MURFREESBORO, Tenn. - Middle Tennessee and Florida Atlantic will join Conference USA, leaving the Sun Belt as part of the ever-changing college landscape.Conference USA announced the addition of its new members Thursday, just two days after Tulane and East Carolina left Conference USA for the Big East. ECU is joining the league in football only and must find a new home elsewhere for its other sports."These are two great universities in wonderful places that have made strong commitments to athletics, and we're excited about the potential they bring to the conference,'' C-USA Commissioner Britton Banowsky said.The two new members joining Conference USA by 2014 will give the league 14 schools in 10 states.Middle Tennessee President Sidney McPhee called Thursday a "historic day,'' noting that universities have been in "constant movement'' to align themselves. The Blue Raiders have won eight all-sports Sun Belt trophies in 12 years, and McPhee said their desire is to compete with the best."I've been told when the invitation was made that Conference USA has had their eyes on us for a number of years and a number of institutions have been very impressed by the progress of this university,'' McPhee said.Florida Atlantic caps a move from Division I-AA and puts the Owls in the league with rival Florida International, which joins C-USA in 2013. FAU, with 28,000 students, opened a 29,419-seat football stadium on campus 13 months ago."This is a momentous day in the history of Florida Atlantic University,'' Florida Atlantic athletic director Pat Chun said.
Adding these two schools helps C-USA with two years left on its television deals with Fox and CBS.Middle Tennessee has the most undergraduate students at a Tennessee university and is located 30 miles southeast of Nashville, which puts C-USA into a media market ranked 29th nationally and its fourth top-30 market. Florida Atlantic in Boca Raton puts the league into the Miami-Fort Lauderdale market, which ranks 38th in the country.Banowsky said C-USA might not be done expanding.Western Kentucky, a longtime rival of Middle Tennessee's in both the Ohio Valley Conference and Sun Belt, and New Mexico State could become C-USA members, but the commissioner said he would not discuss specifics.Middle Tennessee athletic director Chris Massaro was more than happy to talk.
His university announced the move in its new $65 million student union building. The pep band and cheerleaders were on hand with a new banner featuring the C-USA logo. The crowd included plenty of graduates from the days when Middle Tennessee competed in Division I-AA and was in the OVC. Massaro pointed to the new $30 million education building that just opened near a $147 million science building being built across the square."What we're doing is mirroring the growth of the entire institution,'' the AD said.
What remains to be determined is how quickly both schools start competing in C-USA.The Sun Belt recently added a $1 million exit fee, and Massaro said the Blue Raiders could switch conferences sooner than July 1, 2014, if it works for both the Sun Belt and C-USA.Sun Belt Conference Commissioner Karl Benson said he was disappointed in the two schools leaving but that his league is very well positioned for the future."I remain very optimistic that the momentum that has been created in the past six months will continue to grow,'' Benson said. "The continuing 10 members of the SBC are committed to excellence and I am confident that the SBC will take advantage of these latest changes in the landscape. As I have stated many times in the past six months, the SBC will be a major player in the future, especially within its geographic footprint.''It's unlikely this is the last of conference realignment.With several Conference USA members leaving that league for the Big East, and now that Sun Belt members are heading to C-USA, fans need to stay tuned.
"There are several outstanding universities that have indicated interest in joining the SBC,'' Benson said. "While we have conducted research on these universities in the past six months, we will now focus on identifying the ones that will be the best fit for the conference.''Conference USA already had lost Memphis, Houston, Central Florida and SMU to the Big East earlier this year, prompting the league to add Charlotte, Florida International, Louisiana Tech, North Texas, Old Dominion and Texas-San Antonio starting in 2013. Middle Tennessee tried to join C-USA in that round of expansion and just missed out.The Big Ten started up realignment again Nov. 19 by luring Maryland from the Atlantic Coast Conference followed by Rutgers leaving the Big East a day later. The ACC replaced Maryland with Louisville on Wednesday. The Big East landed Tulsa on Tuesday in all sports with East Carolina leaving Conference USA in football only.Banowsky called the continuing realignment disturbing and volatile. He said it destroys rivalries, creates distrust among universities with all the "commercial influence'' on conferences. But there is no avoiding it."They're strong forces, and so change may be the new norm in our industry,'' the C-USA commissioner said.