They represented 12 different schools with 12 different styles in
12 different states and 12 different media markets. They came
from warm climates and cold, public institutions and private,
schools with rigorous academic requirements and schools that are
easier to get into than the Columbia Record Club. The main thing
they had in common was the all-American desire to get rich quick.
They sat down together in Chicago last spring, hammered out
schedules for 18 varsity sports and sliced up approximately $30
million from a six-year contract with ESPN. They created a
Division I conference that promises to be powerful, profitable
and competitive, and when it came time to introduce their baby
to the world, the 12 athletic directors had just one last detail
to iron out.
A name. What do you call a band of colleges that reaches from
Tampa to Houston, then heads north to Milwaukee? They couldn't
put it in geographical terms because the conference map looked
like the itinerary of an escaped convict. They couldn't use a
number such as the Big 12 because the Big Eight would soon
become the Big 12, and the Big 12 would probably be the Big 13
before long, and, well, you just never know when numbers will
change on you. They considered selling the conference name to a
corporate sponsor, but some stuffy members of the group were
afraid the La-Z-Boy Recliner League might not look too good in
the eyes of the nation.
"It was an interesting process," says conference commissioner
Michael Slive. "A lot of people wanted to call it the Great
America, but there are a couple of amusement parks that already
have that name. That wouldn't send the right message."
So after all their remarkable cooperation, the founding fathers
couldn't come to a consensus on a moniker. They had built a
rocket that could travel to Mars and back, but they couldn't
decide what color to paint it. In the end, the presidents of the
member schools agreed to go with the name they hated less than
the others, even if it wasn't the most memorable one on the table.
The winner: Conference USA. (Maybe they should have sold the
name after all and just called the league CompUSA.) Naturally,
the official colors are red, white and blue, and the three
divisions are red, white and blue, although league members
insist there is nothing patriotic about the initials USA. They
say the letters don't actually stand for anything. (A fine
comment about our country!)
The schools can only hope that the conference goes over better
than the name.
"It's amazing when you give thousands of dollars to a
New York p.r. firm how many lousy names they can come up with,"
says Father Lawrence Biondi, president of Saint Louis University.
"Terrible," says DePaul athletic director Bill Bradshaw of the
name. "We've already told our athletes that if they miss
classes, their punishment is going to be wearing a sweatshirt
that says CONFERENCE USA. I'll bet no one will miss any classes."
"I would have preferred having a sponsor, maybe an airline or a
bank," says Bill Olsen, athletic director at Louisville. "That
might have been controversial, but someone will do it
eventually. We could have been the first."
Some people believe the folks behind C-USA are ahead of the
curve in one respect: They designed a superleague to maximize
their national exposure and their TV revenue, not to mention
their frequent-flier miles. The schools don't care how far and
wide they must travel--as long as they end up in the living rooms
of a good many Nielsen families. "The fact is, most of us have
to look at the bottom line first," says Olsen. "With gender
equity--and with expenses what they are--we have to look for ways
to bring in as much revenue as possible."
Conference USA brings together six schools from the former Great
Midwest Conference (Alabama-Birmingham, Cincinnati, DePaul,
Marquette, Memphis and Saint Louis) and five from the former
Metro Conference (Louisville, UNC Charlotte, South Florida,
Southern Mississippi and Tulane). When the Southwest Conference
disbands next year, Houston will join the league.
Six of the Conference USA schools will begin competing against
one another in football in '96 (Cincinnati, Houston, Louisville,
Memphis, Southern Mississippi and Tulane), but clearly the
strength of the merger is basketball. In the past four seasons
10 of the 12 schools have reached the 20-win mark at least once.
Last season 10 of the teams in the new conference played in
either the NIT or the NCAA tournament. Only the Big Eight had a
higher percentage of teams in postseason play. DePaul athletic
director Bradshaw believes the league will be good for "five,
six or seven" bids to the NCAA tournament this March. "Right off
the bat, we're a major-impact conference," says assistant
commissioner Brian Teter. "That's one reason the schools found
it so attractive. They signed on and immediately became part of
one of the top conferences in the country."
In fact, the birth of Conference USA coincides with hard times
in two perennially strong conferences that intersect the new
league geographically: the ACC and the Big Ten. The talent in
the ACC seems to have fallen off this season, and the league has
been hit hard by underclassmen jumping to the NBA; North
Carolina, for example, lost imposing center Rasheed Wallace to
the Washington Bullets and All-America forward Jerry Stackhouse
to the Philadelphia 76ers last June. The Big Ten, meanwhile, is
attempting to regroup after a poor postseason in which none of
the league's six NCAA tournament teams made it beyond the second
round. Says Tulane coach Perry Clark, "I think we are probably
already the third-best league in the country."
Conference USA may be younger than the venerable ACC or Big Ten,
but the teams do bring rich basketball histories to their new
conference. Their alltime all-star roster stacks up against any
league's, an alumni list that includes Anfernee Hardaway
(Memphis), Ed Macauley (Saint Louis), George Mikan (DePaul),
Oscar Robertson (Cincinnati), Wes Unseld (Louisville) and Elvin
Hayes and Hakeem Olajuwon (Houston). "We're a league with
instant tradition," says Bradshaw.
Of course, instant tradition doesn't pay the bills. Instant
TV money does.
Eleven of the 12 schools are located in top-50 media markets
(only Southern Mississippi, in Hattiesburg, is not), and the
league already has a prime guaranteed slot on ESPN's burgeoning
schedule. The Conference USA game of the week will be featured
on Thursday nights at 9:30 p.m. EST. "When you add up all the
local TV deals," says Teter, "you'd be hard-pressed to find
another league with more games on TV."
In many ways Conference USA is following the lead of the Big
East, which brought together an assortment of major-market
basketball-playing schools 16 years ago. In 1979 the Big East
was exactly what Conference USA is now: an instant basketball
powerhouse. Members of Conference USA hope that football will
grab hold of basketball's coattails and ride to national
prominence, as it has in the Big East.
And again like the Big East, the new league consists mostly of
schools in urban areas, where the college game is in a
tug-of-war with pro sports for fans' hearts and wallets. Only
four Conference USA schools are not in direct local competition
with NBA, NFL, NHL or major league baseball franchises. It is a
battle cynics said couldn't be won until the Big East won it.
Now C-USA hopes to do the same. Says Olsen, "We want to be known
as the Big East of the middle part of the country."
That may take a while. For now, the league will be known simply
as Conference USA. (Or ConfUSA. Or is it C-USA?) It may take
some time for the name to catch on, but the members of the new
league aren't worried. As long as the name is on a TV deal, it's
a beautiful thing.
COLOR PHOTO: ILLUSTRATIONS BY JANE SANDERS, PHOTOGRAPHED BY BURK UZZLE With 12 schools from 12 states, the new league will lead the country in travel mileage. [Collage of figures playing basketball on map of states in USA Conference]
COLOR PHOTO: ILLUSTRATIONS BY JANE SANDERS, PHOTOGRAPHED BY BURK UZZLE [Collage of basketball player surrounded by promotional materials reading "ACME AIRLINES CONFERENCE"]
COLOR PHOTO: ILLUSTRATIONS BY JANE SANDERS, PHOTOGRAPHED BY BURK UZZLE [Collage of two basketball players with crowd and giant TV camera]
"I'd have preferred a sponsor for the league, maybe an airline or
"They don't care about the travel--as long as they end up in the
living rooms of Nielsen families."