CINCINNATI – The only thing in Conference USA that ever made sense was its goal: to become a truly elite basketball league. There was almost nothing else this crazy, bloated marriage of convenience could agree on.
The nine-year-old conference has 14 teams spread through 12 states in basketball alone. It connects the industrial North with the rural South. It has small Catholic schools and mammoth state institutions; programs with rich basketball histories and programs that never have won an NCAA tournament game.
The only shared trait was how none of them were the fair-haired institution in their respective regions. They each were the left-out school dealing with the money-laden, politically connected BCS conferences that had them surrounded.
So in 1995 they banded together, outsiders who were determined that somehow, someway, they could be better than the ACC, the SEC and, of course and perhaps most of all, that stuffy, snooty Big Ten.
The Big Ten and C-USA share a home base (Chicago) – with C-USA in the urban center like most of its schools, the Big Ten out in the wealthy suburbs like most of its alumni. It was the Big Ten that always got the most media attention and public funding, and that was a driving force in creating the BCS, which bastardized all the C-USA football programs.
It's been a classic chase. While the establishment Big Ten moves slowly and deliberately, with tradition and status always in mind, Conference USA is bold and brash and daring. It bumbles and bobbles at times, but it always strives, willing to expand, to play football games on Tuesdays, to recruit unlikely student-athletes.
Things the Big Ten likes to think are beneath it.
Well, here is the funny part and the ironic part and, perhaps, the ultimate C-USA part.
This season C-USA isn't just a little better in basketball than the Big Ten, something few imagined was possible nine seasons ago. It is a lot better. At least six of the 12 teams who convened here this weekend for the conference tournament should hear their names called on selection Sunday.
Over in Indianapolis, where the Big Ten is playing, there are just three such locks.
This comes one year after C-USA had a Final Four team (Marquette) and the Big Ten didn't.
But in the same year that the conference not only caught the Big Ten but ran right past it, seven league schools announced their intention to leave for perceived greener pastures.
Cincinnati, Louisville, Marquette and South Florida are headed to the Big East in 2005-06. Charlotte and Saint Louis are bound for the Atlantic 10. TCU soon will join the Mountain West.
Here in what should be the league's grandest and proudest hour, a chance to get together and pat one another on the back for fulfilling the dream and then reaffirm the commitment to stay there, the divorce is pending and the mood is nothing more than tolerating.
"No question it is ironic," Charlotte coach Bobby Lutz said.
Early departures have watered down college basketball so the talent level in the league isn't what it was in the late 1990s, but the league never has had this many good teams.
"When you look top to bottom this is the best we've [ever been]," Lutz said. "Tell me another league in the country that would want to play our top eight home and away?"
The strengthening of the bottom of league has been impressive and continues – Houston and Southern Miss are looking to upgrade coaches (Murray State coach Mick Cronin to UH? Cincinnati assistant Andy Kennedy to USM?). Budgets have grown. Facilities have been refurbished.
The league is more committed to basketball than ever before. This should be the jumping-off point for even more success. Not the point when everyone starts jumping off.
But (irony again) a league that was built for basketball – seven league schools have been to a Final Four – is splitting because of football, despite its mainly meager history on the gridiron.
"I know this may sound trite, but I'm very disappointed it is breaking up," Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. "Because I knew it would develop into this – one of the premier conferences in college basketball.
"We all know in basketball that football is the driving force. But it is a shame it is breaking up because we are just hitting our stride."
It is classic Conference USA. So many critics figured this marriage of many could never work. Then it actually did.
And soon it won't again.
"At least we are going out with a bang," Lutz said.
Enjoy it while you can.
- Conference USA