HUNTINGTON — The future of Marshall University as a member of Conference USA — and Conference USA, as a whole — is in flux after reports surfaced that six member schools are applying for the American Athletic Conference.
Those six schools — Florida Atlantic, Charlotte, North Texas, UTSA, Rice and UAB — are part of the American Athletic Conference’s attempt to expand after losing three key members — Houston, Cincinnati and UCF — to the Big 12 last month.
Marshall interim Athletic Director Jeff O’Malley and Marshall President Jerome Gilbert took to social media Tuesday to discuss the current situation surrounding Marshall and Conference USA.
“With the news that broke yesterday, I want to assure our fans that we have worked and will continue to work to position Marshall in the best possible way,” O’Malley said.
“I am working closely with AD O’Malley to determine what is best for Marshall athletics,” Gilbert said. “We are in a strong position. I am confident that we can achieve a good result for the Herd.”
Currently, it appears there are two options for Marshall: stay put in Conference USA, or possibly look to relocate into the Sun Belt Conference.
Given the television package and the future doubt of Conference USA’s viability, the Sun Belt Conference is an option Marshall is researching heavily, but it is not a cut-and-dry situation in terms of making a move.
Marshall head coach Charles Huff confirmed the university’s administration has been weighing all options and been transparent in doing so. He also showed support of the administration’s plan moving forward without giving any particular details as to which direction the administration is leaning.
“Our leadership has a plan that I am 100 percent behind,” Huff said. “They are doing it in the best way for Marshall University athletics and Marshall University as a whole.
“I think what we’ve got to make sure we understand is that you’ve got to take your fan hat off for one point and say, ‘OK, what is the best for Marshall athletics?’ I’m not saying that’s to leave or stay. I think our administration has a plan that will be rolled out here when they feel is necessary once they gather all the information.”
In regards to a move to the Sun Belt Conference, there would have to be indication that an invite would be forthcoming from SBC officials, which is just as cloudy as Marshall’s interest at this point.
When the American Athletic Conference started its active pursuit of schools two weeks ago by pursuing some Mountain West programs, Sun Belt Conference commissioner Keith Gill told the Orlando Sentinel that the conference was positioned well, no matter which direction it chooses to go.
“We’re evaluating the landscape and certainly have our eyes open as to what is happening and what some of our other conference colleagues are doing,” Gill said. “If there are some opportunities for us to grow and they make sense, we’re open to that, but at the same time, we feel good about our 10 football-playing schools. We’re a strong college football conference, and we feel good where we are and how we’re positioned.”
Marshall and Southern Miss appear to be the two schools best aligned to receive invites to the Sun Belt Conference, should expansion be the league’s direction.
The continued rift between Louisiana Tech and two Sun Belt members from the state — Louisiana and Louisiana-Monroe — make it unlikely that the Bulldogs would receive support to be selected despite fitting the blueprint well.
Conference USA members Middle Tennessee and FIU left the Sun Belt for C-USA in 2013, while Western Kentucky left the Sun Belt for C-USA in 2014, meaning there could be apprehension from current membership about adding teams that defected from the league within the past decade.
While Marshall and Southern Miss appear to be the front-runners for an invite, there are still plenty of unknowns as to whether it is in Marshall’s best interest, despite the increase in television revenue and exposure for a move to Sun Belt.
As Huff pointed out, there is much more to consider than just television revenues and the football aspect of a conference move.
“It’s not just, ‘Hey, what would be best for football?’” Huff said. “When you talk about changing conferences, you’re talking about budgets, you’re talking about TV contracts, you’re talking about where are we at right now from a foundation standpoint comparative to moving to another league or staying in this league?
“How is this going to affect the women’s cross country team? How’s this going to affect volleyball? How’s this going to affect softball? How’s this going to affect baseball? This is not a football move. We’re not just moving the football team. It’s everybody.”
If the Herd stays in Conference USA, the league is likely facing its own expansion to add teams after the defection of six schools to the American Athletic Conference.
Exactly how many teams Conference USA would look to add is an unknown.
The teams remaining in C-USA would be Marshall, Old Dominion, Western Kentucky, Middle Tennessee, Southern Miss, Louisiana Tech, FIU and UTEP.
Given the largely eastern demographic of the league’s remaining members, it is likely UTEP would look for a league closer to its region — perhaps the Mountain West — especially since the Texas contingent of schools within C-USA are exiting to the AAC.
Programs that would be of interest to a new-look Conference USA include James Madison and Liberty, which would give the league more of an East Coast presence while aligning with Old Dominion, as well.
On Tuesday, Old Dominion President Brian Hemphill told WAVY-TV in Norfolk, Virginia, that he advocated the league try to build stronger with expansion to maintain its viability.
“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,” Hemphill said.
No matter the direction Marshall University chooses to go, it will undergo significant change within the next 12 to 24 months athletically.
Currently, O’Malley is the interim athletic director, while Gilbert has announced he will leave at the end of his contract in July.
Candidate selection for the new Marshall president is ongoing, and once that person is named, an athletic director search is expected to follow.
While there is plenty of uncertainty for the future, the good news for Marshall University is that Gilbert and O’Malley have decades of experience in higher education, which means that experience in dealing with realignment issues is not lacking.
As Huff pointed out, it may be an uncertain time, but the clarity with which each has gone about business has kept Marshall athletics stable in unstable times.
“I fully support our administration and all the people making these decisions,” Huff said. “I will say I’ve been ultra-pleased with the transparency. Sometimes in these things, you wake up one day and you realize all of the sudden you are playing in the Hawaii conference and no one has talked to you. That has not been the case here. Our administration has done a phenomenal job of laying out the pros and cons, possibilities, way before the Twitter machine puts it out.”