How Conference USA survived realignment, rebuilt itself and reached a Fiesta Bowl

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Western Kentucky president Tim Caboni boarded a formation from Dallas to Atlanta pursuing a Conference USA committee gathering early connected Oct. 18, 2021, knowing thing could hap soon. Conference realignment was erstwhile again successful nan air, and CUSA knew it could suffer immoderate defectors.

A fewer days prior, CUSA had sent a missive to nan American Athletic Conference astir a imaginable geographic reorganization of nan 2 conferences. The AAC rebuffed nan idea, and everyone knew it would apt propulsion teams from CUSA to switch Cincinnati, Houston and UCF. The frequently-bow-tied Caboni had only been CUSA’s vice chair for a fewer months. Same went for nan chair, North Texas president Neal Smatresk. That was until Caboni’s level landed.

“I propulsion Twitter up and spot a number of schools are leaving for nan American, and I’m nary longer nan vice chair; I’m nan chair,” Caboni recounted. “I texted (commissioner Judy MacLeod), ‘We’ve sewage immoderate activity to do.’”

Over 11 days, CUSA dwindled from 14 members to five. Caboni, needing to look retired for WKU’s interests arsenic well, talked pinch nan Mid-American Conference alongside Middle Tennessee. CUSA, founded successful 1995, was abruptly connected nan verge of imaginable collapse.

Now, 2 years later, CUSA is finishing arguably nan champion almanac twelvemonth successful nan history of nan conference. In nan spring, FAU became CUSA’s first men’s Final Four squad since 2008. League unit are headed to Phoenix to support nan conference’s first New Year’s Six vessel team, arsenic undefeated Liberty faces Oregon successful Monday’s Fiesta Bowl. The convention will grow to 11 members by 2025, adding Kennesaw State and Delaware. It’s easier to find connected TV and it’s making much money. Left for dormant by observers and fans, CUSA is thriving again.

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“We sewage nan soil kicked successful our face,” Middle Tennessee diversion head Chris Massaro said. “It makes you person a beardown resolve.”

This is really a convention comes backmost from nan brink.

Liberty hit New Mexico State successful nan 2023 Conference USA Championship Game to decorativeness 13-0. (Brian Bishop / USA Today)

The realignment domino effect

The determination by Texas and Oklahoma to subordinate nan SEC successful nan summertime of 2021 group disconnected a concatenation guidance that touched each area of assemblage sports. The Big 12 added 3 schools from nan AAC, which past looked toward CUSA schools to backfill. The Sun Belt, past astatine 10 members, considered description options arsenic well. No 1 knew rather what was happening aliases would hap — isolated from that UAB was highly sought-after.

“One of nan schools that was honorable each nan measurement done this was UAB,” Massaro said. “They said they were going to pursuit nan American. . . Very unfastened and honest.”

A fewer hours aft that CUSA committee gathering connected Oct. 18, connection leaked that nan AAC planned to adhd Charlotte, FAU, North Texas, Rice, UAB and UTSA. The scheme to adhd six amazed many, including MacLeod. Most manufacture observers expected 2 aliases four. AAC commissioner Mike Aresco admitted earlier this twelvemonth that nan original scheme was four, but Charlotte and FAU were added precocious successful nan process successful lawsuit nan AAC mislaid much teams successful nan future.

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“That night, I knew I needed to get complete everything,” MacLeod said. “I had to get my emotions retired of nan way. We’ve gotta go.”

On Oct. 21, nan AAC made nan additions official. Simultaneously, nan Sun Belt targeted 3 CUSA schools — Southern Miss, Marshall and Old Dominion — on pinch FCS James Madison. On Oct. 22, Southern Miss was nan first to go. ODU became nan 2nd connected Oct. 26. Marshall took a small much time, successful portion owed to a statesmanlike change, but it became nan 3rd connected Oct. 29.

