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Conference USA hit rock bottom in 2020

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How did the conference arrive at this point, and how do things improve moving forward?

NCAA Football: South Alabama at Southern Mississippi Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Look, we all had a rough year this year but few of us had it as bad as Conference USA did in 2020. The beleaguered league just wrapped up a bowl season where they went winless in postseason play, which was sadly unsurprising given the performance in the regular season.

Before C-USA got thumped in bowl season the league was taking losses in measuring stick games left and right. The conference finished the season with a 52-63 overall record and boasted just one moderately impressive out of conference win, a slim victory for Marshall over Appalachian State.

Conference USA lost out of conference games to Georgia State, Troy, Louisiana, Georgia Southern, SMU, South Alabama, and Tulane. Liberty beat about a third of the conference. Jacksonville State even got in on the fun, pulling an FCS upset over FIU. Many of these games were total blowouts, and not at all competitive.

Marshall, the conference’s lone hope of redemption in the rocky seas of 2020, had a complete collapse in the last few weeks of the season as they went from a potential New Year’s Six bowl candidate to winless since November 14th.

While there’s not a single explanation for the conference’s poor performance on the field, several factors have played into the league’s decline.

NCAA Football: Camellia Bowl-Marshall vs Buffalo
Despite their star running back opting out of the game, Buffalo still defeated Marshall 17-10 in the Camellia Bowl
Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Poor expansion choices

2013 was the start of Conference USA’s decline. The majority of the league jump shipped to kickstart the American Athletic Conference, joining forces with several former Big East programs. This led to the departure of household names such as Memphis, Houston, SMU, and UCF, a loss which the conference may never recover from.

With seven programs on their way out, former C-USA Commissioner Britton Banowsky had his hands full with re-building the conference’s roster. In a controversial move, Banowsky was laser-focused on adding programs situated in major television markets, extending affiliation invitations to programs that had limited or zero sustained success on the football field. As Power 5 conferences saw their TV contract payouts explode, C-USA banked on the hope that boasting a large reach of television sets in major markets would give the conference a larger piece of the TV money pie.

While there was a logic in Banowsky’s decision making, time has proven that the strategy was utterly naïve. Television executives were well aware that FIU commanded very little of the Miami sports world’s attention. Many of the additions such as Middle Tennessee and North Texas could barely claim their inclusion in their nearby major media markets. The dream of a massive television payout turned into a joke, while programs that C-USA overlooked went on to become juggernaut programs.

Let’s do a quick record comparison between the teams Conference USA brought in during its most recent realignment, versus teams that were left out. Listed are the team’s record since 2013 or 2014 (where appropriate) as well as winning percentage over that span of time.

Conference USA additions from 2013-2014

  • Charlotte 21-45 (32%)
  • FIU 37-55 (40%)
  • La Tech 61-41 (60%)
  • UNT 45-54 (45%)
  • UTSA 40-56 (42%)
  • ODU 31-42 (42%)
  • FAU 47-50 (48%)
  • MTSU 51-48 (52%)
  • WKU* 54-37 (59%)

Alternate candidates

  • Appalachian State* 70-20 (78%)
  • Louisiana* 52-37 (58%)
  • Coastal* 24-29 (45%)
  • Georgia Southern 50-38 (57%)
  • Troy* 54-38 (59%)
  • Arkansas State 59-42 (58%)
  • James Madison 75-21 (78% with an FCS National Championship)

* Team has been ranked in the AP poll over the last seven seasons

Middle Tennessee v Charlotte
A Charlotte fan voices his frustration with the program in 2017.
Photo by Mike Comer/Getty Images

Disastrous TV Contracts

It’s a bit ironic that Conference USA has had such poor television contracts since that was the entire strategic goal of the conference’s most recent realignment. Instead of C-USA’s members stuffing their billfolds with million-dollar payouts, the league’s per-school payouts actually decreased following post-realignment contract negotiations, a first in college football history.

The conference went from a total payout of about $14 million to roughly $2 million, a stunning 86% decrease. Around the same time, the MAC committed to a 13 year deal with ESPN that pays out around $10 million per year.

