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Friday, March 02, 2007

Great Blog From Duke Keith, KLAQ Radio in El Paso, On C-USA, the One-Bid Conference


That Will Do
Duke Keith's Views On Sports And Such

Duke Keith is the sports director for KLAQ, does morning sports on KROD, and does pretty much whatever events MetroSports Southwest is televising. He's been involved with local sports media since coming to El Paso in 1990.
You can listen to Duke on the KLAQ Morning Show, weekdays 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. and watch him on MetroSports Southwest's "News & Views".

Duke comments on sports in general, especially its lighter side.

E-mail Duke at dkeith@klaq.com.

February 24, 2007
C-USA Needs to Check That Light at the End of the Tunnel
Hi ho hi ho, it's off to school we go
We have no chance
For the Big Dance
Hi ho, hi ho

Ladies and gentlemen, we present Memphis and the 11 Dwarves, also known as Conference USA men's basketball.

Sorry, but unless a school other than Memphis wins the C-USA tournament -- in Memphis -- this is a one-bid league. And we're not talking about a bid for auction, either; although you get the feeling the conference got what was left of an estate sale after the heirs were finished picking out the good stuff.

The lack of overall success means Conference USA is looking more like a strained stew these days, and something needs to change. In the annual race between conferences -- where bling is king in terms of construction, coaches' contracts, TV exposure and post-season appearances -- C-USA seems to be left behind.

Almost two seasons removed from losing Marquette, Cincinnati and Louisville, among others, and one season removed from losing Mike Anderson and Doc Sadler, there is a vacuum in Conference USA. And though C-USA schools have spent good money for coaches like Larry Eustachy and Mike Davis, a few fans here are beginning to second-guess UTEP's choice for a conference home.

Part of this kvetching might be separation withdrawal. The Miners' old conference, now including its I-10 arch-rival, could end up having four teams with 20 wins or more. Western Athletic Conference schools Nevada, New Mexico State and Utah State are already there. Fresno State has 19 wins with three games remaining. The always-underrated WAC could get three teams in the NCAA Tournament, but probably won't unless the Wolfpack or the Aggies don't win the WAC tourney -- in Las Cruces, NM.

Part of it is the success of conferences that might be considered behind C-USA in the pecking order. A few years back, the Missouri Valley Conference demanded its schools ramp up their scheduling, coaches' salaries and facilities. There are penalties if you don't keep up with the Joneses, too. The result is a conference considered a basketball powerhouse nationally.

It's not an absolute comparison because the MVC doesn't play Division 1A football, but it gives an idea of the business plan some conferences have -- a plan those who follow C-USA hope that conference has.

Part of the grumbling also comes from the fact C-USA hasn't had the best of school years in either major sport. Football was competitive within the conference, but going 0-for-14 against Top 25 competition and with a single bowl victory in five tries doesn't help.

But basketball? Yeesh. Undefeated in conference play stand the Tigers, a saguaro cactus looming over the rat's nest of prickly pear competition at its base. Actually, rats would know better than to build a nest in this mess.

So why has UTEP?

The answers are easier than you might think. Television and bowl games.

Yes, college football bowl tie-ins have very little to do with basketball on the surface, but you must walk before you run, and if you're a conference that plays football and men's basketball at the D-1A level, you start and end on the gridiron. It's program- (and conference-) building 101.

Considering UTEP's longer history and bigger name in hoops, it's a little sad. But it's the harsh reality of conference affiliation these days that potential TV audiences and demographics rule the roost. Demographers, TV networks and advertisers love football.

We hear UTEP athletic director Bob Stull is still sending purple and white Thank You cards to a certain Fort Worth address for giving up a space in a conference with a legit television deal.

TCU might want that spot back after dealing with the Mountain West's TV woes. I'm sure Horned Frogs fans are really into those heated rivalry games with UNLV and San Diego State, though I'm sure they've learned to dislike Brigham Young as much as any old WAC school.

Speaking of, gripe away about how good the WAC is these days in both football and basketball. It won't change the fact that the whole conference lives paycheck to paycheck because it can't put any stock in its un-deal with ESPN. Actually, it should read: TV won't put any stock in the WAC.

The big Boise State-San Jose State football matchup this last season, scheduled to be on ESPN2, was dropped by the network. At the time, the WAC was worried it might cost the Broncos a shot at a BCS berth.

Why the drop and why no TV deal? Because the only WAC schools that get first share of local media coverage are in the sparsely-populated states of Hawaii and Idaho. From there it gets worse.

How about Nevada? The Wolfpack is top dog locally, but outside Reno? Not with the steady parade of high-profile boxing matches and UNLV in front of them. Not even in Parumph.

NMSU is second fiddle in two markets, Albuquerque and El Paso. Utah State is third fiddle to Utah and BYU. San Jose State is fourth fiddle to Cal, Stanford and anybody else in the Pac-10; and to the rest of California, Fresno State might as well be a trade school.

Louisiana Tech? Please. The South Central Louisiana State Mud Dogs beat La-Tech's merchandise sales on bottles of Bobby Boucher "High-Quality H-2-O" alone.

So few television sets and no recognizable names, other than Boise State? And with the Broncos all but publicly salivating at the prospect of joining the Mountain West Conference? UTEP got out just in time, because it could get uglier soon for the WAC.

Thanks to C-USA Commissioner Britton Banowsky, the league ended up with a better overall deal with two cable TV sports outfits than it did just with ESPN. They took a large pay cut from ESPN after losing all the big hoops teams, but College Sports Television actually puts C-USA's annual TV payout to $11.3 million over six years.

As for C-USA ship-jumpers, there is Memphis. The Tigers would love a move to the Big East. They're about the only school that can make a jump, all on the basis of basketball.

But Memphis has a problem. The Tigers play D-1A football, too, and they're not very good at it. With all the open speculation about the Big East being dropped as a Bowl Championship Series conference after its defections, the last thing it wants is Memphis' dead weight plunging the conference into the abyss.

Then you have Tigers' head basketball coach and Tony Barbee's mentor, John Calipari, quoted in the article linked above (third paragraph), as saying "You watch. In the next two to three years we'll be a three- or four-bid league."

Sounds like Memphis isn't going -- or can't go -- anywhere.

A relatively secure conference outlook. A TV deal former conference mates in both the WAC and the Mountain West covet. Five, and sometimes six bowl tie-ins.

It is still much better for UTEP right where they are, though conference affiliation is never permanent. The Mountain West taught El Paso this.

However, establishing winning football and basketball programs is a must for the entire conference. Otherwise, ESPN might be saying "Goodbye, UTEP-Memphis" and "Hello, Knight School 2."

Posted by Duke Keith on February 23, 2007 at 11:26 PM | Permalink
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