Conference USA Commissioner Britton Banowsky does not have an easy job. Dare I say, he has one of the toughest jobs in college athletics.
His conference is in an unenviable position. Anytime one of the big-boy conferences flaps its wings, it causes a tidal wave that crashes into C-USA. Take the Big Ten’s recent acquisition of Maryland from the ACC and Rutgers from the Big East.
(As an aside, the Big Ten may tout its commitment to academics, but when it calls itself the Big Ten and includes 14 teams, math doesn’t seem to be part of that academic commitment.)
In response to the Big Ten, the ACC snags Louisville from the Big East and the Big East, needing to fill two spots, goes to its favorite grab bag, C-USA. After grabbing UCF, Houston, SMU and Memphis in a previous invasion, it swiped Tulane in all sports and East Carolina in football. And that spurred C-USA to take Middle Tennessee State and Florida Atlantic from the Sun Belt.
In a conference call to introduce the conference’s two new teams, Banowsky said all this upheaval isn’t good for college athletics and colleges in general.
It’s disturbing to a lot of people, I think, because it’s so volatile that we’re breaking down the system and we’re destroying rivalries and creating a lot of distrust among universities. So it’s disturbing. I understand the reasons, sometimes, for moves. Obviously, there’s a significant amount of commercial influence on associations and conferences. I get that. My hope is we can find some opportunity to breathe and settle a little bit in higher education because I think it’s helpful for us to chart a path that’s on a more stable footing. But the forces are there. They’re strong forces, so change may be the new norm in our industry.
Here’s where it’s tough for Banowsky. When the Big Ten or Big 12 goes hunting for new teams, it can poach teams like Maryland or TCU or Rutgers. When a conference a tier lower, like the Big East, need to replenish, it can go after a C-USA that had some pretty attractive options. Houston and SMU sit in good markets. UCF and ECU are solid football programs.
When C-USA has to replenish? The choices aren’t as glitzy. MTSU and FAU are smart picks. MTSU puts the conference in the Nashville market. FAU fortifies C-USA’s foothold in South Florida, with FIU joining the conference next season.
But the big-splash announcement isn’t there. When I asked Marshall fans what they thought of the new-look C-USA, one person said the conference should approach some bigger names. Kentucky can’t compete in the SEC in football, that person said, so why not move to C-USA?
And abandon the $19.5 million in annual TV money the SEC provides for the $2-3 million C-USA teams get? Keep dreamin’. Ain’t happenin’.
This is where it gets tough for Banowsky and C-USA. They must keep their conference viable, but have only solid, not spectacular choices to make. Banowsky said that, as much as he dislikes realignment’s chaos, C-USA will be ready if the waves come crashing again.
We’re going to have a process. You kind of have to deal with management of expectations and kind of continue to evaluate the landscape, but we’ll have a presidential process and we’re going to focus on what our optimum structure is. And, whether or not the Big East moves again or somebody moves again, we’ll be ready if they do. But it’s not going to influence what we think might be the best structure. It’s kind of a long way of saying we may grow again, but we need to be thoughtful in the way we do it.
So, while Banowsky said he didn’t know where reports of Western Kentucky and New Mexico State as the next C-USA members came from, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if the Big Red and/or the Aggies join the conference somewhere down the line.
Banowsky might not like conference upheaval, but he won’t criticize the other conferences or their commissioners. They have to do what’s best for themselves, and with MTSU and FAU on their way to C-USA, Banowsky isn’t sittling idly by. He does, however, wish the other conferences would sometimes think about what this does to college athletics as a whole.
We all just have to know that we have a responsibility to our own conferences. Each institution has a responsibility to their institution. But we’re also part of a bigger system. And it’s important for us to occasionally think, “How has the system improved and what can we do to make the system better?”
It’s a big fabric. When we start ripping the fabric or putting a lot of stress on the fabric, things separate. It’s just hard to keep it woven tightly. When it’s not woven tightly, it’s not good for the United States. It’s not good for higher education. It’s just a mess.
Question is, does anyone want to clean it up?