The Fifth Lap
When Rice starts Conference USA play next fall, it will not be the C-USA the upperclassmen once knew. And by 2014, it will not be a conference recognizable to anyone currently at Rice at all.
The migration of a few schools to the expansion-minded Big East Conference has transformed into an essential shift of the old C-USA to a new America-themed conference, leaving Rice to face a future with only four familiar conference partners and two existential questions: Do we belong in this C-USA anymore? And even if we do not, is there anywhere else for us to go?
While the story of the most recent conference reorganization starts in 2010, for the purpose of brevity, it makes sense to pick up the history on Dec. 7, 2011. In dire straits after losing several members, the Big East Conference recruited the University of Houston, Southern Methodist University, and the University of Central Florida from C-USA (along with Boise State University and San Diego State University) effective fall of 2013.
However, the Big East suffered more departures, which left the league again looking for new members and again calling upon C-USA schools. On Feb. 8, 2012 the Big East grabbed C-USA mainstay University of Memphis. However, the Memphis addition was not enough to stabilize the conference, and more departures left the Big East again in need of new members. In response, it attracted more defects from C-USA with ECU, Tulane and eventually Tulsa signing on to join effective 2014.
Eventually, the instability of the Big East basketball programs strained what had been an atypical but mostly successful marriage between the conference's members who played football and those who did not. Soon after the acquisition of Tulane and ECU, the non-football members, popularly known as the Catholic Seven because of their common religious affiliation, broke away from the conference, taking the Big East moniker with them. The result was the renaming of the conference as the American Athletic Conference, a lamentably fitting choice given the number of C-USA defects making it up.
Meanwhile, C-USA was busy recruiting new members of its own. By 2014, the University of Alabama, Birmingham; the University of Texas, El Paso; the University of Southern Mississippi, Marshall University; and Rice University will be joined by the University of Texas, San Antonio; North Texas University; Charlotte University; Old Dominion University; Louisiana Tech University; Florida Atlantic University; Florida International University; Western Kentucky University; and Middle Tennessee State University.
Take a second look at that list. Sure, there are a few big Texas schools that are at least in the same time zone, but Florida International? Western Kentucky? Middle Tennessee State? These are important institutions, but Rice does not match with them either regionally or institutionally. The only element linking Rice with them is that all these universities play Division I sports and need someone to play Division I sports against.
This is not to say the old C-USA was a particularly cohesive conference to begin with. In many ways, the new C-USA made up of big, primarily public universities makes more sense from an institutional cohesiveness point of view, but the old C-USA at least featured Tulane, Tulsa and SMU, which were more institutionally similar to Rice and made us feel like we belonged. There are not any strong regional conferences for Rice to seek membership in. Nor is there a league of smaller, top-tier universities that play football in the Bowl Subdivision (the Ivy League, which I do not think Rice should want to join anyway, plays Championship Subdivision football).
Even if there were a great fit for a conference, Rice does not have the large alumni base, the football or basketball prowess, or the strong brand image a la Notre Dame to provide any leverage to gain entrance into such a conference.
The best-case scenario would be for C-USA and the new American Athletic Conference to merge, form two completely autonomous geographic divisions, and then leverage the growing competition between regional sports networks to secure a strong TV deal (possibly with Fox Sports Networks or Comcast SportsNet, both of which focus on providing regional affiliates). A division made up of Rice, Tulane, Tulsa, SMU, Southern Miss, UTSA, UH, UTEP, Louisiana Tech and North Texas would be regionally compelling while also providing an equally compelling eastern counterpart.
That solution, however, remains more a fairy tale than plausible outcome, particularly given the fact that TV contracts have already been signed.
Unfortunately, Rice is struggling to find its place in the right conference at the same time that potential NCAA changes threaten to affect it as well.
Let me be clear that despite many challenges, I firmly believe that top-tier athletics are important for Rice. They are part of bringing together a community of exceptional talent; great athletes add something to who we are as a university just like great engineers, great musicians, great writers and great scientists.
Athletes are an important element of the Rice undergraduate experience. Beyond simply providing entertainment with athletic events, they provide a unifying effect across the entire campus.
Most importantly, Rice's student-athletes have proven over time that great athletics and great academics are not mutually exclusive. Rice's student-athletes have gone on to gain entrance into top graduate schools, to earn competitive fellowships and to succeed at every level of business. Moreover, Bobby Tudor, who lettered in basketball from 1979-1982, will soon ascend to Rice chairman of the board, becoming the second consecutive chairman who was formerly a Rice student athlete.
It is imperative that Rice continue to play athletics at the highest level. Even in this current less-than-pleasant reality, the benefits outweigh the costs.
The challenge is to figure out with whom, exactly, to play them.
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