Such a drastic decrease in revenue could be justified if the league was expanding the inventory of its games on easy to watch outlets. The exact opposite happened. Over the past seven years I’ve watched Conference USA games on ESPN channels, Fox Sports national and regional channels, CBS Sports, NFL Network, Stadium, BeIN Sports, American Sports Network, CUSA.tv, ESPN+, Facebook, Twitter, and Periscope when Rice’s in-stadium production cut out during an overtime game against North Texas in 2016.

Conference USA football is hard to watch, and even more hard to find. No one is stumbling upon these games, and very few are popping up on the television at your neighborhood pub.

This inconvenience drives away casual fans, but it has an even bigger impact on recruiting. The more barriers to watch a game the harder it is for coaching staffs to get their brand and message out to prospects. I can’t imagine many recruiting coordinators are hitting up three-star prospects with a text about signing up for a $10 payment to catch this week’s game.

Maryland v FIU
FIU’s hire of Ron Turner killed the Panthers’ ascension and set the program back drastically.
Photo by G Fiume/Maryland Terrapins/Getty Images

Poor coaching hires

While I’m titling this section “Poor coaching hires”, schools letting sitting coaches stick around for way too long has been just as inhibiting.

When Old Dominion and Charlotte made the jump from FCS to C-USA they didn’t upgrade their coaching staff along with the increase in competition. Bobby Wilder and Brad Lambert greatly struggled to recruit at the FBS level and couldn’t keep their team competitive at the higher level. Both schools kept their FCS coaches in charge of their programs for way too long, perhaps due to the lack of pressure from fans/donors, or leadership not fully committing to competing at the FBS level.

Rice found themselves in a similar situation as they chose to coast things out with David Bailiff after the Owls’ production and recruiting fell off a cliff following their 2013 conference championship.

Some poor coaching decisions date back even further. FIU notoriously fired Mario Cristobal back in 2012 despite Cristobal leading the program to record success and being a perfect fit for the school as the first Cuban-American head football coach in the NCAA. Of course Cristobal went on to become the head coach at Oregon, winning Pac-12 championships in 2019 and 2020.

The Panthers ditched their young, energetic ace recruiter with a sixty-year-old NFL assistant which set their program back by many years. Butch Davis is still trying to build out of the hole that Ron Turner left in Miami.

It’s not just the newcomers that have been afflicted by poor decision making at the head coaching position.

Southern Miss punted on their last coaching search and hired a local product that they felt wasn’t a threat to leave for a bigger program. The results for Jay Hopson matched the level of interest from Power 5 programs as the Golden Eagles finished third or worse in C-USA West in all but one season under Hopson.

On a related note, Middle Tennessee placed stability over ambition by signing Rick Stockstill to one of the most laughably coach-friendly contracts I’ve ever seen in any sport. Stockstill has a 51% winning percentage as a head coach, is 2-6 in bowl games, and has never won a C-USA championship. Despite the mediocrity, Stockstill’s contract at MTSU runs until 12/31/2024, leaving his buyout at roughly $6 million. To add insult to injury, Stockstill’s contract gets automatically extended each time his team finishes with a winning record and at least five conference wins.

Good coaches at this level will be poached by the Power 5 — that’s just reality no matter how much a coach talks about loving his current program. It’s telling that Conference USA has had just two coaches hired into the Power 5 since the 2013 realignment — Jeff Brohm and Lane Kiffin.

Conference USA map courtesy of Sport League Maps
Sport League Maps

Geographic sprawl and lack of brand association

Conference USA is big. Like laughably big. Stretching from El Paso to Norfolk and Huntington to Miami, C-USA covers an eye-popping 970,000 square miles. If Conference USA was a country it would be larger than Mexico and twice the size of South Africa.

This type of sprawl has a few negative impacts on the conference.

High travel costs are a hit on the budget for Olympic sports, and the extra hours on busses and planes (good luck flying from Hattiesburg to Huntington without a charter!) presents a competitive disadvantage.

