MTSU's patience rewarded with move to Conference USA

Thursday, November 29, 2012 at 5:14pm

MURFREESBORO — Middle Tennessee State was left standing at the altar.

Groomed by Conference USA as a potential future member, this state's second-largest university didn’t make the final cut last spring when six schools joined the league.

Athletics director Chris Massaro felt a sense of disappointment. He didn't throw in the towel.

“We just kept our place in line and patience paid off,” Massaro said. “We knew that conference realignment isn’t over and it was probably a matter of time before something happens again.”

Nearly six months later, Massaro wore a satisfying smile as he and MTSU president Sidney McPhee officially accepted an invitation from C-USA on Thursday in front of a crowd stretched over three floors of the new $65 million student union building.

“Simply, it was validation in what we’re trying to accomplish,” Massaro said. “It is a validation of our student-athletes and our coaches’ hard work. It is on their backs and the former student-athletes and coaches that have all contributed here. It is really validation of our growth and where we’re trying to be.”

MTSU wasn’t alone on Thursday as Sun Belt partner Florida Atlantic also accepted an invite from C-USA, which lost East Carolina and Tulane to the Big East on Tuesday.

The two schools give C-USA, which was formed in 1995 and is headquartered in Irving, Texas, 14 members by the 2014-15 season. The Blue Raiders hope to join no later than July 1, 2014. Massaro said the transition process might be quicker but wants to make sure the Sun Belt is “comfortable and not left without options.” He plans to have discussions with SBC commissioner Karl Benson about the school’s obligations and the exit fee, which is currently $1 million.

Both McPhee and Massaro were complimentary of the Sun Belt, which MTSU joined in 2000 after 47 years in the Ohio Valley Conference. The Blue Raiders has won 54 conference championships in addition to eight all-sports trophies.

But similar to FAU — and Sun Belt counterparts Florida International and North Texas, which were two of the six schools that were offered C-USA membership in May — MTSU wants to expand its horizons. Massaro touted the new student union building, a $30 million education building and the construction of a $147 million science building as signs of the school’s growth.

“Everything we do at our university is positioning the university for the future,” McPhee said. “We will continue to move forward in the direction of athletics increasing and enhancing our facilities. This is consistent with that direction and we’ll continue to be aggressive in that way.”

Most observers of college athletics consider C-USA more prestigious than the Sun Belt. For example, C-USA member Rice University has a $4.5 billion endownment and is consistently ranked among the top 25 universities in the United States. UAB offers a medical school, while Tulsa is an elite private institution. In sports, Southern Mississippi is highly regarded in football, while UTEP has a national title in men's basketball. Lousiana Tech, which will join MTSU as a C-USA newcomer, is a national power in women's hoops.

Even with C-USA eventually losing Central Florida, East Carolina, Houston, Memphis, SMU and Tulane to the Big East, the league remains viable with a mix of universities offering quality athletics and academics.

With the move, Massaro sees opportunities to strengthen corporate and ticket sales, increase alumni donations and open new recruiting avenues. The Blue Raiders will also get into more homes with larger national and regional television expsosure. C-USA has partnerships with CBS Sports Network, Fox Sports Media Group and ESPN.

Expanding into the Nashville market intrigued C-USA commissioner Britton Banowsky, who thinks the Blue Raiders will strengthen the league’s RPI in multiple sports.

“They’ve had a lot of competitive success over the years,” Banowsky said. “They have a really robust fan base, which is obviously important, and so they bring a lot to the table. They do it right; they manage their academics real well and they have great leadership with Chris Massaro. They bring a lot to the table. At a time when you need stability, you need members like Middle Tennessee State.’’

Whether the success the Blue Raiders enjoyed in the Sun Belt carries over to C-USA remains to be seen.

This year, C-USA has four bowl-eligible football teams. On 90 occassions, men’s basketball teams have reached the postseason since the league’s inception. But MTSU baseball coach Jim McGuire believes the biggest step up will come on the diamond. C-USA has played in 12 College World Series, with Rice as a perennial contender and national champion in 2003.

“It is a very, very strong baseball league,” McGuire said. “Overall, baseball might be the strongest sport in Conference USA, top to bottom, compared to anybody else. It will be among the top five or six conferences in the country.”

And C-USA might not be finished growing.

Banowsky has flirted with the idea of 16 members and Western Kenucky has been reported as a potential candidate. If WKU doesn’t move to C-USA, Massaro said he wants to keep playing against the rival Hilltoppers, especially in football.

Scheduling an old foe isn’t a hassle to Massaro. Currently, he has few worries in that regard.

And nearly six months ago, he maintains he didn’t fret much — even when others thought he should.

“It was a difficult position, honestly, to be in,” Massaro recalls. “We’re in the Sun Belt Conference and it became very public, our efforts to get into Conference USA. Then there are elements of our fan base that probably said we didn’t do enough. So we took a little bit of criticism.

“But we never stayed off path. We were always very hopeful.”