By Bret Bloomquist
El Paso Times
Conference USA is kicking off the final season in its current incarnation, as SMU, Houston, UCF and Memphis were participating in their final league media day before their departure to the Big East.
While coaches weren't focused on anything beyond this year's opener, SMU's June Jones said he could tell his program had new status during recruiting.
"We stay 300 miles from campus," Jones said. "If kids recruit us, we will recruit them, and we're getting calls from different places on the East Coast we didn't get calls from. We're getting way more kids from Florida who are really interested."
Coaches all downplayed any effects of lame duck seasons for the departing schools.
Said Houston coach Tony Levine: "We're not looking at the last year of a conference, the last year at Robertson Stadium (Houston is tearing it down and will probably play in Reliant Stadium for two years while a new stadium is built), it's our seniors' last year. We do talk about our seniors. But our focus is the same, we want to compete for a conference title."
Incoming schools North Texas and Louisiana Tech both had sports information directors at media day so there was already some looking ahead toward 2013, when five schools will enter the conference in football.
"It's very important not to think about next year, we need to get through this year," Tulsa coach Bill Blankenship said. "I like the direction we're going, the teams we added, all the excitement over that, but it's tempered because it's such a tough road this year."
Commissioner Britton Banowsky did not rule out further expansion. The league is expected to have 14 schools for 2015 unless it expands again.
In an era when San Diego State and Boise State are heading to the Big East, Conference USA actually will get more geographic with its 2013 realignment. That is particularly good for Eastern schools like Marshall and East Carolina, who will now pick up closer trips in their own time zone to Old Dominion, Charlotte and Florida International.
"This helps us geographically," Marshall coach Doc Holliday said. "We're as regional as anybody. Our longest trip is a couple of hours. We've become more regionalized."
For the first time since absorbing the death penalty at the end of the 1980s, SMU has now been to three straight bowl games and has rebuilt its culture under Jones. It was a long, hard road.
"The problem is SMU has a lost generation, 25 years of losing," Jones said. "Kids didn't have a good experience at football games, they didn't become football fans. Losing generated no interest from a football standpoint.
"We have a beautiful stadium, a beautiful campus, we had to go outside the box thinking, making the game-day experience a fun deal."
In one respect, Conference USA media day was unlike any other, as a record five coaches are making their debuts: Houston's Levine, Tulane's Curtis Johnson, Memphis' Justin Fuente, UAB's Garrick McGee and Southern Miss' Ellis Johnson.
"Last year I was one of the only new coaches," Tulsa's Bill Blankenship said. "Now there are five. I'm quickly climbing up the ladder to be the dean."
Said second-year East Carolina coach Ruffin McNeil: "I get to sit at the front table and get served first."
The actual deans, UTEP's Mike Price and UCF's George O'Leary, who are beginning their ninth seasons at their current schools, were not present. Price had another obligation and O'Leary is recovering from surgery.
Combined with the turnover at quarterback, this seems to be one of the most wide-open seasons in a conference that often is wide open.
"It will make it interesting, kind of a transitional season," Ellis Johnson said. "That's certainly better than coming in with four quarterbacks established and every head coach in place. I'm not the only new guy, I'm not the only guy breaking in a quarterback."
Fuente said almost the same thing.
"The simple answer is that if Case Keenum isn't here it's better for everyone," he said. "Absolutely, when you are starting a new program, a new offense, a new defense it's better than jumping in with 10 guys that have had a staff in place for years."
While most schools are starting over at quarterback, most also have an idea what they are going to do there. Defending league champion Southern Miss, which had a four-year starter in Austin Davis, doesn't. There is a five-way battle and Ellis Johnson said he has no idea how it will go. There could be a platoon.
"I don't know that I envision that but I see how it could happen," he said. "We could change quarterbacks three games in. We're going to have to prepare for anything and everything."
One of the biggest stories of last year's media day was the dramatic weight loss of the formerly large McNeil, who joked that he'd lost a sixth grader.
"Up to a ninth grader, however big the average ninth grader is," he said, estimating that he has lost 150 pounds. He said he walks every day at lunch.
Here are the results of the Conference USA media poll, which involved 15 voters representing all 11 markets:
East: 1. UCF (13 first-place votes) 85 points; 2. Southern Miss (2) 70; 3. Marshall 58; 4. East Carolina 56; 5. UAB 29; 6. Memphis 17
West: 1. Houston (8 first-place votes) 81 points; 2. Tulsa (4) 73; 3. SMU (3) 67; 4. UTEP 39; 5. Rice 35; 6. Tulane 20
Bret Bloomquist may be reached at [email protected]; 546-6359.