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Monday, June 17, 2024 — Houston, TX

Farewell to C-USA, the conference that was never supposed to last this long

Photo courtesy Daniel Schrager

By Daniel Schrager     4/18/23 11:29pm

There’s a trophy in the Rice baseball offices. It’s from 2006, the Owls’ first season in Conference USA. On the front, it reads “C-USA 2006 Baseball Tournament Champions.” On either side are the logos of nine schools.

The teams on that trophy look suspiciously like the American Athletic Conference that Rice is about to join. Five of the nine are current AAC members – although the University of Houston and University of Central Florida are about to leave – and two of the others, including Rice, are joining this year. Current AAC members Southern Methodist University and the University of Tulsa were also part of that conference, but don’t have baseball programs.

This fall, when Rice joins the AAC, they’ll be going back to what is essentially just the C-USA that they joined nearly 18 years ago.

Conference USA made a lot of sense for the Owls at the time. It contained local rivals Houston, as well as a pair of nearby small, private schools, SMU and Tulane University. It was relatively concentrated in the South, and contained a handful of Rice’s former Southwest Conference foes. More importantly, it was a collection of former major-conference teams that, like Rice, were regrouping after the wave of conference realignments in the mid-1990s and early 2000s.

But those schools left, and Rice remained. Rice was left in a geographically confused conference of all large public universities, none of which were its historic rivals.

That’s the thing that Rice never seemed to understand. Their time in C-USA was never supposed to last this long. The conference is a temporary stop for schools with their sights set on bigger conferences, or fallen powers trying to buy time before deciding what to do next.

That’s what it was for Houston, SMU, Texas Christian University and several others. That’s even how it formed; when the Metropolitan Collegiate Athletic Conference dissolved, some of its members merged with the Great Midwest Conference to create Conference USA, in an effort to hold on to some semblance of their major-conference status. All but two of those original Metro Conference teams had moved on within a decade. 

It isn’t a permanent home, but Rice never seemed to get that memo. Only three of the conference’s 11 current schools have been members for more than a decade. Of course, Rice is one of them.

So the Owls are finally getting out, after 18 years of half-empty stadiums, inconsistent play and the one nationally-relevant opponent per year in each sport. The AAC makes a lot more sense for Rice, even if it’s just C-USA circa-2006 with a new coat of paint. It has more nearby schools, more small, private schools, more national prominence and a more lucrative TV deal.

With a current wave of realignment ongoing, there’s a chance that this iteration of the AAC doesn’t last more than a few years. But even if Rice is just jockeying for position before the next conference reshuffle, they’re in a much better place now than they would have been in C-USA.

That’s not to say Conference USA won’t be missed, though. Gone are the days of absurd promotions needed to get fans into seats, of listening to ESPN’s Z-team call a game or tracking down a broadcast on some obscure streaming site. No longer will Rice athletics be able to get away with referring to an all-conference athlete’s high school team as the “Yikes” in his online bio without anyone noticing. And the Owls won’t spend any more Novembers looking forward to their annual volleyball conference title game meeting with Western Kentucky University – the best rivalry most college sports fans have never heard of.

This year, the Owls played the Hilltoppers to decide the conference regular season title. The five-set thriller was one of the most exciting games I’ve watched in any sport. But it was only available through a one-camera broadcast streamed on a Western Kentucky Facebook page.

Whatever charm C-USA had, that was it. Most of what you watched was forgettable. But when there was a good game or team or player, it was like discovering a great cult-band that only you and your friends knew about. That’s a small price to pay for all the AAC will do for Rice sports, but it’s a price nonetheless.

Now, since I’m graduating next month, I know it’s tempting (see: not tempting) to read this as some sort of coded metaphor for me leaving Rice. I swear it’s not, though it has been a pleasure running this sports section for the past two-and-a-half years.

Rice is off to better things. I am not. Goodbye.

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