May 31, 2012
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON - Tom Herrion isn't crying the Memphis blues, but the Marshall coach knows the men's basketball Tigers will be missed in pending Conference USA realignment.
Herrion, pointed toward his third Herd season, will face Memphis, UCF, Houston and SMU - with new Coach Larry Brown - in 2012-13 as C-USA foes. The following season, those four will be in the Big East, replaced in an expanded, 14-team C-USA by Old Dominion, Charlotte, FIU, North Texas, UT-San Antonio and Louisiana Tech.
"We have had two Eastern time zone teams (in the conference)," said Herrion, who heads for Parkersburg today and another Big Green Coaches Tour stop. "Now, we'll have five. That's an added benefit for us. I'm excited about the new teams coming in, especially Old Dominion and Charlotte. Those are big additions in basketball."
Herrion brought up comments he said he gets from Marshall fans, who in recurring fashion reference the Thundering Herd's years in the Mid-American and Southern conferences.
"There's no question Marshall is at a higher level of competition in Conference USA," he said, "but when they talk about those leagues, I think it's because when Marshall was in the MAC and Southern, they could get in their cars and drive there for a game. They enjoyed that.
"Where we are now is more geographically spread out, but with some of the new teams, it will help. Our fan base can get to Charlotte and even Old Dominion. Charlotte, we have a big alumni presence."
A budding rivalry in green with the 49ers, perhaps?
"Sure," Herrion said. "I think among four teams, East Carolina, Charlotte, Old Dominion and us, the potential is there to create some compelling games, some rivalries, games that fans of those schools will want to see."
Herrion said the loss of Memphis "clearly, obviously, means we're losing our flagship program. They've had such a strong run in the modern era, and right or wrong, our conference in basketball has been identified pretty much through Memphis."
He's heard the "Memphis and the 11 Dwarfs" comment too many times to count.
"Obviously, I'm biased, but I don't think that's a fair assessment," the 44-year-old Massachusetts native said. "Having been in the league two years now, I think the league has great strength although I don't think it clearly has gained traction as far as national respect it deserves ... It can be about a lot of things, maybe a lack of exposure, and we haven't had anybody make a big (NCAA Tournament) run in a little while."
Herrion said he has no doubt FIU will step forward under new Coach Richard Pitino, who worked for Herrion during the Herd's coach's previous head coaching stop at College of Charleston. He pointed to recent Sun Belt contention by North Texas and past success at Louisiana Tech. On UT-San Antonio, Herrion likes the NBA market and said C-USA membership "could do a lot" for the Roadrunners. "This is a chance for them."
The Herd coach's expansion focus, however, was on Charlotte and ODU.
"ODU is a wonderful addition," Herrion said. "Great tradition, a real track record of success and not just under (Coach Blaine Taylor), but back through the years (11 NCAA bids since 1980, after a 1975 Division II national title under Coach Sonny Allen, the former Marshall guard and Moundsville native).
"Charlotte has been really good before and has been in the conference before (10 seasons, from C-USA founding in 1995-96 through 2004-05). It's a nice campus and they've got tradition, reached the NCAA a bunch (seven bids in 10 C-USA seasons).
"Those are good markets for the conference, too. ODU is well-supported with a good fan base, and has (Norfolk, Va.) one of the most-populous cities in the country without a pro team. I don't know if a lot of people know really how good that program is."
Herrion said a scheduling format for a 14-team basketball group hasn't been devised, but said models for Conference USA to follow will be out there from the SEC (14 teams this coming season) and the ACC.
The ACC already has announced its hoops scheduling format for when expansionists Pitt and Syracuse join the conference. Each team has one primary scheduling partner. Over a three-year cycle, teams will play the other 12 foes at least once with the primary partners playing home and away annually while the other 12 rotate in groups of four: one year both home and away; one year at home only; and one year away only. Over the course of the three-year cycle, primary partners play six times and other conference opponents play four times.
Herrion's Herd (21-14 last season) had a final RPI rank of 43 - the highest not to get an NCAA Tournament bid, with impressive strength of schedule numbers of 16 (overall) and 4 (non-conference, behind only long Beach State, Duke and College of Charleston).
He pointed to the home-and-home series in C-USA among the "East Division football" teams, giving Marshall two games annually against Memphis, Southern Mississippi, UCF and UAB.
"You have to think about how you want to schedule," Herrion said. "We've done a darn good job in scheduling, and in the last two years the RPI (for Marshall) has been the highest it's ever been. Playing Memphis, Southern miss, UAB, UCF twice is tough, but it helps you. That's going to change, and we have to be cognizant of what we have to do to make sure we have a schedule that's going to help us in the RPI."
All said, Herrion admits he is a traditionalist - "an old-school guy" - who grew up on Big East basketball, a guy who coached as a Providence and Pitt assistant, and sees a lot of rivalries ending with the rampant realignment that has about 40 schools calling for the veritable Mayflower vans this year and next.
"It's kind of sad, really," Herrion said. "You like to see consistency, and you like to see rivalries. To see where Pitt and West Virginia might not play anymore, after as long as they've played, is crazy to me, because that's an unbelievable rivalry.
"It boggles my mind really, but as coaches, we don't have much control over all of that. It's the old theory; you worry about what you have control over. You go play where they tell you. But, and I think I can speak for (Herd football Coach) Doc Holliday on this, we feel happy to have a place to lay our heads. We have stability.
"Conference USA definitely stepped up and did what it needed to do, and geographically, what was done made a lot of sense for us at Marshall."