sun Belt Conference a year early, MTSU had to pay the league a $750,000 early exit fee.
For those scoring at home, that's three-quarters of a million bucks for a mid-major university that used private donations to secure the buyout amount. The push to secure the early exit fee was led by Middle Tennessee president Sidney McPhee and athletics director Chris Massaro.
"I definitely did not chip in," senior tackle Josh Walker said with a laugh at MTSU’s football media luncheon on Wednesday, regarding the buyout that moved the team into C-USA this season.
"I feel not only an obligation," he added, "but I feel it shows a lot from the administration that we mean enough for them to want us to move up and have a better level of competition."
Granted, the Sun Belt Conference had been a useful landing port when Blue Raiders football made the move from NCAA Division I-AA (now FCS) to Division I-A (now FBS) status in 1999 and eventual league membership two years later. But there had always been the notion that Conference USA was a better fit for the university for a variety of reasons.
That was emphasized last season when MTSU went 8-4 and finished second in the Sun Belt, but did not receive one of the league’s two bowl berths. Instead, rival Western Kentucky got the nod, despite losing to the Blue Raiders and finishing behind them in Sun Belt standings.
That still doesn't sit well with eighth-year MTSU football coach Rick Stockstill, who is happy to point out that Conference USA has six bowl affiliations.
"Honestly, I was glad so we could get out of the Sun Belt, so I didn’t have to go through an 8-4 year again and get snubbed in a bowl," said Stockstill, whose team begins practice Friday and opens the season against visiting Western Carolina on Aug. 29.
"It shows how serious we are about moving — not only this football program, but all our athletic programs — forward and that we are not going to sit around and watch people pass us by," he added. "And if we have to pay $750,000 to move, we are willing to make that commitment."
At last week's Conference USA Football Media Day in Arlington, Texas, MTSU was picked to finish third in the East Division, behind predicted winner East Carolina and Marshall and ahead of UAB, Southern Miss, Florida Atlantic and Florida International.
Defending champion Tulsa was picked to win the West ahead of Rice, Louisiana Tech, UTEP, North Texas, Tulane and Texas-San Antonio in descending order.
Conference USA division winners play a league championship game on Dec. 7 at the home stadium of the team with the best record. The league champion advances to the Liberty Bowl on Dec. 31 in Memphis, against a representative from the Southeastern Conference.
"A lot of people look like it as the Sun Belt and Conference USA being kind of on the same tier," said Walker, who hails from Spring City, Tenn. "But from my eyes, I think it is definitely a huge step up, both for the fans and the players. I think it will mean a lot more exposure for us. I think it is a good opportunity."
While Middle Tennessee chose to pay the $750,000 early exit fee, Western Kentucky opted not to pay the Sun Belt’s increased exit fee of $1 million to join Conference USA this school year. Instead, the Hilltoppers will compete in the Sun Belt as a lame duck — like Middle Tennessee did this past school year — before joining C-USA in 2014-15.
"There were a couple of reasons for paying the early exit fee," McPhee said. "The first is the unfortunate instance with the respect to the bowl situation that certainly played a significant role. The two sides clearly had different views on who should represent the Sun Belt.
"I thought it was in the best interest of the university to expedite the exit process and look toward the future. It was time to move on and put the past behind us for what we anticipate being a bright future in Conference USA."
All that has not been lost on this band of Blue Raiders, especially the senior class, that open C-USA play on Sept. 21 at former Sun Belt rival Florida Atlantic. The league home opener at Floyd Stadium is against East Carolina on Oct.5.
"I do feel obligated," senior cornerback Kenneth Gilstrap said of the university paying the $750,000 to join C-USA this year. "It’s our senior year. We are the first team that can lay a foundation in Conference USA for the whole university. We can lay the foundation down and show Conference USA we are ready."
Middle Tennessee returns nine starters, including senior quarterback and three-year starter Logan Kilgore, to an offense that scored 49 points in a win at eventual ACC Coastal Division champ Georgia Tech and allowed only 15 sacks all season, second-fewest in the country. The defense returns seven starters from a group that allowed a robust 28 points per game.
"It's showtime, man," Gilstrap said of leaving the Sun Belt for C-USA. "It's a better situation for us to get to display our talent. It's better for the university. There is more money for the university.
"So, it's time to put up or shut up. I knew it was time for us to make a move, but I didn't know it was going to happen that soon. I'm just happy that Dr. McPhee and Mr. Massaro closed the deal and got us on to bigger and better things."