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Conference USA: The Breeding Ground for Conference Realignment

As programs search for money and fame, the smaller conferences have become the hunting grounds for bigger leagues. No one knows this better than Conference USA.

Reggie Upshaw (30) walks off the floor after MTSU fell to Syracuse in the NCAA Tournament.
Reggie Upshaw (30) walks off the floor after MTSU fell to Syracuse in the NCAA Tournament.
Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

In today's dog-eat-dog era, conference realignment has become something of the norm, rather than an oddity. Television contracts, major bowl games and, of course, the almighty dollar will send programs from one conference to another in hopes of gaining athletic supremacy.

Conference USA has been the breeding ground for some of the top teams in the nation since its inception in 1995, but only two of the original schools that developed the league remain: UAB and Southern Miss.

Now, the 14-team league contains nine teams that joined after 2013, with another plucking looming in the balance. But before more programs jump from the 21-year old league, let's revisit its history and where the teams are today.

Along with the two remaining CUSA teams, the original makeup included Cincinnati, DePaul, Louisville, Houston, Marquette, Memphis, South Florida, Saint Louis and Tulane. All but Louisville have made one move since leaving CUSA, with the Cardinals making a stop in the Big East (which later became the AAC) before joining the ACC in 2014.

With the turn of the century came the inclusion of East Carolina and TCU in 2001, then the additions of SMU, UCF, Rice, Marshall, UTEP and Tulsa in 2005.

The league was strong as ever, with powers representing both basketball and football. That was until the American Athletic Conference formed in 2013 and pilfered CUSA to near extinction.

Once the dust settled, all that remained were Marshall, UAB, Southern Miss and Rice. Louisville, Cincinnati, DePaul, Marquette, USF, Tulane, Tulsa, UCF, East Carolina, Memphis, Houston and SMU all joined the Big East/AAC mess between 2006 and 2014. Saint Louis joined the A-10 and TCU catapulted into the Big 12 as only the second CUSA team to join a Power 5 conference.

Gone are the days of CUSA receiving multiple bids to the NCAA tournament, as it did during the late 90s and early 2000s. Cincinnati went to the Final Four in 1996 and reached the Sweet 16 in 2001. Louisville played its way into the Final Four in 2005 — the Cards' final season in CUSA — before losing to eventual champion Illinois. Charlotte made seven appearances in the NCAA tournament during its tenure from 1995-2005. Saint Louis and DePaul both had two appearances in the big dance before their departures.

Memphis became the staple of CUSA basketball under the leadership of now-Kentucky head coach John Calipari and made it to back-to-back regional finals in 2006 and 2007, then advanced to the National Championship game in 2008.

Now, most years, the automatic bid awarded to the conference tournament winner is the only way into the Dance. The league's RPI is too low and the respect left when Memphis bolted to the AAC.

With the massive voids, CUSA returned the favor to smaller conferences, luring away schools from the Sun Belt in hopes of revamping the league. The league struck gold in 2013, bringing Charlotte back and luring FAU, FIU, Louisiana Tech, Middle Tennessee, North Texas, Old Dominion, UTSA and Western Kentucky.

While the problems for the mid-majors continue to mount, CUSA became the defacto guinea pig as the first Group of 5 league in the latest conference realignment era to renegotiate its television contract. The league will have its games shown over five different networks, one that is not viewable unless the subscriber has the provider's most costly package, while dealing a substantial hit to all the members of the league. After receiving roughly $1.1 million this past year, 2016-17 will produce only $200,000 in revenue per school with more cuts coming in 2019-20.

CUSA now ranks as the fourth highest Group of 5 school after its newest contract, behind the AAC, Mountain West and MAC. The previous three are still in the midst of television deals several years old.

To compare, the SEC divvied out $34 million per school with the ACC as the lowest ranked Power 5 school at $22.1 million each.

Now, the league waits for the next departures, with a host of AAC teams being floated as possibilities if the Big 12 decides to expand. That would mean the American may continue to poach from the upper tier of CUSA, as the league continues to operate like a farm system for bigger leagues.