April 1, 2013
BY Jack Bogaczyk
HUNTINGTON - Conference USA just keeps getting friendlier for Marshall Athletics and Thundering Herd fans.
It was one of the worst-kept secrets in college athletics ... but at least it's finally official.
Western Kentucky is joining C-USA, for the 2014-15 school year, replacing Tulsa, which is bolting its league home of eight years for what used to be the Big East.
An official announcement on that move is expected Tuesday.
The Golden Hurricane has won 49 championships in C-USA - more than twice the number of any other school - but this "swap," so to speak, continues to bring Marshall's conference home closer to home.
The Hilltoppers have a mushrooming program in football, witness the big-time offseason hire of former Louisville and Arkansas Coach Bobby Petrino. The `Toppers, who play at 22,113-seat L.T. Smith Stadium, went to a bowl game last season in only their fourth year on the FBS level.
In hoops, Western has plenty of tradition on the men's and women's sides.
Men's basketball has made seven NCAA Tournament appearances since 2000. The women's basketball program has advanced to three NCAA Final Fours.
That hand-waving, red-towel WKU logo dates to the late, great Western Coach Ed Diddle, who with 759 victories ranks 13th all-time in major college coaching wins (sandwiched by Hank Iba and Phog Allen - pretty nice company).
Through more than 1,000 Hilltopper games, Diddle clutched a red towel ... chewing on it, throwing it, waving it at fans, signaling his players. A tradition was born.
Western has made 23 men's NCAA appearances. Outside the current so-called "top six" conferences, only BYU (27), Memphis (24) and Princeton (24) have more. WKU reached the 1971 Final Four. It plays in downsized, remodeled - and always potentially raucous -- Diddle Arena (7,326 seats).
WKU is ranked eighth nationally among NCAA schools for winning percentage and 17th in all-time wins. The women's basketball team has made 16 trips to the NCAA Tournament, with 11 straight appearances from 1985-95 and three trips to the NCAA Final Four.
Western's arrival will lessen some of the hit men's hoops is taking through the loss of Memphis to the same to-be-named conference to which Tulsa and six other current C-USA schools are heading. WKU has had a quality program for decades.
Olympic sports, you ask?
Western volleyball has been to five NCAA Tournaments in the last six years. Baseball has averaged 34 wins over the last five seasons with 17 Major League draft picks over the last four years. Track and field has won 22 conference championships and produced 22 All-Americans since 2008.
Western, with 21,124 students, plays 19 intercollegiate sports (10 women, nine men). It gives Marshall a new league foe in football, baseball, softball, volleyball, men's and women's basketball, men's and women's golf, cross country, women's soccer, women's tennis, women's indoor and outdoor track and field and women's swimming and diving.
It also means Herd Athletic Director Mike Hamrick will have to fill two non-conference slots on the football schedule. Marshall was scheduled to play the Hilltoppers home-and-home in 2017 and '18.
For the Herd, it makes C-USA more travel-friendly, too. A trip from Huntington to Bowling Green, Ky., is about a 4½-hour drive, or fewer than 300 miles. With the additions of Charlotte, Middle Tennessee State and - to a lesser extent - Old Dominion - C-USA is going to be a much more reasonable road for the Herd in coming years.
Back in January in a HerdZone.com/Herd Insider column, I dug out the current and future C-USA athletic budgets via their 2011-12 filings with the U.S. Department of Education. The point of that column was to show that the membership changes in C-USA would make things more competitive for the Herd.
Let's factor Western Kentucky into the group now, to update.
The top six current C-USA members in athletics spending (Memphis, SMU, UCF, East Carolina, Houston, Tulsa, in order) and No. 8, Tulane, are exiting. In the current 12-team membership, Marshall ranked 10th in athletic spending in 2011-12 (the last year available), at $24.021 million.
In the 14-team membership in place for 2014-15 - after Tulane, ECU and Tulsa follow the other four out the door a year later - Marshall will rank sixth in expenditures, just behind Western Kentucky's filing that shows a $25.77 million budget.
Ahead of the Herd and `Toppers in the new alignment are Old Dominion, Rice, FIU and UAB.
Western would place fifth in men's basketball spending, Marshall seventh. The Herd's football expenses ($7.133 million) would also be No. 7, with Western in the bottom four ($5.88 million).
Western Kentucky, UT-San Antonio and FBS newcomers Old Dominion and Charlotte (playing its first FCS season in 2013) figure to add football dollars when they join C-USA.
Petrino's arrival likely means a big bump in WKU football coffers immediately.
On the media side, Western gets coverage from both the Nashville, Tenn., and Louisville, Ky., markets. Those are the nation's Nos. 29 and 48 telecasts markets, respectfully. The Hilltoppers' entrance makes the coverage stronger in Nashville, which is the TV home to Middle Tennessee (in Murfreesboro).
With Louisville included, the "future" C-USA will have team coverage in 10 of the top 50 telecast markets (Dallas, Houston, Miami, Charlotte, Nashville, San Antonio, West Palm Beach, Birmingham, Norfolk and Louisville. Marshall is in the Charleston-Huntington market, No. 65).
That compares to five current top 50 markets (Dallas, Houston, Orlando, Birmingham and Memphis).
Conference USA is losing a successful program in Tulsa. It's getting another one in Western Kentucky.
For the Herd, there's no question the friendlier geography and financial competitiveness makes this latest move in the never-ending realignment a win-win situation.