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CUSA's Leaving & Staying

Most league commissioners on the way out get judged by a deriviative of the Ronald Reagan 1980 Presidential campaign debate line: is your league better off now than it was when you took over?

By that standard, Conference USA commish Britt Banowsky, whose departure for the College Football Playoff Foundation was announced last week, failed over his 13 years as CUSA leader. There's no question stronger athletic programs with larger followings (Louisville, Memphis, Cincinnati, TCU, East Carolina, etc.) comprised the 2002 or 2003 versions of Conference USA as compared to the current model.

That's not the proper gauge of Banowsky, however. He's been a success because Conference USA still exists.

Conference realignment nearly ripped apart the league in 2005. When Virginia Tech and the college in Coral Gables moved from the Big East to the Atlantic Coast Conference with Boston College right behind, the Big East rolled up on Conference USA like the IRS in a mood -- the Big East took five schools. Charlotte and Saint Louis, without football, headed for the Atlantic 10. TCU went to the Mountain West.

When I asked Banowsky about his most difficult period in office, he said, "We had Realignment I, which was new to everybody. We were all kind of waiting on the ACC to see what they were going to do and the Big East was waiting on the ACC. We were waiting on the Big East.

"People were new at the game of realignment. That was a little bit challenging because folks didn't know how to behave. Go back and read some of the stuff that went on at that time, it was obvious people didn't know how to behave,"  I was really proud of the way our group handled it. They kind of clung to some principles that were good values -- like honesty, openness and following the rules and respect. We fortunately got through that window."

Banowsky guided CUSA through a restocking that he had to repeat in 2012 as another realignment frenzy hit college sports. That's when the conference imported a big chunk of the Sun Belt to keep its personality of schools in or near major markets (for the most part). 

"The second round of realignment, we were better prepared to understand how it went," Banowsky said. "These universities are aspiring universities. Everyone wants to be the best they can possibly be. You want that. So, if they can find their way into a better situation -- if a school in South Florida can find their way into the ACC, you would want to see that opportunity realized. But it needs to happen in the right way.

"But the most interesting and challenging thing I worked on during my time was the management of post-Katrina with Tulane. The way our universities rallied around that and for Tulane, keeping that football program alive during a period the university was shut down and keeping all their sports programs alive."

One sports program nobody could keep alive then nobody could keep dead sits in Birmingham. Both Banowsky and UAB coach Bill Clark tried to find the silver linings in the Alabama Board of Trustees killing the program after refusing to let it prosper, then the public-fueled resurrection now set for the 2017 season.

The revival did save the conference the hassle of booting UAB for not having football and finding another football-playing school.

"I'm proud of our people for giving (UAB) the time or the space to figure it out and not put too much artificial pressure on them," Banowsky said. "It seems like they've just had the problem of getting everyone aligned in the same way around the football program. In some ways, it's a little bit of a wake up call for them. My hope and expectation is they'll be able to get more people pulling on the rope this time around or they realize now how valuable that asset was as they were about to lose it."

That's similar to what Clark said when I reminded him that, a year ago, he talked about getting UAB's facilities up to the level of a modern FBS school. Now, he sat at Media Day talking about rebuilding a whole program, which should start with a smaller, newer, better placed replacement for Legion Field, the only thing in Alabama more out of date than the Confederate battle flag.

"The great thing about the facilities is we're not saying it as an athletic department. Our whole town's saying it," Clark said. "I had a guy call me last night, "Coach, I've never seen Birmingham like this." This isn't me saying it. This is our community. I'm an Alabama guy, hadn't been in Birmingham my whole life. But when you know our school is the No. 1 job engine in the state, all of a sudden, you've got these people saying, "We want our community to be the best."

"That's what we were hoping would happen. So, maybe it took something like this...to wake some of these folks up and say "We've got to get involved." I think that's what we're hearing right now."

What he's also hearing, he thinks, is the effect of social media. I'd throw in the ubiquitous, voluminous sports media always ready to feed the daily ravenous news beast with a bite of the latest news prey. UAB turned into a national story. Fox Sports' Tim Brando jumped on this story like it was hot buttered corn and he'll stay on it for this week's Football Saturday show.

That's brought calls from Left Coast recruits and we're not talking as much Tempe as Tampa.

"We've got kind of a national footprint now that we obviously didn't have before," Clark said.

Barnowsky sees the transition to his replacement happening before the end of football season. He's also seen some pretty cool stuff from the conference he's kept together.

"I've seen teams make it to the Final Four," he said. "I saw that kid from Kansas hit a three-point shot to knock out Memphis. I saw Dwyane Wade put a team on his shoulders and take it to the Final Four out of this league. Saw Case Keenum put up unbelivable numbers on some great Houston teams."

What most of us media types at Media Day want to see is who'll replace Banowsky, who often ended his loquacious interviews with "promote the conference."

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