Eagle Rocked: Southern Miss, Conference USA, and the Dark Side of College Football Realignment

Rogelio V. Solis/AP

The worst season in the 100-year existence of Southern Mississippi football arrived without warning, as subtly as a trapdoor opening in the middle of an interstate. Before the bottom fell out in 2012, USM had been riding a historical high note: The 2011 Golden Eagles had set the school record for wins (12), claimed the Conference USA championship, and finished 20th in the final AP poll. They’d come within three points of a likely BCS bid and within nine of a perfect record while securing the program’s 18th consecutive winning season, a streak exceeded at the time by only Florida, Florida State, and Virginia Tech. No one would have confused the program that coach Larry Fedora bequeathed to his successor, Ellis Johnson, with a burgeoning powerhouse, but it was a reliable winner that had carved out a niche as one of the standard-bearers for mid-major stability.

Then the niche gave way to a crevasse. Despite typically high expectations to open 2012, Johnson’s Eagles endured a miserable, winless slog, becoming the only major college football team to ever plummet from 12 victories to 12 defeats in consecutive seasons. Johnson got the hook within days of the finale, followed by athletic director Jeff Hammond the following summer. But for a perennially overachieving program that had endured only eight losing seasons since the Great Depression, the damage has felt irrevocable. Johnson’s successor, Todd Monken, has managed a grand total of four wins in two seasons, losing the rest by an average margin of 27.35 points per game. Between Fedora’s last win, in the 2011 Hawaii Bowl, and Monken’s first, in the 2013 finale, the Eagles lost 23 consecutive games, the longest losing streak by a I-A/FBS team since the turn of the century, and one of the 10 worst skids on record.

“It was kind of a perfect storm,” says USM athletic director Bill McGillis, who arrived as Hammond’s successor in July 2013 to find a department in debt and in shock. “In terms of the people and the vibe, I think people were wounded. Southern Miss folks’ pride had been hurt, and probably people were a little bit shell-shocked.”

Even in the best of times, life for college football programs that reside outside of the sport’s major conferences can often feel like an exercise in humility, if not outright futility. Technically, all 128 teams that play FBS football are “major” outfits; in reality, only a few dozen in the Power 5 leagues really merit the distinction, and for the others, the worst of times can feel like an existential crisis. When an old-money team like Florida, Michigan, or Texas falls into a prolonged funk, the standing assumption is that it’s never more than a shrewd coaching hire and solid recruiting class or two away from turning the corner. Further down the food chain, though, a drought like the one that’s descended upon Southern Miss feels less like the inevitable cycle of rebuilding and rebounding and more like the beginning of a prolonged trip into the wilderness.

In an era of haves and have-nots, the abrupt collapse of one of the little guys could be seen as business as usual. In Southern Miss’s case, though, the decline has been compounded by the plate tectonics of conference realignment, which began to send mid-major dominoes toppling across the country at the precise moment when the Eagles tumbled into the abyss. For USM, arguably more so than for any other FBS program, the resulting landscape is a bigger worry than even the losing: On C-USA’s 20th anniversary, Southern Miss finds itself as the only original member left in a league that looks less like a viable home for an established program than an incubator for aspiring start-ups.

Win or lose, Southern Miss was never an attractive candidate in the eyes of more prestigious conferences, whose criteria for expansion had almost nothing to do with on-field tradition and everything to do with adding viable TV markets. Still, by failing to secure a seat on the last chopper out, Southern Miss stands on the other side of the realignment divide as arguably the only FBS program that occupies a lower rung in the national pecking order than it did 15 or even five years ago — not only in terms of wins and losses from one year to the next, but also where it stands in the overall caste system. If you are the company you keep, then Southern Miss is the longtime resident who’s watched helplessly as its humble but well-kept middle-class neighborhood has been morphed into a backdrop for True Detective.

