If you are of my age, or maybe any age, you are familiar with the story of Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer. Released on NBC in 1964, it has become a staple of television’s Christmas Season. During the program, Rudolph and a companion wind up on an Island known as the Island of Misfit Toys. The Island included a collection of unwanted and unloved toys like a boat that wouldn’t float, a plane that couldn’t fly and a train with square wheels on its caboose. As part of the feel good part of the program, Rudolph (himself a misfit) and Santa found homes for all the unwanted toys.
College Football has it’s own Island of Misfit Toys and it’s called Conference USA. It’s a collection of upstarts and wannabes, a conference of second chances, last chances and sometimes only chances. It’s a landing spot for those who have failed before and those certain to fail again and at least once an offseason, the league manages to author a bizarre story or two.
In all fairness, Conference USA is also the ultimate survivor. Based in Irving, Texas, the league has had more than one chance of going the way of the dinosaur with teams defecting to more high profile conferences. Yet C-USA goes merrily along, although as it approaches this season, it’s having to get creative in order to stay competitive in the ultra-competitive college football landscape.
Formed in 1995 when two basketball leagues – the old Metro Conference and the short-lived Great Midwest Conference – decided to combine forces and play all sports including football. To get there the powers that formed C-USA tossed out Virginia Tech and VCU from the Metro and dumped Dayton from the Great Midwest. VCU didn’t have football, Dayton at the time was Division III, and Virginia Tech was part of the Big East Football Conference, and the Metro for all other sports. To kick out Virginia Tech, the Metro had to pay Virginia Tech a separation fee of $1 million. Tech immediately joined the Atlantic 10 for all sports but football and during their run to the NIT championship in 1995, the basketball team wore warm up t-shirts that had the A-10 logo on the front and the phrase “Thanks a Million Metro” on the back.
Conference USA’s initial line-up included Cincinnati, DePaul, Louisville, Marquette, Saint Louis, South Florida, Charlotte, Southern Mississippi, Alabama-Birmingham, Memphis, Tulane and Houston. Eight of those schools played football with only DePaul, Marquette, Saint Louis, and Charlotte not sponsoring the sport.
Of that Charter group, only Charlotte, Southern Miss and UAB remain and Southern Miss and UAB are the only schools to survive since the beginning. Charlotte bolted to the Atlantic-10 for a couple of years and then came back to Conference USA when they started a football program. Southern Miss has the distinction of being the only school to play every football season in Conference USA.
The current group includes Western Kentucky, Middle Tennessee State, Old Dominion, Florida Atlantic, Marshall, Florida International, Charlotte, Louisiana Tech, Texas-San Antonio, Southern Miss, North Texas, Texas-El Paso, Rice and UAB. It’s the home of former FCS programs Western Kentucky, Middle Tennessee State and Marshall. It’s the home of start-up programs from Florida Atlantic (2001), Florida International (2002), Old Dominion(2009), Texas San Antonio (2011) and Charlotte (2013).
It’s the home of wannabes like Marshall who clearly aspire to higher goals than C-USA, but haven’t been given the chance. It’s the home of coaches looking for second chances like Florida Atlantic’s Lane Kiffin, Florida International’s Butch Davis (who probably had better talent on his second team while coaching at Miami than he’ll have on the entire roster at FIU), and Louisiana Tech’s Skip Holtz who all either failed at bigger programs or ran afoul of the NCAA.
And it’s the home of an only chance. UAB is playing football this fall for the first time since shuttering its program in 2014 due to what it said was the costs involved. In fact, UAB football was the victim of a personal vendetta exercised by Paul Bryant, Jr. (aka “Baby Bear”). Baby Bear never got over the fact that one-time UAB Athletic Director Gene Bartow accused his famous father of cheating years ago (and of course Bear Bryant cheated because everyone cheated), and used his position of power as a member of the University of Alabama Board of Trustees to single handedly shut down UAB football. Even Baby Bear, the chairman of Alabama’s Bryant Bank couldn’t overcome the firestorm that ensued in Alabama. With Conference USA threatening to throw UAB out on the streets, UAB raised money, mined the junior colleges among other places for players and this year plays as an FBS expansion team.
There’s at least one bizarre story each offseason. This year, it involved Marshall and the Governor of West Virginia. Jim Justice is a multi-millionaire owner of coal mines and the Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs, although he’s put his business holdings in a blind trust for his daughter Jill while serving as governor. He doesn’t always pay his bills on time and he’s nothing if not direct. He showed up with a pile of bullshit (literally) at a press conference to express his displeasure with the state legislature and it’s budget proposal. He also moonlights – while serving as Governor – as the boys’ and girls’ basketball coach at Greenbrier East High School and apparently is a well known little league parent. A graduate of Marshall Justice was so pissed off at the Thundering Herd’s 3-9 record of 2016 that he was reportedly using his influence behind the scenes to get coach Doc Holiday fired and former coach Bob Pruett rehired. Of course, Justice denied doing that, insisting that he was just encouraging Marshall to up its game, but he didn’t make millions by not forcing his way into a conversation here and there.
So just who loves this collection of misfit toys? Not the television networks that’s for certain. According to a July story in the Virginia Pilot Newspaper (one of the better papers in Va. by the way), Conference USA’s new television deal will garner the conference just $2.8 million total, or $200,000.00 per school. Frankly, each school could probably make more money with a one-off game at a Powerhouse school like Alabama than from television. C-USA has a TV deals with ESPN, CBS Sports Network, beIN Sports (whatever the hell that is) and Sinclair’s American Sports Network which is joining forces with on-line digital service 120 sports to form Stadium Network, a computer only broadcast outlet. The Conference is trying a new approach as Stadium will broadcast its games live on Twitter this season. Kids today are nothing if not tied to those hand held devices. Will it work? Maybe, maybe not but that appears to be Conference USA’s only hope of generating some television dollars and with the way this league has survived for 22 years, it would be a mistake to count on this collection of misfit toys just yet.