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Friday, March 09, 2007

Columnist Geoff Caukins "For Memphis, C-USA Is Out of its League"

For Memphis, C-USA is out of its league

Geoff Calkins
March 8, 2007

Here we are, high noon, time to tip off the start of the Conference USA basketball tournament, so let's go right to a UTEP fan, dressed in orange, to capture all the hoopla, all the pageantry, all the passion of college basketball.

"How would I describe it?" said Mark Urban, 27. "Uh, it's kinda dead."



Disco isn't this dead. Compared with the C-USA tournament Wednesday, Barbaro is feeling positively frisky.

"Of course, this is the first day," said Urban.

When the bad teams play.

The rest of the bad teams play today. Plus, Memphis.

And if this does not seem like a particularly hospitable thing to say to the fans visiting from other schools, put your mind at ease: There are no fans visiting from other schools. Or not many.

At tipoff of the first game, there were three fans in the upper deck. There were two fans in section 102.

Elma Roane could have hosted the Wednesday games. No, not the Elma Roane Field House. Elma Roane, herself, in her living room.

And we could go on like this for a good long while, except the point isn't to dampen enthusiasm (har!) for the proceedings at FedExForum. The point is to ask, again, what Memphis is doing to maneuver itself into a BCS conference?

This is the central challenge for the athletic administration at Memphis. Next to getting into a BCS conference, everything else is details.

Get into a BCS conference, and the football program could turn into Louisville or Rutgers.

Get into a BCS conference, and the basketball coach won't have to beg fans to come "to watch their own team."

Get into a BCS conference, and UofM coach John Calipari won't have to tell whoppers in the interest of marketing.

"This is going to be a great event," he said Wednesday.

Right. And Memphis did everything right when it tried to get into the Big East the last time around.

This is the story according to Memphis athletic director R.C. Johnson who, it should be noted, was not very happy about this paper raising this topic on this day.

The commissioner is in town, and stuff. Why point out the weakness of the conference now?

Because, well, it's just plain sad, particularly for those who remember how it used to be.

Conference tournaments used to be a kick. Conference tournaments used to be the Louisville crowd and the Cincinnati throng and nobody even knew who would win the thing.

Now it's Memphis and everyone else. It feels like one of those Christmas tournaments. Not only is Memphis the only team headed to the NCAA Tournament, Memphis is the only team headed to any postseason tournament.

A Web site called projects the field of the NIT. No C-USA team is even listed as a bubble team.

What does it say about C-USA that we're even talking about NIT bubble teams?

It says it's time to think about getting out, and thinking hard, and even doing some -- gasp -- long-term planning.

Johnson said again Wednesday that he thinks Memphis' failure to be invited to join the Big East was "totally a geographic issue."

This is too bad, and not because geography didn't have something to do with it.

Of course it did. Memphis is a long way from Syracuse and Pittsburgh.

But geography doesn't change. Geography is an excuse to do nothing.

The better approach is to say, "OK, South Florida isn't close to Syracuse or Pittsburgh, either, and South Florida got into the Big East. So geography can be overcome. How do we overcome it?"

Then you appoint a committee. You make certain everyone understands this is your highest priority.

You come up with a strategic plan. You summon all the good and great of Memphis and figure out how to make yourself irresistible.

Nobody knows when another conference shakeup is coming. But one is coming. When it comes, will Memphis be ready?

Will Memphis administrators have built real relationships with the Big East athletic directors?

Will they have tried to sway the muckety-mucks at Syracuse and Connecticut, who are said to have opposed Memphis the last time around?

Will they have leveraged the full power of FedEx, one of the most important sponsors in the world of college athletics?

For example: FedEx Ground is based in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh is in the Big East. Can these two facts be used to the advantage of Memphis?

This isn't the kind of effort that can be accomplished in a day. It will require both vision and diligence.

In the meantime, absolutely, enjoy the C-USA Tournament at FedExForum.

Good tickets are still available.

Contact Geoff Calkins at 529-2364

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