In eleven days, CUSA had mislaid almost two-thirds of its membership. It wasn’t over. WKU and Middle Tennessee sewage into talks pinch nan MAC astir joining nan convention and getting disconnected a sinking ship.

“That creates a consciousness of panic wrong everybody, a rapture moment,” Massaro said. “You person to reply your fans. ‘Are we not bully enough? Why don’t these leagues want us?’”

MacLeod and nan 5 remaining schools — FIU, Louisiana Tech, MTSU, UTEP and WKU — had to spell connected nan offensive. The commissioner formed a Plan A, B, C, D and truthful forth. She didn’t expect to get truthful acold down nan database truthful quickly. She hardly slept aliases ate for days. A staffer wrote a connection connected nan whiteboard successful her suburban Dallas office.

“TRUST NO ONE!!”

“There’s a consciousness of, I’m not going to fto this spell distant nether my watch,” MacLeod said.

Finding a lifeline

On Oct. 28, The Athletic first reported CUSA’s talks pinch FBS independents Liberty and New Mexico State arsenic afloat members and UConn arsenic a football-only member. UConn soon pulled retired of nan picture, arsenic its fans didn’t for illustration nan idea.

CUSA turned to nan FCS ranks and connected Nov. 5 added Liberty and NMSU, on pinch FCS schools Jacksonville State and Sam Houston. In Liberty and NMSU, CUSA had recovered 2 schools successful request of a convention astatine nan nonstop infinitesimal nan convention needed schools.

“It was a lifeline,” NMSU diversion head Mario Moccia said. “You cognize that movie Titanic? We sewage connected nan door, which was independent football. When Conference USA came around, it was nan champion point that could person happened.”

C-USA announces nan summation of 4 caller members: Jacksonville State, Liberty, New Mexico State and Sam Houston.

𝗪𝗲𝗹𝗰𝗼𝗺𝗲 𝘁𝗼 𝘁𝗵𝗲 𝗹𝗲𝗮𝗴𝘂𝗲.#TheCUSAWay | https://t.co/gpdTbiA58I pic.twitter.com/OFQPNDcNGA

— Conference USA (@ConferenceUSA) November 5, 2021

MTSU and WKU continued their talks pinch nan MAC. CUSA officials knew MTSU was little enthusiastic astir nan imaginable of leaving than WKU. If it could person nan Blue Raiders to stay, it mightiness beryllium enough.

On Nov. 10, Middle Tennessee announced it would enactment successful CUSA, citing a southern-based alumni footprint and nan stableness of nan 4 caller additions.

What went unsaid was money. MTSU and nan 4 remaining CUSA schools were group to person millions successful entranceway and exit fees from each nan change. That money went toward MTSU’s caller shot building presently nether building and nan caller buyout of caput coach Rick Stockstill.

WKU still held retired dream for nan MAC, but nan convention wasn’t willing successful an overseas number of schools.

“If they had offered a spot, we would person accepted it,” WKU diversion head Todd Stewart said. It didn’t come.

With 9 schools locked in, CUSA had gotten disconnected nan ledge, moreover if it now looked for illustration a onshore of misfit toys. Fans of nan 5 remaining schools weren’t enthused.

“We don’t for illustration to usage that S-word, that ‘stable’ word,” MacLeod said, “but convincing those 2 to enactment was a large step.”

The play wasn’t rather done. Marshall, Southern Miss and Old Dominion announced they would time off successful 2022, alternatively than 2023, and came retired connected apical aft a month-long tribunal conflict pinch nan league. Nearly each of nan convention realignment moves sparked by Texas and Oklahoma were completed earlier nan Longhorns and Sooners had moreover near nan Big 12.

Battered and bruised, CUSA moved forward. So began nan roadworthy back.

Negotiating media rights

Next up was nan tv deal, and CUSA had a clear objective: Make games easier to watch.

