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Published: Sunday, 5/20/2012

COMMENTARY

MAC left out of conference realignment

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST

Conference realignment in college athletics these days is somewhat mind-boggling. It's hard, as the old saying goes, to keep track of the players without a program.

It's sometimes difficult to keep a straight face too. For example, in the last couple weeks Conference USA has announced the additions of UNC-Charlotte (that's a re-addition, by the way), Texas-San Antonio, and Old Dominion, among other schools.

They will be joining C-USA in all sports, Football Bowl Subdivision status eventually included. But Charlotte hasn't fielded a football team for 50 years. ODU has never competed above the Division I-AA, or FCS, level. San Antonio has one season at any level under its belt.

The Roadrunners were 4-6 a year ago under former Miami (Fla.) coach Larry Coker, with two of the wins against Minot State and Bacone. The latter won't appear on the 2012 slate; Bacone has instead scheduled a game against the Haskell Indian Nations. You can look it up.

Charlotte is in the hurry-up process of building a stadium that will reportedly debut with 15,000 seats. Old Dominion will likely have to expand its stadium capacity. San Antonio has the vast off-campus Alamodome, so no problem there, but the Roadrunners are jumping from independent last season to the Western Athletic Conference for an FBS transition year in 2012, and then to C-USA. It's enough to make your head spin.

But the real head-scratcher, to me, is why these schools with little or no football history are more attractive to C-USA than any of a number of Mid-American Conference schools which have established programs and decades of FBS and Division I basketball competition under their belts.

Either there are no conferences, even one as hard up as C-USA, which consider MAC schools as worthy candidates, or the regional conference is truly an island of stability in the midst of realignment chaos.

"The MAC is pretty well known as a cohesive league," Bowling Green athletic director Greg Christopher said. "For the most part, we all look alike. We have the tightest geography of any Division I conference. We have the tightest bandwidth of [athletic] budgets. As all these conversations go on, I think those things help keep us together."

Temple, which is somehow headed for the Big East, is the first MAC member to bolt since Central Florida and Marshall went to C-USA back in 2005. None was what I would have considered a core school for the MAC. Two of them were football-only members, and all of them were looking for a way out almost from the day they got in.

Ignoring a lot of the details and focusing on football and basketball only, I can think of maybe four MAC schools that have the facilities and resources in place to be attractive candidates for another conference. Toledo and Ohio would top my list, with Northern Illinois and, just maybe, Ball State in the next tier.

Toledo would be at the top of the list considering the Glass Bowl (26,000-plus seats and expandable), the recently renovated Savage Arena, the new indoor practice facility, the school's metropolitan setting, the athletic department's ability to be far more self-supporting than other MAC members, and its key group of deep-pocketed alumni and boosters. Plus, UT offers a foothold right in the heart of the Big Ten's footprint.

I asked athletic director Mike O'Brien recently if UT would be interested in exploring other league options and, after he took time to measure his words carefully, the answer included a lot of read-between-the-lines stuff.

"It's imperative that UT does what is best for itself as an institution," O'Brien said. "I'm not inferring anything, but we will do what's in the best interest of the university."

O'Brien also mentioned that he didn't think Conference-USA was done expanding, so there's another line to read between.

Finally, he said a school and its athletic programs are known by the company they keep, and as I try to read between those lines I'm not sure what to think.

C-USA was at one time a relative giant with members like Cincinnati, Louisville, Marquette, DePaul, and South Florida. All are gone now, and the league will lose Memphis, Houston, SMU, and Central Florida in July, 2013.

Some good schools like Tulsa, Rice, and Southern Miss remain, but the conference is obviously desperate to stay viable and is assembling a hodgepodge of dissimilar schools -- some of them ready, some not -- flung over multiple time zones to do so.

So, maybe that grass wouldn't necessarily be greener. Maybe a MAC school, given the opportunity, would decide that the company it is keeping right now is just fine, thank you.

It strikes me as a tad odd, though, that other conferences are not even tapping, let alone knocking, on a couple of the MAC's doors.

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.



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