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
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
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
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.