ODU trying to salvage Conference USA, bring in ‘members of regional benefit’ after report that 6 teams are leaving

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Dr. Brian Hemphill says ODU is looking to work with conference to add members closer to Norfolk

NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — Old Dominion University President Dr. Brian Hemphill says ODU is working to “ensure the long-term viability and attractiveness” of Conference USA after news broke Monday that six conference members are planning to depart for the American Athletic Conference (AAC).

Yahoo’s Pete Thamel first reported that UNC Charlotte, University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), Rice, North Texas, University of Texas at San Antonio and Florida Atlantic University were expected to send in applications to the AAC, which is looking to backfill after the upcoming departures of Cincinnati, UCF and Houston to the Big 12. ESPN later confirmed Tuesday night that each school had sent in their application and the AAC would send them each a letter about terms for expansion by the end of the week.

The other members of the AAC are East Carolina, SMU, Tulsa, Temple, Memphis, Navy, Tulane and South Florida, most of which used to form previous versions of Conference USA. Houston, Memphis, SMU and UCF left Conference USA in 2013 to form the AAC with members of the old Big East. ECU, Tulane and Tulsa joined in 2014 after the departure of Louisville and Rutgers.

The most recent changes for Conference USA came in 2013, with the addition of ODU, Charlotte, FIU, Florida Atlantic, Louisiana Tech, Middle Tennessee, North Texas and UTSA.

Now, this next version of realignment would drop Conference USA to eight teams in football.

In his statement on Tuesday, Hemphill said that ODU is looking to work with Conference USA leadership to save the league and bring its footprint closer to Norfolk.

“By working together with our partners at C-USA, we are optimistic about attracting additional members with regional benefit to ODU, resulting in less travel and greater competition, for many years to come.”

This comes after Conference USA leaders just last week had proposed splitting up teams with the AAC based on geography. However, AAC commissioner Mike Aresco said he was against a merger plan.

ODU Athletic Director Wood Selig has been a major proponent of the regionalization idea, telling the Daily News Record in Harrisonburg: “You have to ask yourself why do three Group of 5 conferences have three almost identical footprints. You don’t see that among the Power 5.”

Nearly all of the departing Conference USA members are on the edges of an already expansive conference that stretches from Virginia to Florida to Texas. It’s footprint basically covers the same area of the southern U.S. as the Sun Belt Conference and the American.

The remaining seven teams in addition to ODU are Marshall, Western Kentucky, Southern Mississippi. Louisiana Tech, Florida International, University of Texas at El Paso and Middle Tennessee.

If those current members stay, Conference USA could add FCS power James Madison (a former Colonial Athletic Association rival of ODU whose athletic director Jeff Bourne also supports a more regionalized conference) and Liberty University, which is currently competing in FBS as an independent, to bring the conference to 10 teams.

Then Conference USA’s eastern division could feature ODU, JMU, Liberty, Marshall and Western Kentucky/Middle Tennessee. Southern Miss. Louisiana Tech, FIU, UTEP and Western Kentucky/MTSU could make up a western division.

So while the conference would still stretch to Texas (about 2,000 miles from Norfolk to El Paso) and Florida (FIU is in Miami), ODU could have two much closer opponents overall in JMU and Liberty.

There are also reports that the Sun Belt, which has teams such as Appalachian State, Coastal Carolina and the University of Louisiana, could be pursuing the remaining Conference USA teams such as Marshall and Southern Miss. They could also nab Liberty and JMU before Conference USA.

And with several ranked teams in recent years (Coastal is currently No. 14 in the AP poll and App State and Louisiana have both been ranked) the Sun Belt has a case of being the top Group of Five conference. That could limit any potential poaching of Sun Belt teams closer to ODU such as Coastal and App State by Conference USA.

Meanwhile for Conference USA, it’s also been reported that UTEP has been trying to join another conference, though the Mountain West has reportedly not expressed interest in picking up CUSA’s great western outlier.

If UTEP (which does have a strong athletics history, including a 1966 NCAA men’s basketball title under its former name of Texas Western) does stay, independent New Mexico State could be an addition for the western division. On the eastern end, the University of Massachusetts Amherst and University of Connecticut are also independents. There are two big negatives with UMass and UConn: both programs have struggled heavily in recent years and would stretch CUSA far to the northeast.

Army, was briefly a member of Conference USA from 1998 to 2004, but appears to a longshot of switching back from being independent.

WAVY will continue to track the latest developments.

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