Years of playing connected broadcasters for illustration Stadium and Facebook, alongside nan superior spot of CBS Sports Network, had put CUSA shot retired of show and retired of mind. Fans perpetually complained astir really difficult it was to find games.

“We had heard large and clear from fans,” Caboni said. “Access to our contented was really analyzable and confusing. We needed a media partner. Our viewership was fragmented.”

But moving connected a TV woody while your convention rank is flipping complete is not ideal. CUSA collaborated pinch Octagon arsenic its media authorities consultant. This was not going to beryllium a emblematic speech pinch media partners. So Octagon broached pinch CUSA nan thought of playing midweek games successful October, for illustration nan MAC and Sun Belt do successful November. Midweek games typically tie much viewership for G5 shot connected ESPN and CBS Sports Network than crowded Saturdays.

“We needed to fig retired really to make Conference USA a much unsocial worth proposition for broadcasters,” said William Mao, a elder vice president successful Octagon’s media authorities division. “Not conscionable further inventory.”

MacLeod, subordinate commissioner Tre Stallings and unit sounded it to members and sewage affirmative feedback. CUSA yet signed a five-year woody pinch ESPN and CBS, to statesman successful autumn 2023, pinch a one-year option. Despite losing 9 members, nan caller woody brought much vulnerability and much revenue, expanding nan per-school payout to astir $750,000 annually. Such an summation was besides a consequence of members signing a assistance of rights, locking themselves together successful nan short term. It was nan first GOR for a G5 conference, a uncommon move of stability.

Playing midweek games, sometimes pinch a five-day turnaround, was tough. But coaches bought in, knowing nan vulnerability and money it would bring to nan league. Having support from coaches for illustration Jamey Chadwell (Liberty), Jerry Kill (New Mexico State) and Rich Rodriguez (Jacksonville State) carried weight. For nan astir part, attendance crossed nan convention was unchanged. WKU welcomed midweek tailgating and held a performance earlier its crippled against Liberty. They were often nan only games connected TV.

“The convention was all-in connected initiatives for illustration that and embraced it,” Moccia said.

When CUSA went done its rank change, schoolhouse officials expected to make greater strides successful men’s hoops than football. Nobody expected what came successful outpouring 2023 earlier nan shift. FAU kept winning. And winning. And winning. All nan measurement to nan Final Four, earlier losing to San Diego State connected a buzzer-beater. North Texas besides hit UAB successful nan NIT final, and Charlotte won nan CBI. The convention went 18-3 crossed each 3 postseason tournaments, 2 wins from nan unofficial triple crown. All 4 of those teams were group to time off for nan AAC, but FAU’s $10 cardinal successful NCAA Tournament units complete six years would enactment pinch CUSA. A bully other boost for a convention wherever each dollar matters.

Florida Atlantic mislaid to San Diego State successful its first-ever travel to nan Final Four past season. ( Bob Donnan / USA Today)

Once nan realignment moves settled into spot this past summer, CUSA recovered a camaraderie, 1 it hadn’t had successful galore years. With 4 of nan 9 members being caller additions, they took pridefulness successful CUSA.

“You had group successful nan convention who were ecstatic to beryllium there,” Moccia said.

None much truthful than Liberty.

Reassessing Liberty

The Flames had tried to subordinate nan convention before. The Virginian-Pilot reported  successful 2017 that Liberty offered to pay arsenic overmuch arsenic $24 cardinal to subordinate nan conference, but CUSA presidents weren’t willing for 2 reasons. One was associating themselves pinch politically-outspoken and arguable Liberty president Jerry Falwell Jr. The different was simply that Liberty had a batch much money than everyone else. The Sun Belt besides passed.

But by 2021, Falwell was gone and CUSA was desperate. Liberty still wanted a shot home, particularly moving into a 12-team playoff era.

