Work in Sports
Work in progress
C-USA gaining notoriety, lacking rivalries
By Al Myatt, Special to CNNSI.com
Say you graduated from West Point and continue to be a devoted follower of the good ol' Army football team. You have a weekly golf game with a Navy admiral, who is equally fervent in support of his alma mater.
Your pride suffers for weeks when the Black Knights of the Hudson lose to the Midshipmen, like last year's 19-9 setback. You can hardly take your club back for fear of a reminder from your playing partner.
A win over Navy, on the other hand, keeps you feeling warm and happy well past New Year's. But it's not one of the seven matchups in geographically diverse Conference USA that can win you a league title and a bowl bid.
A question, then: What's the big game for the Cadets in your mind -- at East Carolina on Oct. 14, or the showdown in Baltimore with the Middies on Dec. 2?
Beat Navy, of course. It's a mantra ingrained in the Cadets from their first reveille as plebes.
And it's one example of a larger situation in C-USA: the lack of natural rivalries to sweeten national interest in the young league.
C-USA doesn't have an Ohio State-Michigan, an Auburn-Alabama or a UCLA-USC that can stir up multiple generations of fans on a fall Saturday.
The league and its television network are trying. That's the reason Southern Miss and East Carolina are matched up the Friday after Thanksgiving on Fox Sports Net. The game, in Hattiesburg, Miss., will feature the two teams projected as the favorites for the league title, and could decide the C-USA champion's spot in the Liberty Bowl.
"Our game with Tulane has the potential to develop into a rivalry because of our location, being relatively close," said Southern Miss coach Jeff Bower. "And we've played schools like Memphis, Cincinnati, Louisville, and East Carolina even before we were in C-USA, so those series have potential to develop into what you would call rivalries, too."
But Southern Miss can also attract national attention for itself and Conference USA with its early season games at Tennessee on Sept. 2 and at Alabama on Sept. 16 at Legion Field in Birmingham.
The Golden Eagles are guaranteed $500,000 by Tennessee and $450,000 by Alabama, making those games important for revenue as well. It also helps recruiting when players realize they can showcase their skills against marquee programs.
So wouldn't a win over 'Bama be bigger than a victory over ECU for Southern Miss fans?
"Hopefully our supporters realize that championships and bowls are what you play for," said Richard Giannini, director of athletics at Southern Miss.
The fact is, Conference USA teams stand to gain more notoriety for their non-conference accomplishments than for results within the league.
Although East Carolina coach Steve Logan could realize $75,000 in contract incentives if the Pirates win the Liberty Bowl, that priority isn't reflected in home ticket prices, where games with the Hokies and Syracuse are $25 each while C-USA games are $22 each.
ECU drew a record crowd of 50,092 when the Pirates hosted N.C. State last season, significantly more than the 39,418 that showed up for league foe Southern Miss.
"This league is only as good as its number of non-conference wins," said ECU athletics director Mike Hamrick.
Cincinnati knocked off Wisconsin in '99 and East Carolina had a dramatic win over Miami last season, each helping legitimize the league in the national perception. Almost every team in the league gets the chance to hunt big game this season.
Louisville leads off with Kentucky this season and also gets a shot at Florida State. ECU gets a crack at Virginia Tech on Sept. 7 in a Thursday night game on ESPN. Houston visits Texas on Sept. 23. Memphis will host Mississippi State in its opener and will host Tennessee for the first time since upsetting the Volunteers at home in 1996.
"To make the next step the league needs to have more non-conference wins that aren't considered an upset," said Steve Ehrhart, director of the Liberty Bowl. "It would be significant if another team did what Tulane did in 1998 (go 12-0 and finish ranked No. 7 nationally)."
C-USA doesn't have a series with the longevity of Harvard and Yale, or a rivalry with the proximity of Duke and North Carolina. But Houston officials, plagued by sagging attendance, are excited about TCU joining C-USA in 2001. That could kindle into a nice, neighborly rivalry within C-USA.
The league's football origins date back to the old Liberty Bowl alliance that included a number of independents who realized a conference structure would be in their mutual best interests.
"I'm very thankful for this league," said ECU's Logan. "We sat at home without a bowl bid in 1996 with an 8-3 team that had decisively beaten Miami, N.C. State, and South Carolina."
The rivalries will develop and grow in time. For now, it's important for C-USA to add stature with its non-conference opportunities. To beat Navy.
Al Myatt covers Conference USA for the Raleigh News & Observer. His CNNSI.com conference insider will appear weekly during the season.