15.6.9-Conference USA Membership Timeline

The main obstacle in writing about one’s alma mater is the fear that it’s too close, too solipsistic, too concerned with the nearest cluster of trees to realize they don’t amount to an actual forest. It’s hard to imagine this story being written by someone who wasn’t already at risk of exaggerating Southern Miss’s pre-realignment footprint though. I attended USM from 2000 to 2005, a span that coincided with wins over a string of ostensibly heavier hitters — Alabama in 2000, Oklahoma State in 2001, Illinois in 2002, Nebraska in 2004 — all of which unfolded on national TV, and not all of which were upsets. It also included stunners over heavily favored, nationally ranked outfits from TCU in 2000 and again in 2003, when Southern Miss clinched the C-USA title by toppling the undefeated Horned Frogs (as well as a goalpost, which I helped escort out of the stadium) with hordes of national media on hand on a Thursday night. The fan base relished Southern Miss’s self-styled “Anyone, Anytime, Anywhere” rep, and the team generally lived up to the motto. In my freshman year, USM started at no. 22 in the AP poll and rose as high as no. 13 in early November; in my senior year, the last home game was a thrilling, down-to-the-wire loss at the hands of a loaded edition of Cal that featured Aaron Rodgers and Marshawn Lynch1 and subsequently cost the best Berkeley team of the century a spot in the Rose Bowl.

In retrospect, those years were relatively fat ones for Southern Miss — not quite the best of times, but not far behind2 — and even from within the bubble, it’s tempting to dismiss lamentations about the sorry state of current affairs as an excuse for easy nostalgia. No narrator is less reliable than the one whose story begins “In my day … ”

Still, it doesn’t require a mind-numbing trip to the glory days to recognize that the forces driving realignment have been especially rough on Conference USA. When it was formed, in 1995, the league was the Southern answer to the Big East, uniting a handful of long-standing, similarly situated programs in response to new economic realities that had made independence untenable for any school that wasn’t Notre Dame.3 Right out of the gate, C-USA rivaled the WAC as the best of the second-tier, non-BCS leagues. At the time, Louisville was a known quantity4 at the beginning of a two-decade climb into the sport’s top tier; Houston came from the newly defunct Southwest Conference with a dozen top-20 finishes and a Heisman Trophy winner under its belt in the previous three decades; TCU, another former SWC refugee, came aboard in 2001 under first-year head coach Gary Patterson and promptly embarked on an even steeper ascent than the Cardinals.

In the early years, what Conference USA lacked in national cachet it made up for in depth and parity, which didn’t go entirely unnoticed by the rest of the country. Between 1997 and 2004, at least one C-USA team finished in the Top 25 in every season but 2000, and not as a result of a dominant overlord monopolizing the crown at the expense of the rest of the league: Southern Miss, Tulane, Louisville, and TCU all took their turns in that span as conference champs, with the Golden Eagles, Cardinals, and Horned Frogs all earning repeat appearances in the final polls. Token respect, perhaps, but in lieu of the elusive BCS bid, it was also a reliable reflection of the conference’s place in the national consciousness.

That status, whatever it was worth, began to erode with the first major exodus from C-USA, which saw Louisville and Cincinnati move up to the Big East and TCU bail for the Mountain West in 2005; in the ensuing decade, those three teams went on to play in seven major bowl games5 and log six top-10 finishes in the AP poll. At the same time, Conference USA’s presence in the rankings virtually disappeared: The league has been shut out of the Top 25 in seven of the past 10 seasons, and all the schools other than USM responsible for those finishes (Central Florida and Tulsa in 2010; Houston in 2011) subsequently left in the second mass exodus for the Big East, now rebranded as the American Athletic, in 2012-13. Initially, the refugees thought they were moving up in the world, to a BCS conference that could offer its champion an automatic ticket to a major bowl game and share the financial rewards that came with it.6 Instead, the AAC was relegated to the children’s table under the playoff format that replaced the BCS, and those teams discovered they were merely treading in the same water under the glow of a new logo.