Above all, the geographical distance creates a social distance from the leagues’ members. Each schools’ fans and administrators feel very little camaraderie with each other, and rivalries have been extremely difficult to develop outside of those that were inherited from the Sun Belt. Not a single C-USA member would bat an eye at leaving this group of conference mates in the dust.

Since the average sports fan can’t estimate what schools are in the conference thanks to its massive geographic footprint, Conference USA has very little brand recognition at the individual school level. I’m willing to bet 99% of college football fans and high school football recruits wouldn’t be able to guess more than 8 of the conference’s 14 members if asked to do so.

NCAA Football: North Alabama at Southern Mississippi Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Stagnation from legacy programs

I’ve seen a lot of fans from Marshall and Southern Miss complain about being unable to grow their programs without having Houston, Memphis, SMU, etc. around. I definitely disagree with that.

While Conference USA was waiting for programs like Charlotte, UTSA and FAU to develop their potential, the original Conference USA members should have feasted on the blood of the conference’s less-talented additions. Nine and ten win seasons from Southern Miss, Marshall, UTEP, and Rice should have been common in the years following conference realignment. The table was absolutely set for some of these programs to rack up easy wins and turn impressive records into stellar recruiting classes and national attention.

While Marshall delivered on this in 2014, the newcomers pretty much hung around with the old guard for the most part as the entire conference failed to separate from the pack.

Knowing that a rising tide lifts all boats, more runaway success from the established programs could have provided a big boost to the start-ups to expedite their growth like we’ve seen Temple and SMU benefit from the attention of competing against ranked Memphis and UCF teams regularly. Same goes for Coastal Carolina and Georgia State as Appalachian State, Troy, and Louisiana have elevated their programs in the Sun Belt.

How to improve going forward

The previous 1,600 words were a lot of doom and gloom, but there is a fair amount of hope on the horizon for Conference USA.

More than anything else, C-USA has to start hitting on more head coach hires. Will Healy at Charlotte and Jeff Traylor at UTSA have impressed out of the gate, while Will Hall at Southern Miss and Ricky Rahne at Old Dominion look good on paper. Conference USA programs, for the most part, need to target young and energetic program builders. A 60-year-old retread might work for some programs, but almost every C-USA school needs active recruiters and innovative minds to get back on track.

To that note, several programs need to make serious investments in their facilities. There has been some great progress in this area at schools like Louisiana Tech, Marshall, ODU, UNT, and Rice but with Conference USA’s recruiting advantage over the Sun Belt all but disappearing over the past few years it’s clear that new bells and whistles are needed to attract top talent.

With TV payouts already in the dumps, Conference USA should forego looking for revenue here and instead focus on inventory availability. If a game isn’t on a linear TV network then it should be available on ESPN+. Unless a game is on CBS Sports or Fox Sports then you should be able to watch in on the ESPN app from your smart TV, phone, or Xbox. End of story.

If realignment were to push the winds of change through college football again then C-USA needs to focus on geographic contraction and acquire winning programs with a clear institutional imperative to win on the field. With less money to go around, dropping a team or two may make sense. The Sun Belt has clearly benefitted from losing Idaho and New Mexico State, and the American isn’t losing a second of sleep over UConn jumping ship.

The conference should do everything it can to foster real rivalries, but more than anything else, each member of the conference needs to buy in to a clear and consistent vision for C-USA. That life raft from the AAC isn’t coming anytime soon, and definitely not for every team in the conference.

It’s up to each member to elevate their program and make the conference better as a whole. I’ve noticed way fewer Sun Belt fans begging the AAC for an invitation on Twitter than Conference USA fans and that’s because the teams in the Sun Belt are seeing success where they are today. While a jump up in exposure and revenue would be nice, they know that they’re capable of achieving great things in their current conference because their conference mates are doing so right now.

Many members of this conference seem to want to bypass the process of building a winning program to get into a higher-profile conference and think that will somehow miraculously solve all of their problems. That may have worked back in 2013 but no conference is going to make that mistake again. It’s time for C-USA programs to put their money where their mouth is and build consistent winners the right way with rabid fan support, decisive administrative leadership, and an unfaltering commitment to getting better every day.