Opportunity and necessity drive conference move

Conference USA 2013

By Ryan Jones

There’s an undeniable sense of “survival of the fittest” in the mad scramble of college conference realignment. In abandoning long-held rivalries and partnerships for newer, bigger and more lucrative affiliations, the wealthiest leagues and universities in recent years have generally gotten richer – often much richer – while the rest have been left to fight over the scraps. For a relatively young program like FIU’s, where the athletic history is being written every day, it’s a landscape with many threats and few guarantees.

It’s also an environment filled with possibilities. That’s an optimistic outlook, perhaps, but – given FIU’s growth in recent years – one that seems entirely appropriate. As Pete Garcia, executive director for sports and entertainment, sees it, the Panthers’ leap from the Sun Belt Conference to Conference USA was as much about opportunity as necessity. The goal, Garcia says, is not simply to survive, but to thrive.

“The vision here, from our president to our trustees to myself, in everything we do, is to continually get better,” Garcia says. “That goes for the law school, the medical school and the athletic teams winning championships.”

By any conceivable measure, the move to C-USA – which becomes official on July 1 – seems to fit that vision perfectly. In ending its 15-year affiliation with the Sun Belt, FIU joins a league with greater name recognition, more financial might, a superior academic reputation and a bigger and broader fan base.

For every obvious benefit of the move – like substantially more money coming from TV broadcast rights, which Garcia acknowledges is “what drives all these deals” – there is another, less obvious one. Take location: With most C-USA schools situated near a major airport, Panther teams will spend less time on buses and connecting flights, and thus less time out of class.

As Garcia says, “For us, there really wasn’t any downside to the move.”

The folks in the conference offices in suburban Dallas are saying the same thing. For Conference USA, the addition of FIU means extending its reach into the greater Miami media market, the league’s biggest outside of its home base of Texas. That translates into more exposure for all of the league’s teams – a particular boost for football recruiting in talent-rich southern Florida. Recruiting is the lifeblood of all top collegiate athletic programs, and as C-USA looks to contend with the established BCS conferences, adding Miami to major talent bases like Dallas and Houston is invaluable to the league’s prospects for continued success.

“When we focused on how we wanted to reinvent the conference going forward, we wanted to identify the next generation of great universities and great athletic programs, and we wanted to be associated with large universities in large markets,” says C-USA Commissioner Britton Banowsky. “And for a university that’s young and growing, with so many new alumni every year, you can project 10 years and just imagine what the passion will be for a school like FIU.”

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The move is more than two years in the making, and even without having played a game as a full conference member (with the exception of the men’s soccer team, which joined C-USA as an affiliate member in 2005), the Panthers are already reaping benefits.

The benefits of C-USA membership extend well beyond the revenue sports. Turtle Thomas, in his sixth year as head coach of the FIU baseball program, has no trouble rattling off the pluses of joining the league. “The RPI for baseball in Conference USA last year was fifth in the country, and they had four teams make NCAA regionals,” Thomas says. “It’s a pretty darn good conference, with a little more of a national scope. It’s just a good move for us.” Adds longtime women’s basketball coach Cindy Russo, “It’s an exciting challenge, and definitely a step up.”

There arguably isn’t a sport on FIU’s ever-growing campus for which a similar claim can’t be made. That’s the eventual positive outcome that eases the uncertainty of the change itself, the scary, seemingly out-of-control upheaval that hangs over all these moves. Late last year, Banowsky acknowledged that when he told reporters that conference realignment is “disturbing to a lot of people because it’s so volatile… change may be the new norm in our industry.”

Garcia says there’s no doubt about it.

“You’ve got to accept it, be ready for it and be proactive,” Garcia says. “If you sit back and wait for things to happen, you’ll be left behind. If your vision is the status quo, that’s where you stay.”

As in everything, FIU’s mantra is “keep moving ahead.”   

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