Old Dominion baseball coach Chris Finwood knows precisely when a benefit of Conference USA membership became evident: Monday, May 26, 2014, 12:42 p.m.
That's when ODU's name flashed across the TV screen during the NCAA baseball tournament selection show. The Monarchs, who finished fourth in their first season as a conference member, earned an at-large invitation, the program's first NCAA berth in 14 years.
"I think it played a big role. The fourth-place team in the CAA isn't getting a bid to the tournament," Finwood said, referring to the Monarchs' previous conference home. "The first-place team (William and Mary) didn't get a bid this year, because they didn't win the tournament.
"There were other factors involved. We won enough games and our strength of schedule gave us a good RPI, but moving into a better league was definitely a factor."
ODU's first year in Conference USA required an atlas and more money for a distended league that stretched from West Virginia, south to Florida, across the nation's southern tier to Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, and west to Texas and Oklahoma.
Coaches, athletes, school officials and fans learned new faces and places. Traditional rivals suddenly became non-conference opponents as the Monarchs departed the CAA, their athletic home for the past 22 years.
"At first, obviously, there was a little trepidation as to how well we could compete in the conference," ODU athletic director Wood Selig said. "After the first year, all of our programs proved they can compete with the best in the conference, across the board."
Three teams earned NCAA berths: men's soccer, field hockey and baseball. ODU qualified athletes for national championships in wrestling, swimming and sailing. Six programs finished in the upper half of sports that the conference sponsors: baseball, men's and women's basketball, men's soccer, women's golf and women's tennis.
Baseball and men's basketball were revelations. Finwood's team was picked to finish 10th in preseason, a product of unfamiliarity as much as talent evaluation. Though Conference USA didn't release a preseason men's basketball poll, expectations were modest at best for a program that won just five games the year before and underwent a coaching change.
But new coach Jeff Jones led a young and undersized roster to 18 wins, a sixth-place finish in the league and a semifinal berth in the College Basketball Invitational tournament.
Selig said that the feedback he received from coaches throughout the school year was overwhelmingly positive.
"To a person, they all felt like it was a step up in every area," he said. "In terms of competition, in terms of facilities, in terms of national visibility. It was a major step up for all of our programs. We're competing against some of the absolute best in the country.
"No program took a step back in this transition, whether it was going into Conference USA, the Big East for field hockey or the Mid-American for wrestling."
Conference USA represented a competitive step up from the CAA in nearly all sports, and the Monarchs' programs that had to find other homes fared as well or better than before.
"The best move we could have made," wrestling coach Steve Martin said. "I was thankful football moved to Conference USA."
Conference USA doesn't sponsor wrestling, so ODU's program had to find a home elsewhere, eventually landing in the Mid-American Conference as an associate member. The MAC is considered the third-best wrestling conference in the nation, after the Big Ten and just behind the Big 12.
Consider that the MAC sent 43 wrestlers to the 2014 NCAA Championships, while in 2013, the CAA sent 21 wrestlers. The CAA ended wrestling sponsorship after 2013. Six ODU wrestlers qualified for the NCAA meet, the second-most in program history.
"We can compete at a very high level," Martin said. "To be honest, before I thought top-15 was our ceiling. Now, I think we can be top-10."
Conference USA was ranked 13th among men's basketball leagues, according to the Rating Percentage Index, two spots ahead of the CAA. Women's basketball was 10th in conference RPI, three spots ahead of the CAA.
"We talk about this in our conference meetings," women's basketball coach Karen Barefoot said, "people have no idea the talent that we have in Conference USA. It's amazing. There's talent, there's depth, there's a lot of good coaches. And one thing we talked about in our April meetings, because of all the conference changes, people aren't aware of who's even in the league and the programs we have. We have to do a better job of getting the word out about the conference."
Conference USA baseball was rated eighth nationally in RPI by WarrenNolan.com, while the CAA was 13th. Granted, that contrasts from last season, when CAA baseball was rated one spot ahead of C-USA and got three teams into the NCAA tournament for the first time, including William and Mary.
But Finwood believes that was a one-year blip, and that most years Conference USA will be better.
"I'm not knocking the CAA, by any means," Finwood said. "It's a good league. But the fourth-place team in the CAA is not getting a bid, and the fourth-place team in Conference USA just did. Some of that has to do with our strength of schedule and who we played, non-conference. But some of it is based on the perception of the league among committee members."
Expenses and academics were primary concerns related to the conference move. Travel and operating budgets increased, as did the potential for missed class time.
Ken Brown, ODU's senior associate athletic director for internal operations, oversees finances within the department. He said that the estimated expense increases when they researched the move came very close to the actual costs — approximately $2.5 million in scholarships, salaries and operating budgets.
"It's been, I think, a good first year," Brown said. "There's been a lot of communication between our office and the coaches and everybody has worked very well together. We feel very good about the move. We feel we can be competitive moving forward."
Brown emphasized the pledge from ODU president John Broderick and the Board of Visitors, that none of the additional costs of the move to C-USA would be paid for by an increase in student fees, already among the highest in the state.
Brown pointed out the athletic department's commitment to raise money from other sources, such as the football team's $1 million guarantee for playing at Vanderbilt next season, as well as private and corporate donations.
