Middle Tennessee eager to switch to Conference USA

TERESA M. WALKER AP Sports Writer Published:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) -- Middle Tennessee may not join Conference USA until July 1. That's not stopping anyone from thinking about how quickly the league can start playing games and tournaments in Music City, the Blue Raiders' home away from home.

Conference football games, bowl games, basketball tournaments.

Well, league commissioner Britton Banowsky mentioned LP Field, home to the NFL's Tennessee Titans, the new $500 million convention center opening in May and lastly the Bridgestone Arena across the street among Nashville's quality facilities. He noted the arena is busy hosting the Southeastern Conference men's tournament in 2013 and 2016.

"But '17 is open, so that's encouraging," Banowsky said.

Middle Tennessee is so happy to be joining Conference USA that school officials welcomed the league's commissioner to town to talk about what the Blue Raiders bring. University officials even got Pete Fisher, general manager of the Grand Ole Opry and a 1987 graduate, to present the commissioner with an enlarged invitation to the opry.

University President Sidney McPhee heard that Conference USA is committed only through 2014 for its basketball tournament and quickly alerted Scott Ramsey, president of the Nashville Sports Council, sitting across the table from him. Conference USA is taking its tournament to Tulsa in March and is committed to El Paso in 2014.

"We don't have a window yet," Banowsky said.

Ramsey said the council will have to check the need for hotel space, possible conflicts with the NHL's Nashville Predators who call the arena home and other factors before deciding whether to bid or not. The arena already is hosting the 2014 women's Final Four with the SEC tournament making its home in Nashville in 2015, 2016 and 2019.

Middle Tennessee tried to join Conference USA last spring and just missed out in the league's expansion. But university officials kept lobbying, and C-USA accepted the university with Tennessee's largest undergraduate population. Banowsky said Middle Tennessee's proximity to Nashville, approximately 30 miles southeast of Music City, played a key role in accepting the Blue Raiders.

"The Nashville market's an important market," Banowsky said. "It's a growing market. It's dynamic. They love college sports here in Nashville. That was helpful. It fit well with the strategy. We weren't just adding schools. We were trying to do it in a strategic way, and it fit well."

Banowsky called Middle Tennessee a perfect fit for the league with a football team that went 8-4 last season. The men's basketball team currently is 22-4 having won 11 straight with an RPI of No. 29 on Monday. The women's basketball team also is a regular at the NCAA tournament. Banowsky said the more they looked at Middle Tennessee the better they felt and now expect the Blue Raiders to compete for championships.

Conference USA hasn't been immune to the tumultuous changes in league membership. Memphis, Central Florida, SMU and Houston will be leaving the league in July for the Big East with East Carolina and Tulane following in 2014. Florida Atlantic is joining C-USA along with Middle Tennessee, giving the league 16 members in two divisions for 2013-14.

"We've gone through some changes, and I'm someone who embraces the change," Banowsky said. "It creates renewal, new opportunities, the dynamic things we have in play ... are exciting and personally exciting for me and gives me something to look forward to."

That includes getting into the Nashville market with Middle Tennessee. C-USA's champion in football traditionally has played at the Liberty Bowl in Memphis. Nashville hosts the Music City Bowl each year at LP Field, and that bowl's contract pairing the Southeastern Conference and the Atlantic Coast Conference goes through 2013.

For Middle Tennessee, McPhee said this is a move that makes sense for a university with explosive growth over the past 15 years.

"Certainly, Conference USA does just that," McPhee said.