CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- As far as college sports goes, the NCAA's Division I was, for a time, enjoying an extended period of tranquility. Conference USA Commissioner Britton Banowsky remembers nearly six years of calm. No major shakeups. No shifting conference ties.
But when that peace stretches on, it's like a hurricane zone that hasn't seen a storm blow through in a long time. One of two thoughts runs through the minds of that region's residents - either "We'll never have to worry again," or "We're due."
Division I was due.
Starting at the turn of the decade, major college sports faced a maelstrom. Winds of change barreled through the conferences, picking up teams like Dorothy's home in "The Wizard of Oz" and dropping them into new surroundings. Conference USA was not immune.
"Back in the summer of 2011, you saw the dynamic above us in the system become unstable," Banowsky said. "When that happens, the presumption is there will be an effect downstream."
Banowsky presumed correctly. Over the next two years, Conference USA will transform, saying farewell to seven teams and welcoming nine others. With that transformation comes new opportunities in rivalries, revenues and recruiting. As some major markets leave the conference lineup, others slide into their place. The potential for the new lineup has conference members excited for the future.
But has Conference USA done enough to ensure itself a bright future in the volatile college sports landscape? Will the new additions make up for the assets lost? The conference remains focused on one word - potential - as it enters a new era. It's potential that excites C-USA members and staff and gives them hope that the conference will survive in college athletics' new world.
Extreme Makeover: C-USA Edition
In conference realignment, the bigger fish always get fed. The SEC and Big Ten pluck from the Big 12 and ACC. The Big 12 and ACC, in turn, raid the Big East. And the Big East replenishes by gobbling up teams from C-USA.
The remaining Big East football schools, now the American Athletic Conference, filled their roster mostly with Conference USA programs. Houston, Memphis, Southern Methodist and the University of Central Florida join this season. Tulsa, Tulane and East Carolina arrive next season.
Then came C-USA's turn to recharge, choosing from a menu of conferences including the Western Athletic Conference and the Sun Belt. The big-name, established programs were on their way to bigger conferences, so C-USA started putting down futures bets.
"We wanted to ultimately put ourselves in as good a position we could be in going forward," Banowsky said. "And in order to do that, you have to have a collection of universities that have upside potential down the line. And in order to get schools with great upside potential, you have to focus on ones that are growing."
Eight schools enter the conference this season. From the Sun Belt come Florida Atlantic, Florida International, Middle Tennessee State and North Texas. From the WAC come Louisiana Tech and the University of Texas at San Antonio. Old Dominion comes from the Colonial and Charlotte comes from the Atlantic 10. Another Sun Belt school, Western Kentucky, arrives in 2014.
"We focused on universities in large metropolitan areas that were growing and the universities had growth trends as well," Banowsky said. "And they were ones that made some level of facility commitment on a going-forward basis. Because if those things happen and capital improvements get made, there's a strong likelihood of sustainability going forward."
Those schools join the holdovers from C-USA's previous incarnation - Marshall, the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Southern Mississippi, Rice and the University of Texas at El Paso. The conference's new map shows a few evident trends.
For one, C-USA has anchored itself in Texas, with teams in Houston, El Paso, San Antonio and the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. It has doubled down in talent - and population-rich South Florida with schools in Boca Raton and Miami.
There also was a move into the Mid-South and Mid-Atlantic areas, with new teams near Nashville and in Norfolk, Va., Charlotte, N.C. and Bowling Green, Ky.
That last move made Marshall Athletic Director Mike Hamrick a happy man.
"The conference has come to us," he said.
And the benefits are many.
A small(er) world after all
Since the Thundering Herd arrived in Conference USA in 2005, it's been one of the league's most remote outposts. In the old version, only one rival sat within a 500-mile drive from Huntington - East Carolina's Greenville, N.C., campus, 453 miles away. The next closest conference opponent was UAB at 531 miles away. So traveling by bus never could enter the equation.
And when you're trying to get a total of 15 men's and women's athletic teams out of Huntington to conference games and back, scheduling those trips takes a lot of brainpower - and money.
Yet in the new C-USA, flying no longer is the sole option. Four schools sit within 500 miles and three of those are within 400 miles.
"It's significantly easier - less class time, less expenses, less wear and tear on our athletes," Hamrick said. "Get on a bus, you can go and you can get back right after your match. And when you're talking about a women's soccer program, men's soccer program, softball, baseball and all these, it saves you significant dollars. It saves you significant class time. It saves you wear and tear on your athletes."
Hamrick estimates that Marshall could save anywhere from $250,000 to $500,000 in travel expenses in C-USA's new configuration. But it's not just the athletes who will enjoy easier travel. So will Marshall's fans.
"Our fans like to go on the road and watch the Herd play," Hamrick said.
That wasn't so simple before, when fans that wanted to follow the Herd had to book flights to Tulsa, Orlando, New Orleans and other points south and west. Now they can hop in the car to Charlotte or Murfreesboro, Tenn. And fans in those towns can do the same and head to Huntington.
"That's how rivalries get built, really," Banowsky said. "They brought a lot of fans over last year, so we're going to take some fans to their place. There's a lot of attributes to that with added value. The greatest one is that intangible."
Hamrick said Marshall could see a tangible benefit, too. With more conference opponents within driving distance, that could mean more tickets sold to opposing fans. And if 1,000 fans show up at $30 a pop, the Herd could add another $30,000 to its coffers two or three times a year.
The dollars might not come just from extra ticket sales, though. A number of C-USA's new schools sit in areas with a significant Marshall alumni base, and now those alumni in places like Charlotte, the Tidewater area in Virginia and South Florida will get the Herd in their back yards.
That allows fans in those areas to grow a deeper bond with the athletic program, said John Sutherland, executive director of Marshall's Big Green Scholarship Foundation. Their connection to Marshall won't come from just an occasional golf tournament fundraiser. They can go to games, go to tailgate parties and drop in at the team hotel.
"Mike Hamrick said it best when we were in Charlotte," Sutherland said. "He said to everybody, 'OK, you wished we'd schedule some games down here? Here we are. Now get involved.' Now help us go to another level because you are more familiar with everyone that's involved. And the other thing that happened is, when you get all those people together, it's easier to share a vision, because you have more people involved."
A stronger recruiting trail
In college sports, recruiting is everything. And in college football and men's basketball, recruiting is a cottage industry. Fans whet their appetites in the offseason by poring over recruiting websites and scouring YouTube for highlight videos. So how will the change in C-USA's makeup change its recruiting landscape?