Does new C-USA suit U of M?
Weaker league hasn't hurt Tigers yet, but school officials, boosters admit concern
By Dan Wolken
March 8, 2007
From its budget to its national image, there is nothing more important to the University of Memphis' athletic department than the success of its men's basketball program.
And as the Tigers begin the Conference USA Tournament today at FedExForum, there is little doubt these are among the greatest times in program history. For the second straight year, Memphis is ranked in the top five nationally. The Tigers have gone 31-1 in C-USA since the league reorganized two years ago and stands on the verge of another top-three seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Yet even as Memphis has, in some ways, benefited greatly by dominating an inferior conference, there is long-term concern about the school's conference affiliation among fans, the community of Memphis boosters and even inside the athletic department.
Memphis athletic director R.C. Johnson readily admits he would have preferred to be invited into the Big East along with Cincinnati, Louisville, Marquette, DePaul and South Florida, the schools that left C-USA in the biggest conference shakeup this decade.
But with that opportunity now gone, Memphis now must wait for the next shifting of the sands while at the same time publicly promoting the virtues of C-USA membership.
"Our objective is, No. 1, make Conference USA the best we possibly can," Johnson said. "And No. 2, make our program so good and so strong that if something does happen, and it looks like it's something to the benefit of the Tigers, we're in a good position."
In addition to being the league's most prominent coach, John Calipari also must serve as C-USA's loudest spokesman. At every opportunity, he's either talking about its improved RPI this season (from 13th to 11th among all leagues) or the investment schools like Rice (arena renovations), SMU (practice facility), Southern Miss (practice facility) and Central Florida (new arena) are making to improve their programs.
Though the lack of NCAA Tournament-level rivals in C-USA hasn't hurt the Tigers' postseason prospects or their recruiting, Calipari must rely on his powers of persuasion until the league shows tangible improvement.
"I did this in that other league I was in (the Atlantic 10), and it was kind of the same results," Calipari said. "This is going to be a three-bid league, possibly next year, and two or three teams will go to the NIT. That's where it was three years prior to when it broke up.
"So in a short period of time, we've made commitments to saying, this thing is going to be done right. It hasn't hurt our recruiting, our ticket sales, anything. But it has helped us with a No. 1 seed, and what it will do this year, let's see; we'll have to play out."
C-USA commissioner Britton Banowsky termed the league's transition in basketball "a project," but said there is a mandate to improve the product significantly. He pointed to schools hiring nationally recognized coaches like UAB's Mike Davis and SMU's Matt Doherty and the capital commitments that are beginning to come to fruition.
"I think Cal can attest to the fact that the league is not going to prevent Memphis from achieving whatever goals its men's basketball program has," Banowsky said. "The league is not at the level of competition that we need them to be to be able to give Memphis a test night in and night out.
"But I'm really bullish on this league in the future. We feel like the ingredients are there. It's just a matter of time, if we stay focused, that we'll be able to see the results."
While the Tigers have indeed blossomed into a national power the past two years, the biggest concern among those close to the program is whether that could continue in C-USA should Calipari leave. Calipari nearly took the North Carolina State job last spring and will likely continue to be hotly pursued by major programs that have openings in the future.
For that reason, several prominent boosters advocate Memphis not just position itself for the next conference realignment but to actively pursue membership in another league.
"We are a thoroughbred racehorse right now, and we need to be playing basketball with other thoroughbreds," said Rick Spell, who sits on the six-member executive committee of the Tiger Athletic Advisory Board.
"Due to John's magnificent marketing and coaching capabilities, the conference is not a concern. And we like our conference members. These are great universities, but I am concerned if John were to not be our coach, would we be able to maintain the high level that Memphis (fans) would want and feel they deserve?
"For the long-term viability of our basketball program, there needs to be massive Conference USA improvement, which may not be possible. Therefore, we need a conference that can give us a conference of peers."
But which conference would that be? And how would Memphis get there?
The Big East already passed on Memphis once, and by signing a new TV deal worth more than $200 million with ESPN, its membership appears stable for the foreseeable future. Though it's easy to envision the league's eight private, non-football schools -- most of whom are currently struggling to compete -- eventually splitting off into their own league and opening slots in the Big East, it's probably a distant scenario.
Though there is no current groundswell of conference movement that could have an impact on Memphis, the dominoes could start falling at any time.
"I believe the landscape will change again, and there will be another opportunity for the University of Memphis to take a shot at a BCS league," said Alan Graf, executive vice president/CFO at FedEx and a significant Tigers supporter.
"You've got Tennessee and Ole Miss, so you wouldn't think they'd want Memphis in the Southeastern Conference. You hear some about whether Arkansas is leaving or not. You hear a lot of rumors from time to time. Obviously, we'd never be in the Big Ten, but they only have 11 teams and would probably like a 12th, so there are things you could see out there starting a sort of chain reaction."
In the meantime, what does Memphis do to improve its sales pitch so that it does not get passed over this time?
Johnson claims location was the biggest reason Memphis was passed over by the Big East, and that clearly can't be changed. Asked if there were any specific issues that needed to be addressed to make Memphis more attractive, Johnson said, "I really don't think so."
"We went through that in talking to the Big East people, and I think the only thing that hurt us was geography. We draw really well. We really do. And our (non-revenue sports) are getting better. We've got some great things going. Media, population, corporate sponsors, stability."
But with so much at stake financially, how vigilant does Memphis need to be? With its football program losing $2 million in the last fiscal year -- a figure unlikely to reverse itself without BCS dollars -- Memphis relies greatly on the profits generated by its men's basketball program.
Even with profits generated by Tiger Scholarship Fund donations required to purchase season tickets at FedExForum, the athletic department needed a $1.3 million stipend from the university to break even last year. Though basketball attendance hasn't necessarily been hurt by Conference USA, many of the empty seats at FedExForum would likely be filled if Memphis' home schedule included Syracuse, Connecticut and Georgetown.
Because of those revenue opportunities provided by a BCS conference, Graf said it's important for Memphis to keep improving its brand, and part of that could include its association with FedEx.
"What we've learned from all this is, we've got to continue to keep raising money and improve the facilities on a continual basis," Graf said. "I think R.C. has done the right thing. We've got to continue to raise money. Money is the key. I think we're doing all those things, and there's a terrific amount of corporate support. I think we'll be much better prepared to attack. ... If we get another opportunity, we're going to sell hard."
-- Dan Wolken: 529-2365
Wednesday's first round
Rice 77, UTEP 74
Southern Miss 59, SMU 52
Marshall 53, UAB 52
Tulsa 65, East Carolina 50
(2) UCF vs. (7) Rice, noon
(3) Houston vs. (6) Southern Miss, 2:30 p.m.
(1) Memphis vs. (8) Marshall, 6 p.m.
(4) Tulane vs. (5) Tulsa, 8:30 p.m.
Today's tickets: $30, $15 and $5 per session. Available at FedExForum and through Ticketmaster (555-1212 or ticketmaster.com).
Today's TV: CSTV (Ch. 222 on Comcast digital cable, Ch. 610 on DIRECTV, Ch. 152 on DISH Network). CSTV is not all available on every cable or satellite package.
Today's radio: All games except Tigers' on WHBQ-AM (560)