GIVE A HEARTY welcome to the five institutions of higher football education joining Conference USA, aka The League of Misfit Schools.These schools, described below, are vaulting from humble roots into some of the richest 17 years of mid-major tradition you will ever find. And get this: All five have football programs ahead of that at the departing University of Memphis.(Yes, two of the newcomers haven't played a down of major-college football. As Marshall basketball coach Tom Herrion would say, "You can laugh.")The five schools are Louisiana Tech, North Texas, Florida International, Texas-San Antonio and North Carolina-Charlotte. They join in the summer of 2013.
(We think Old Dominion will join the fray, once folks there get used to the idea of traveling beyond Williamsburg for road games.)This quintet will discover a number of benefits of C-USA membership, such as an increase in television revenue (from near zero, generally) to an increase in bowl opportunities (though that BCS access thing is closing) to relative stability (two are escaping the WAC-tanic). Charlotte and UTSA win the best springboard into major-college football since Marshall mashed the MAC.Fans of the new schools will see better football and will discover that, no, their sports teams won't be shuttling to East Carolina and/or El Paso every week. This is also a great league in which to hire coaches with personality, a checkered past or both.They'll discover that in C-USA, you don't lose your shirt to play in a bowl. For example, Marshall played in the oft-pilloried Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl in the even-more-pilloried Tropicana Field, and had a $54,000 surplus to show for it.(West Virginia lost $200,000-plus in one of those open-the-vault BCS bowl games? Really?)So, as Conference USA bids adieu to Houston, Memphis, Central Florida and Southern Methodist, what will Marshall fans see from the newbies? Let's take a look.Nicknames: Serious upgrade. C-USA loses three tired monikers and welcomes two great ones: Roadrunners (UTSA) and Mean Green (North Texas). Throw in the Thundering Herd and this league may own the three best nicknames this side of the Banana Slugs.
Football stadiums: Upgrade. I'll trade you Robertson Stadium for the Alamodome.
Or for North Texas' new Apogee Stadium. Or for FIU's still-in-progress crib. Or for what Charlotte is building. Louisiana Tech has the oldest of the bunch, 44-year-old Joe Aillet Stadium.(Trivia item: East Carolina was the visiting team in the first game in that venue, 1968.)Football pedigree, tradition: Nothing to compare with two former Southwest Conference entries, to be sure. C-USA is banking on upside.
Louisiana Tech and North Texas carry long histories across multiple divisions (their alums include Terry Bradshaw and Mean Joe Greene, respectively, so they can't be non-historic).Tech carries the better pedigree recently, piecing together 10 winning seasons since climbing to Division I-A in the late 1980s. North Texas hasn't had a coach with a winning record since Hayden Fry (1973-78).
Men's basketball: Downgrade. No Memphis here, folks. Even Charlotte, home of South Charleston's Pierria' Henry, has lost 37 games the last two seasons.
Louisiana Tech had the highest Rating Percentage Index of the newcomers in 2011-12, 160th. The others ranged from Charlotte (167) to FIU (257), the latter firing Isiah Thomas afterward.Good news: There are two very good NBA arenas that could host the league tournament. Shoot, maybe the league should put the 2013 tourney in Charlotte, even if the 49ers are still in the Atlantic 10.Women's basketball: Louisiana Tech suffered a 17-15 record this past season, but the storied Lady Techsters do have a 178-page media guide. Seriously.
Baseball: C-USA needed teams, any teams. After the defections to the Big East, the league would have numbered six. Quality-wise, FIU may be the only contender.Rivalries: League-wide, Louisiana Tech and Southern Miss have played each other 44 times in football, and had games scheduled in 2013 and 2014.
As far as Marshall is concerned, you know about the Thundering Herd's bowl win over FIU. The Herd will no doubt try to avenge that 26-0 loss at Ruston, La., in 1942.As for North Texas, older Herd fans will remember the 1988 Division I-AA first-round game at Fairfield Stadium, won by MU 7-0. It may still be the nastiest street fight I've seen in Huntington, with two UNT players reprimanded by the NCAA.Basketball-wise, the Herd played Charlotte six times in the 1970s, winning four. MU lost to Louisiana Tech twice in the 1980s, including that memorable 69-63 game in which rookie Tom Curry debuted against Karl Malone. The Herd also owns a neutral-site win over North Texas (1990) and a 2010 home over Thomas' FIU team.Mascot: I am happy to report that Louisiana Tech has a real, live bulldog mascot, much like the Uga line at Georgia. This tradition dates back to 1899, and the current top dog is Tech XX.
Among costume mascots, Rowdy the Roadrunner has the best name, but Charlotte's Norm the Niner has appeared in national competitions. North Texas' is named Scrappy, which begs a wisecrack. But don't worry, it's not Scooby's son - it's a simple eagle and does not threaten Toledo's Rocky the Rocket for the title of world's worst mascot.Coolest tradition: Also Louisiana Tech, also in the bulldog theme. It's a statue honoring the "Spirit of '88," commemorating the team of that season. The school was transitioning to Division I-A with just 65 scholarships and a brutal independent schedule.
Suffering losses of 60-0, 38-6, 66-3 and 56-17, those Bulldogs still went 4-7. The next three teams went 5-4-1, 8-3-1 and 8-1-2. Today's players touch the bronze canine on their way to the field. Tourist destinations: While rooting for Old Dominion (beach trip) to enter the league, consider San Antonio (Riverwalk, Alamo), Denton (40 miles from Dallas, Fort Worth), Miami (South Beach), Ruston (casinos in nearby Shreveport) and Charlotte ... Charlotte ...
Oh, yes, all your friends and family. I almost forgot.Anyway, welcome all ye newcomers to our mixed-up little conference. Kick off your shoes and stay awhile.Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130 or email@example.com
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