Selig said that travel expenses increased roughly $1 million over those in the CAA. But he said that ODU received a little more than $1 million in revenue distribution from Conference USA, calling the two "a wash."
As for academic concerns, Old Dominion tied for first with Rice for the most athletes on the Conference USA academic honor roll. Each had 240 athletes with grade-point averages of 3.0 or higher, which in ODU's case, represented approximately 60 percent of its student-athlete population.
ODU added an academic adviser to its support staff, and advisers occasionally traveled with teams on extended road trips.
Barefoot said that her team had its best semester academically and one of the best in the program's history. ODU wrestling finished with the second-best GPA in the nation behind Harvard, which Martin credited to the athletes themselves and to the diligence of the academic support staff.
"We were going to do that anyway," Selig said of adding academic support staff, "but it meshed perfectly with our move to Conference USA."
Ironically, the program that instigated the conference switch, football, couldn't compete in C-USA until the coming season. Even that's a year earlier than the usual two-year transition period from the Football Championship Subdivision into the Football Bowl Subdivision.
C-USA officials chose to incorporate ODU with a full eight-game conference schedule for 2014. The Monarchs can compete for a conference title, but under NCAA transition guidelines into FBS, they would be eligible for a bowl only if not enough teams qualify to fill all available slots.
As such, ODU football's transition into C-USA has been mostly preparatory and structural — adding staff, increasing scholarships from the max of 63 in FCS to the 85 permitted in FBS, and a lot of video review of new opponents.
"It became apparent as we studied film that the biggest difference is the size and speed of our program compared to the upper echelon teams in Conference USA," head coach Bobby Wilder said.
ODU played five FBS teams last season and lost to four, including one-sided setbacks to North Carolina and Maryland. Wilder said that C-USA's three bowl teams from last season — Rice, Marshall and Middle Tennessee State — compare favorably to last year's FBS opponents. Marshall, he pointed out, beat Maryland and East Carolina.
Where ODU's other programs are already on equal footing with C-USA teams, football will require time. Wilder pointed out that 83 of the 105 players expected to report to preseason camp in August will have come on board in the past 14 months.
"Our inexperience will be evident from the first time we step on the field against Hampton University," he said, referring to the season opener.
Selig caused something of a stir recently when he said on local sports radio host Nick Cattles' show that the Monarchs could very well finish 5-7, a cold slap for a program that's known mostly success since restarting in 2009.
"Wood's job as athletic director is to be realistic and to take all the knowledge and experience at his disposal and deliver an honest assessment," Wilder said. "There's probably nobody better in the country to realistically evaluate this situation because he's done it before. This is the second time he's transitioned a program from FCS to FBS. … My job is to prepare our team to win on all 12 Saturdays."
Indeed, Selig oversaw Western Kentucky's transition from FCS to FBS. Pitfalls and potholes aside, Wilder said there's a buzz around campus and among fans for the move up and into Conference USA.
At least six and as many as 10 football games will be televised this fall. New and expanded facilities are in the pipeline, including a new stadium that meets FBS, as well as modern, standards.
Facilities upgrades in other sports are in the works, as well. Ground broke for a new indoor baseball hitting facility. Much of the fundraising is complete for a new basketball practice facility to be built alongside the Constant Center.
ODU hosted the NCAA field hockey championship at its complex, and the school was tabbed to host C-USA championships in men's soccer and tennis next year.
"The athletic arms race never sleeps," Selig said. "That said, when we compare facilities, program budgets, staff sizes, we compare favorably to the top of Conference USA. We're not chasing many people in the league and I'd say more people are chasing us."
Increased exposure in C-USA's broad footprint benefits both the school and its programs, coaches and administrators said. Many schools are located in metropolitan areas: Norfolk, Charlotte, Dallas, south Florida, Birmingham, Houston, San Antonio.
Barefoot said her program is able to recruit areas previously unavailable. Likewise, Martin said that Mid-American membership allows him to recruit wrestling hotbeds such as Ohio, Michigan and the upper Midwest. Most programs have expanded their recruiting reach.
Conference USA's primary hurdle, at least for the immediate future, appears to be recognition and stability. Membership changed dramatically as part of the most recent round of conference realignment.
Within the past two years, the league lost Memphis, SMU, Central Florida, Tulane, Tulsa, Houston and East Carolina — one of ODU's staunchest advocates during the vetting process. It added a slew of schools, including ODU, Charlotte, Florida Atlantic, Florida International, Louisiana Tech, North Texas, UT San Antonio and Middle Tennessee State. Western Kentucky comes on board this fall.
"As we talk within the league, we need to get football as good as it can be," Selig said. "You're only as strong as your weakest link, and we need to have our marquee sports — football, men's and women's basketball and baseball — be as strong as they can be. That's how you gain recognition.
"There a lot of new people and a lot of new faces, coming from a number of different leagues. But I think we all have the same philosophical view of what success looks like. Now, we just need to put it into practice."
Fairbank can be reached by phone at 757-247-4637.
CHART OF COMPARATIVE OPERATING EXPENSES* (Doesn't include salaries or benefits)
*Figures provided by ODU athletic business officeCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun