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Columnists | NCAA Tournament  | Kevin McNeill Archive

By Kevin McNeill

Mcneillklock@aol.com

September 11th 2005

What Could Have Been: Metro Conference

In just the past few years, we have witnessed a startling chain of events in the college sports world - starting with the ACC's raid of the Big East, the Big East's raid of Conference USA, C-USA's raid of the Western Athletic Conference (and the MAC), and the WAC's raid of the Sun Belt Conference. With all that has gone on, perhaps it's worth looking back at what might have been the best conference of them all, if only for a lot of foresight, and plenty of luck.

The Metro Conference was founded in 1975 with charter members Cincinnati, Georgia Tech, Memphis State (now Memphis), Louisville, St. Louis and Tulane. It was a smart move. 1975 was also the year the NCAA Tournament expanded to 32 teams and included at-large teams (and not just conference champions) for the first time. The following year, Florida State would join the conference but remain an independent in football, and two years after that Georgia Tech would bolt and be replaced by Virginia Tech.

Led by Louisville - with 5 final fours in 11 years and 2 national championships - and emerging powers Memphis (Final Four in 1985) and Cincinnati, the Metro had clearly established itself as one of the nation's most-respected basketball conferences. But the conference was still on the outside looking in at the lucrative world of NCAA Division 1-A football. The Metro never became a "football" conference, and the football playing schools of the Metro did not always play each other.

Then in 1990 the college sports landscape began to change dramatically, as college football independents gradually realized the benefits of joining conferences. The Metro conference did its best to capitalize. According to the Louisville Courier-Journal, that year the Metro held a two-day expansion meeting with eight football schools ó Boston College, East Carolina, Miami, Pittsburgh, Rutgers, Syracuse, Temple and West Virginia. Miami, intrigued by the possibility of joining their hated rivals the Seminoles in the conference, came away from the meetings calling the Metro a "viable option."

However, two months later Louisville football coach Howard Schnellenberger came out publicly opposed to conference affiliation, saying that it would hamper his ability to play a national (read Notre Dame-type) schedule. He specifically said he wanted no part of a conference that included supposedly lackluster football programs at Cincinnati, Memphis, South Carolina, Southern Miss, Tulane and Virginia Tech. Also, according to the Courier-Journal, Louisville was asking for a revenue-sharing commitment from Florida State should they join the league in football, while at the same time, looking for assurances that its massive college basketball television profits wouldn't be diminished.

In September 1990, Florida State chose instead to bolt for the Atlantic Coast Conference. At virtually the same time, the Big East would found a football league, scooping up most of the Metro's expansion prospects. Soon after that, South Carolina left for the Southeastern Conference.

Following these departures, Cincinnati and Memphis quickly bolted for the Great Midwest Conference - joining UAB, DePaul, Marquette, and Saint Louis (who left the Metro in 1982). Louisville remained in the Metro Conference, most likely saving the conference from losing it's automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament. However, while Cincinnati and Memphis thrived in their new home, Louisville suddenly found itself aligned with three former Sun Belt members (North Carolina-Charlotte, South Florida, and VCU), Southern Mississippi, Virginia Tech and a Tulane program that had just been re-instated after a five year absence following a point-shaving scandal. Not exactly the powerhouse conference it was hoping to be.

In 1995, the depleted Metro merged with the Great Midwest to form Conference USA. The 20-year experiment known as the Metro Conference was no more.

But think about it. Had things gone a little differently, when discussing the Metro today, you could be talking about a football conference that potentially could have had Florida State, Miami, Virginia Tech, West Virginia, Pittsburgh, Lousiville, Syracuse, South Carolina and Boston College. Throw in Temple, Cincinnati, Charlotte and Memphis and you've got a heck of a basketball conference as well.

But hindsight is always 20/20, and by no means am I implying the powers that be at the Metro screwed up. Landing eastern football powerhouses like Miami and Pittsburgh to a primarily midwest-centered conference was always a long shot. In addition, many of the football schools at the time had lackluster basketball records at best, and joining conferences such as the ACC or Big East would greatly help them develop their basketball programs - and further tap into the only other NCAA Division 1-A sport that actually turns a profit for the schools. The Big East was coming off an outstanding decade that saw them play in the NCAA title game in 5 out of 8 seasons, and the ACC - led by Duke - was rapidly becoming the best conference in America.

Also, at the time of the merger, the Metro was heavily depleted, and joining the Great Midwest Conference to form C-USA to secure more lucrative bowl bids and NCAA Tournament bids certainly seemed to be a good idea at the time. The Great Midwest had already snatched up Metro founding teams Memphis, Cinicinnati, and St. Louis in 1991, so the teams were already familiar with each other. Virginia Tech would be booted out of the conference for opposing the merger, but they were already in the Big East for football, and it was a foregone conclusion they would soon leave for everything else as well no matter what the Metro did.

There is also no way the primary founders of C-USA could have known that just a few years later, the Big East would be caught napping and have their best football schools, as well as Boston College, snatched from underneath them by the ACC, and the basketball superconference would turn their sights on them. Although, how the Big East could not have known that Miami and Virginia Tech would be tempted to bolt to the ACC (where it not only makes more sense geographically, but is home to their in-state rivals, Florida State and Virginia, respectively) is beyond me. But thatís a story for another column.

For now, on the ten year anniversary of the end of the Metro, we should pay our respects to a truly great conference, that even for just a moment, was ahead of its time.

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