“We’d really pursued convention opportunities,” McCaw said. “We said pinch nan American, Sun Belt and CUSA and didn’t person an opportunity pinch nan first two. It was a precarious thing. (CUSA) was down to 5 members. . . We felt for illustration america stepping guardant and committing to Conference USA would stabilize things. It was a constructive step.”

Immediately, Liberty fans were happy to return up nan mantle. For nan first time, a societal media instrumentality guidelines stuck up for CUSA online, moreover earlier nan Flames had joined nan league. Massaro pointed to Liberty’s immense financial advantage ($300 cardinal put into accommodation successful nan past 7 years) arsenic raising nan barroom for nan conference. It hasn’t had a losing shot play since 2005.

Liberty shot replaced a departing Hugh Freeze pinch Coastal Carolina’s Chadwell and his way grounds of winning arsenic a caput coach (and a $4 cardinal mean yearly salary, quadruple nan next-highest CUSA coach). Chadwell continued nan winning, and backmost Kaidon Salter was a cleanable fresh for his dispersed action offense. Chadwell has won 44 games complete nan past 4 years, but he didn’t expect to beryllium undefeated successful twelvemonth one.

“It’s a surprise,” he told The Athletic earlier nan CUSA Championship Game. “Any clip you spell in, you judge you’re going to find a measurement to win, but it takes a while for group to bargain into what you’re doing. I thought we had a chance to beryllium solid, being caller to nan league, you wondered really we’d compare, pinch each nan group we mislaid and brought in. I don’t want to sound for illustration I’m amazed we’re here, but if you arsenic a coach opportunity you’re going to tally nan array and person a chance astatine nan New Year’s Six, that’d beryllium lying.”

The first CUSA Championship Game featured undefeated Liberty and a 10-win New Mexico State squad that won 31-10 astatine Auburn a fewer weeks prior. It was validation of nan league’s description decisions. Liberty won that Friday nighttime to headdress a 13-0 regular season. On Saturday night, Aresco released a connection lobbying for 11-2 SMU to get nan New Year’s Six spot. A fewer hours later, MacLeod released a connection pushing for Liberty.

The Flames sewage nan nod, capping CUSA’s singular two-year turnaround.

Liberty is simply a 16.5-point underdog successful nan Fiesta Bowl, and Oregon’s stars will play, for illustration backmost Bo Nix. It’s a gangly task. But a twelvemonth from now, this bid would’ve been a CFP spot. It’s why nan Flames wanted successful a convention and why CUSA saw a programme pinch immense resources to compete for it.

CUSA will adhd Kennesaw State adjacent summertime and Delaware successful summertime 2025, some from nan FCS. After getting to 9 members, nan convention took its clip pinch description , favoring schools pinch occurrence and infrastructure successful place. It wants to get to 12 members. UMass is nan apical option, but only arsenic an all-sports member, which remains a hurdle to nan school’s loyalty of being a founding personnel of nan Atlantic-10 conference.

With a Final Four and Fiesta Bowl successful 2023, it’s been a gratifying two-year roadworthy back. In November, nan DFW section of Women In Sports & Events honored MacLeod pinch its Woman of Inspiration award. Her assignment successful 2015 made her nan first female FBS commissioner. At nan ceremony, she was asked for nan biggest situation she’d worked through. MacLeod blanked, until she looked complete astatine 2 CUSA unit members and remembered what they’d been through.

Call it repressed memories, telephone it scar tissue, MacLeod says it was a motion of really they’ve put it down them. But her agency whiteboard still has nan aforesaid connection up: “TRUST NO ONE!!”

“I’m still a personification that would for illustration to beryllium capable to spot people, but it’s a reminder to not return everything astatine look value,” she said. “I don’t cognize why it’s important, but evidently it is, because we haven’t erased it.”

More than one-fifth of each 133 FBS teams person played successful CUSA astatine immoderate point. It’s a convention defined by its changeless changes.

At slightest successful 2023, it was defined by its wins.

(Top photo: Brian Bishop / USA Today)

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