15.6.9-Conference USA History ChartBut treading water beats sinking. If the American is essentially Conference USA under a different name, C-USA itself is adrift with no coherent identity and no life raft in sight. For longtime fans, the conference schedule is now barely recognizable: Of the 13 members in the fold for 2015, five of them (Charlotte, Florida Atlantic, Florida International, Old Dominion, and UT–San Antonio) began sponsoring football only in the past dozen years.7 Two others, Middle Tennessee State and Western Kentucky, have been around for much longer at lower levels but remain relatively new to the FBS ranks. The longer-tenured members are an uninspiring lot and share almost no common history. Rice has been playing big-time football for more than 100 years, residing for most of that time in a major conference (the SWC), but the last time the Owls appeared in the Top 25 was 1961, one year before President Kennedy compared their annual attempt to beat Texas with the United States’s nascent effort to land a man on the moon. UTEP, which has been classified as a “major” outfit since 1935, owns one of the worst all-time winning percentages of any program that still carries the distinction and has never landed in the final polls; neither has North Texas (50 years as a major program, nonconsecutive) or Louisiana Tech (34 years). Marshall has generated some sporadic success since graduating from the I-AA level in 1997, but when the 13-1 Thundering Herd slipped into the final Top 25 last year, at no. 23, it was with the caveat that they had faced inarguably the softest schedule in the nation. Despite their stellar record, the Herd didn’t play on ESPN until the C-USA title game — regular-season conference games are confined to the hard-to-find outposts of FS1 and CBS Sports Net, if they make it to national cable at all — and their reward for a championship season was a date with unranked Northern Illinois in the inaugural Boca Raton Bowl.

The fact that Southern Miss, which until recently could have taken wins over every one of its new conference mates for granted,8 has spent the past three seasons wallowing in last place amid that motley crew is reason enough for mortification and panic in the fan base. That USM hitting rock bottom has coincided with onetime peers Louisville and TCU managing to entrench themselves in the sport’s top tier is a fistful of salt in an open wound. Nothing about the crash felt inevitable, and neither does the outlook for an impending recovery. But the real fear, which runs deeper than the outward gnashing of teeth over wins and losses, is what lies on the other side of the abyss: If Southern Miss reclaims its place atop Conference USA, will it still mean the same thing to fans that it meant in 1997, 2003, or even 2011? In the absence of any relevant history among its members, is the post-realignment version of Conference USA worth winning, except in the vain hope that doing so might lead to an invitation to a better league?

In 2013, the first year after the most recent mass exodus, Jeff Sagarin’s conference ratings ranked C-USA’s West Division 14th out of 18 FBS divisions; the East Division ranked 17th among the FBS divisions and 19th overall, grading out behind a pair of FCS leagues, the Missouri Valley and the Colonial. Last year the C-USA East ranked 12th (thanks mainly to Marshall) and the West 15th. Is the best-case scenario in that context a ticket to whatever fledgling, fifth-tier bowl game has just been conjured up to fill Christmas-vacation airtime? And if this is what passes for middle class in college football’s increasingly bifurcated ecosystem, will anyone who didn’t experience it firsthand believe that the old normal ever existed?

southern-miss-flag-triRogelio V. Solis/AP

For his part, McGillis, the USM AD, thinks the doomsayers clinging to memories of decades-old triumphs over Florida State and Ole Miss may be protesting too much. McGillis is a veteran of the realignment wars, having worked at Houston during the collapse of the SWC and later at South Florida during the Bulls’ rapid rise from fledgling program to Big East contender. He’s also a realist. The accelerating revenue gap between the Power 5 conferences and everyone else, he concedes, “is real and it’s staggering.” The annual conference payout for each SEC school now dwarfs Southern Miss’s entire athletic budget, and that’s before accounting for the tens of millions those schools take in from their own revenue streams.

But that reality, as McGillis notes, is par for the course. He also points to the growth potential of some of C-USA’s newest members, which occupy major metro areas in Charlotte, San Antonio, and Miami (FAU and FIU), whose potential for supporting local college football remains largely untapped, just as it was for many years in Cincinnati, Houston, and Louisville. And although the Golden Eagles have a much richer football history than any of those schools, economically the recent slump has already forced them into playing catch-up: According to USA Today, USM’s athletic department took in less revenue in 2013-14 than any current C-USA school except Louisiana Tech.9 Southern Miss has always operated at a glaring resource disadvantage relative to its richer Southern neighbors, and it doesn’t necessarily face any structural hurdles to winning seasons and sporadic upsets in the future that it hasn’t faced before.

