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Mike Slive, the original commissioner for Conference USA, played a major role in creating one of the seven best conferences in the nation for all sports. By the end of his tenure, the football schools included: Louisville, Cincinnati, TCU, East Carolina, South Florida, Memphis, Houston, Tulane, Southern Miss, UAB, and Army. Of that group, only Army was a football-only member, as the rest were C-USA hoops programs also. Joining them in basketball were Marquette, DePaul, Charlotte, and St. Louis.
C-USA routinely had representation in the Top 25 for football, men's basketball, women's basketball, and baseball. Furthermore, C-USA routinely boasted big wins over the nation's elite programs and sent multiple teams to postseason play on an annual basis. Slive did such a good job establishing C-USA that the SEC came calling when their commissioner role became available.
Conference USA then hired Britton Banowsky. The conference he inherited was a strong one with a lot of potential for future growth and success. Unfortunately, in the horizon was a conference realignment that would shake C-USA at its very core.
The ACC opted to expand from 9 teams to 12, becoming eligible for a football championship game and hoping to create the next mega-conference. Their targets were three premier Big East members (Miami, Virginia Tech, and Boston College). The Big East was left with their six non-football playing members (Notre Dame, Georgetown, Villanova, St. John's, Providence, and Seton Hall), five football playing members (Syracuse, West Virginia, Rutgers, Pittsburgh, and Temple), and Connecticut (already in for basketball and scheduled to join for football). Temple had already been voted out.
The easiest things for the Big East to do were to advance the schedule for Connecticut's entry into the league for football and slip the schedule for Temple's departure. However, this still left a need for football members. In addition to that, the non-football playing members were adamant about equal representation. Thus, for every football-playing member added after the first one, there had to also be an additional non-football playing member added.
Based on what Mike Slive had created, C-USA was the obvious target for Big East replacement schools. Louisville was the obvious first choice. After that, two all-sports programs (Cincinnati and South Florida) were gobbled up as were two non-football playing schools (Marquette and DePaul). This left C-USA with just two non-football playing members (Charlotte and St. Louis), and both wanted out as a result. C-USA and the Big East worked together to place those programs in the Atlantic 10.
As if the loss of those seven programs wasn't bad enough, Army had already voted to return to independent status for football. Additionally, TCU accepted an invitation to join the Mountain West conference amid all the turmoil C-USA was experiencing. In all, C-USA lost nine schools (five of its eleven football members and eight of its fourteen basketball members).
Banowsky sat by while his conference was raided and reacted after it was all said and done. He and the six remaining C-USA schools (East Carolina, Houston, Tulane, Southern Miss, UAB, and Memphis) moved towards a 12-school all-sports conference with a southern footprint. The result was the addition of UCF, Marshall, Rice, Tulsa, SMU, and UTEP. The six new members brought with them one school that had experienced notable recent success in football (Marshall) and none that had experienced notable recent success in basketball. The entire hope for the future of the conference was based on potential. How much potential there was is still up for debate.
Banowsky has certainly bragged about the league's accomplishments under his reign. The addition of six new members, alliances with six bowl games, and a 'lucrative' television agreement with CSTV headline that list. Unfortunately, those six new members are far weaker than the nine schools that departed, the bowl games (with the exception of the Liberty Bowl) are all lower-tier games, and CSTV is a floundering network with few subscribers and little availability.
Looking back, it would have been great for C-USA had a strong leader been in place during the shake-up caused by the ACC. A strong commissioner may have been able to leverage the turmoil the Big East was dealing with in order to attract one of their premier programs (e.g. West Virginia) to jump ship and come to C-USA. Such a move would have almost guaranteed that programs like Louisville, Cincinnati, and TCU would have stayed put. It would have also weakened the Big East and put C-USA on a strong enough footing to usurp the Big East for its automatic BCS berth status.
Even if that ideal scenario didn't play out, a strong leader could have targeted the best programs available. Needless to say, the programs that joined C-USA after the shake-up were not among such a list. Given C-USA's status at the time, it is safe to say that any program from outside the six BCS conferences and the Mountain West were approachable. Instead of an all-sports conference, the league should've looked to include both flavors (football and basketball schools). Doing such may have allowed the conference to keep Charlotte and Saint Louis.
In the end, Banowsky dropped the ball and tried to recreate the lower half of the old Southwest Conference for his new Western division (which expands as far as El Paso in the westernmost part of Texas) while joining four of his mainstays with MAC defectors, UCF and Marshall, in his new Eastern division (which expands as far as the coast of North Carolina). As a result of the newly configured league, the conference has steadily dropped in performance for both football and basketball.
What happened was unfortunate, but it can not be changed now. At this point, all stakeholders in C-USA should be concerned with what can be done to improve the fortunes of the league. Knowing that East Carolina, UCF, and Memphis are likely targets of the next Big East expansion (should it happen) must be at the forefront of the league's planning. It would certainly pay for the league to be more proactive to an impending raid than reactive, like last time.
What should be done, though? Well, C-USA no longer has the luxury of boasting a relatively lofty status in the collegiate landscape. So, attempts to recapture programs like Charlotte or St. Louis from a conference as strong as the A-10 are virtually out of the question. With regards to football, however, the status is the same as it's been since the shake-up. Only programs from the six BCS conferences and the Mountain West are untouchable. That said, here's what I would recommend for increasing the conference's profile and protecting the league against future losses.
(1) Vote to expand to 18 programs total, to potentially include non-football playing members, consisting of two sub-leagues (East and West) where each sub-league can be self-contained in many respects. This would tighten the geographic footprint that must be traveled for all sports. Conference championship events would still include representatives from each sub-league.
(2) The East sub-league would consist of five current members (East Carolina, UCF, UAB, Southern Miss and Marshall) plus four target institutions. Those target institutions would consist of Navy, Army, Troy, and Western Kentucky. Contingency targets would consist of Temple, Middle Tennessee, and FAU. Any of these schools would contribute to a sounder geographic footprint. Navy and Army add prestige, Navy and Troy add football prowess, and Western Kentucky adds basketball prowess with strong potential for a quality football program at the FBS level.
(3) The West sub-league would consist of seven current members (Memphis, Tulane, Houston, SMU, Rice, Tulsa, and UTEP) plus two target institutions. Those target institutions would consist of Fresno State and Boise State. Contingency targets would consist of Nevada and Louisiana Tech. Though Fresno and Boise would obviously expand the footprint of the league well past Texas, they would still be worth adding for the overall prestige and football prowess they would add to the conference.
Ultimately, there are many other plans that warrant as much or more merit than the one presented above. Simply put, there are enough options out there such that C-USA should be considering something. Banowsky would be remiss if he failed to be proactive this time around.