Even before he was hired as athletic director at MTSU, Chris Massaro was asked about conference affiliation for Blue Raiders athletics.
It came during the interview process for the job he would eventually accept in April, 2005. And if MTSU had a dollar every time Massaro and university president Sidney McPhee were asked about joining Conference USA, well, the school could use that windfall to put a dent into the $700,000 exit fee it will pay the Sun Belt Conference so it can become a C-USA on July 1.
While the official date comes for departing the league it joined in 2000 to accommodate its rise in football status to NCAA Division I-A will come this summer, there was an unofficial declaration this past week when Conference USA commissioner Britton Banowsky was ushered on a two-day whirlwind tour by Massaro and McPhee to meet and greet dignitaries, business associates, media, fans and anybody who would listen to the good news.
Yet, even as it enters a league it has coveted and actively courted for several years now, there was an interesting twist added to the equation by McPhee just after a press luncheon last week in downtown Nashville at the Country Music Hall of Fame. This new membership in Conference USA for MTSU might not be the end game after all.
That comes against an ever-changing landscape of conference membership shifts that will remain fluid for several years to come.
“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.”
Say what? The ink is barely dry on the contract to move to C-USA, and MTSU is already looking around to see what is still out there when it comes to conference affiliation.
Then again, the Conference USA that MTSU will join this coming school year will look decidedly different in year two. After Memphis, Central Florida, SMU and Houston depart C-USA for the Big East Conference as MTSU arrives in July, East Carolina and Tulane will be leaving C-USA year after next in a similar move.
Also joining MTSU in leaving the Sun Belt for C-USA this coming school year are North Texas, Florida International and Florida Atlantic. The league will bloat to 16 teams in 2012-13 with 14 of those playing football in two seven-team divisions. In 2013-14, the membership settles at 14.
All the while, the wheels keep turning as schools keep jostling to move up the perceived conference food chain. Then again, all 11 of the Bowl Championship Series conferences, including C-USA and the Sun Belt, have been hit by conference realignment during this race to find a league most suitable for that school’s particular needs.
Which brings us back to MTSU not just settling into Conference USA wearing blinders, but rather keeping options open down the road as league memberships remain fluid.
“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,” McPhee said. “That is what we have done the past decade that allowed us to make this move now into Conference USA.”
Change doesn’t seem to bother Banowsky. Then again, it became apparent early in the process that certain Conference USA schools were interesting in joining the flow, especially when it comes to jumping to the Big East Conference. Thing is, the Big East has been poached and has a decidedly uncertain future.
“I probably take a different approach than most of the other conference commissioners,” Banowsky said. “I believe that change is OK. I think that it is actually healthy to have change. We know that each university is aspiring to be great.”
Indeed, MTSU should rejoice in finally landing a spot in the coveted Conference USA. But in doing so, we all should take a deep breath and understand that this might not be the final landing spot for Blue Raiders athletics in the long run.
Watch the video of the MTSU Cinference USA Luncheon below:
Greg Pogue, former executive sports editor at The DNJ, is host of the morning sports talk show on 102.5-FM The Game ESPN Radio Nashville. E-mail him at GregPogue@1025thegame.com.
Photo Credit: Tennessean.com