As for the opportunities to play for higher stakes, there’s also the fact that the College Football Playoff — unlike the BCS system it replaced — rewards the highest-ranked team from the so-called “Group of Five” conferences with an automatic spot in one of the major New Year’s Six bowl games, ensuring that a small-conference underdog will get a shot on one of the sport’s biggest stages every year. Last year, the golden ticket went to two-loss Boise State, but might well have gone to Marshall if the Herd hadn’t lost in overtime to Western Kentucky on the final Saturday of the regular season. In the end, Conference USA still saw its revenue share from the first year of the playoff jump 446 percent compared to the final year of the BCS, and actually took in about $1.1 million more than the American based on a CFP-devised formula that divvied the pie strictly according to on-field performance.

“The Conference USA brand has changed,” McGillis says. “There’s so many new schools whose programs are so young, it’s going to take time for that brand to develop. The membership’s different, no doubt. But [the conference] is not positioned any differently. Six conferences had BCS bids [before the latest round of conference realignment], and Conference USA was not one of them. The exodus by the schools from Conference USA, initially their reason for leaving was to have access to the automatic bid. But once they arrived, things have changed. Our opportunity to play on a big stage, to play on New Year’s Day, is factually the same or better.”

If that statement is true, it’s only because Southern Miss has remained committed to playing more well-heeled opponents in the nonconference slate, largely for financial reasons; as Marshall demonstrated last year, an outfit that thoroughly dominates C-USA but fails to add a Power 5 victory to its résumé is probably destined to spend the bowl season slumming it. But McGillis’s job isn’t to sell the family on the new neighbors. Instead, he reserves most of his optimism for his own team, and he remains convinced that winning games and championships, regardless of the opponents or the postseason spoils, will restore the program to its natural order.

This will be Monken’s third season at the helm, and if it goes according to plan, it will be the year that the lingering toxic residue from the 2012 collapse is finally purged. Depth has improved — there are many fewer former walk-ons on scholarship, for one thing — and the lineup is entering the sweet spot where the growing pains of Monken’s first two seasons should begin to pay off toward a bigger breakthrough in 2016. The strength-and-conditioning program, McGillis says, is “night and day” from where it was when he arrived. (Players reported that conditioning was a major sore spot in the lone season under Johnson.) The campaign will open with Mississippi State’s first visit to Hattiesburg since 1989, a guaranteed standing-room-only sellout that, thanks to a 9 p.m. CT kickoff, will unfold on FS1 with minimal competition from other games in the late-night time slot. Last year, the Bulldogs trounced USM in the season opener, 49-0, quickly confirming that the Eagles were in for another year of misery. The rematch is the kind of opportunity Southern Miss has always relished, and the kind it will have to take advantage of to restore the “Anyone, Anytime, Anywhere” swagger that so many fans fear is now ancient history.

“When you’re in the building, I think you know when it’s happening and it’s not happening, and I believe beyond a shadow of a doubt it’s happening today,” McGillis says. “We’re not going to win in terms of revenue generation. We’re not going to win in terms of television revenue. We’re not going to win in terms of marketing rights fees. We’re not going to win in terms of merchandise sales. But in terms of winning on the field, to me it really feels like it’s been put back together. I think the scoreboard’s going to reflect it this fall. I really do.”

Filed Under: College Football, Southern Miss Golden Eagles, Conference USA, Conference Realignment, Big East, The American, TCU Horned Frogs, Houston Cougars, Louisville Cardinals, Larry Fedora, Ellis Johnson, Todd Monken, Bill McGillis, College Sports, NCAA, NCAAF, Football, College Football Playoff, BCS, Bowl Games, Matt Hinton

Matt Hinton is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ MattRHinton