Middle Tennessee State athletics director Chris Massaro wanted to wait until after the Blue Raiders played for the Sun Belt football championship to announce the university's intent to leave the conference.
That the announcement of the move to Conference USA came two days before last weekend’s showdown against Arkansas State, which the Blue Raiders lost 45-0, wasn’t a factor in their omission from the postseason, Sun Belt commissioner Karl Benson claimed.
Monday, a day after MTSU was left out of a bowl despite an 8-4 record and tying for second in the Sun Belt both administrators jotted down their thoughts and shared them publicly. An open letter from Massaro addressed to Blue Raider fans was posted on the school’s website. The football page on the Sun Belt site featured a statement from Benson.
“While I am happy to have a record number of [four] Sun Belt teams in bowl games this season, I would be even happier if Middle Tennessee would have received a bid,” Benson said. “Additionally, our persistent efforts working for Arkansas State to appear in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl were not rewarded. [Arkansas State ended up in the GoDaddy.com Bowl.] I am disappointed with both of these outcomes and I understand why our fans feel so strongly about the results. Like our fans, coaches and student-athletes, I wanted what was best for Arkansas State and Middle Tennessee.
“I am also disappointed to hear that there is public opinion that I worked against schools in our conference – that could not be further from the truth. In fact, a great deal of work was done with our member institutions in an attempt to get the best possible outcome for bowl games.”
The Blue Raiders finished with a 6-2 league record but were the only school of the conference’s five bowl-eligible teams not invited to the postseason. Western Kentucky, which MTSU defeated on the road, finished fifth in the conference but was placed in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl in Detroit over the Blue Raiders.
Massaro noted the WKU win, along with an upset on the road at Georgia Tech, in his letter. He also pointed out the Blue Raiders had the biggest year-over-year win improvement after going 2-10 in 2011.
“There has also been a lot of talk about Middle Tennessee being left out of a bowl game because they have announced that they will be leaving the Sun Belt Conference,” Benson said. “At no point in time was that ever part of any conversation between Sun Belt officials and a representative of a bowl game. It truly was a nonfactor in how the selections were made. Again to reiterate, the bowl games selected the teams that they most wanted.”
Massaro said he hoped the announcement of MTSU’s departure could have waited until after the game against Arkansas State. But when Sun Belt officials got wind of the C-USA being interested in adding both MTSU and fellow Sun Belt member Florida Atlantic, the league scheduled a board meeting for Nov. 28.
“One of the proposals we heard from a reliable source was increasing exit fees to a sum as high as $10 million,” Massaro said. “Knowing this, President [Sidney] McPhee and I agreed the university should tender its withdrawal from the Sun Belt before the meeting convened. Upon notice of our withdrawal, the Sun Belt cancelled its meeting.”
With the word out, both MTSU and FAU held press conferences on Nov. 29 to announce their moves to the C-USA. Massaro said he was assured by the Sun Belt that the move would not affect how the league negotiated bowl placement.
“When the dust settled on Sunday, we learned that despite playing for the Sun Belt championship, we would not be among the teams heading for post-season play,” Massaro said. “… Personally, I am frustrated with decisions made in board rooms and not on the football field. Our team and fans deserve better. I think it is clear that the bowl system needs improvement and should be better than this. However, this incredibly frustrating turn of events will not define us or our season.”