ODU dives into unknown of Conference USA competition

The summer break seemed shorter and anything but routine around the Old Dominion athletic department, where everyone prepared for the most significant change in 40 years.

Old Dominion's move to Conference USA is the most substantial since athletics jumped from Division II to Division I in the mid-1970s. Now, as then, there is as much apprehension as anticipation.

"It's exciting, it's nerve-wracking, it's invigorating, it's fun," athletic director Wood Selig said.

ODU's move was official July 1 and the school had 15 months to prepare following the May 2012 announcement that the school had accepted an invitation to Conference USA. But as the 2013-14 school year commences, the realities of the move are increasingly apparent.

Travel and the accompanying costs ratchet up for a league that stretches from southeastern Virginia to south Florida and west to Texas, a far cry from ODU's previous home in the relatively tight Colonial Athletic Association.

C-USA also represents a competitive step up almost across the board, compared to the CAA. Selig said that the move to Conference USA essentially amounts to a job promotion for nearly all of ODU's coaches, without moving a muscle.

"For me, fear of failure is a great motivator," Selig said. "We're going off into the great unknown, in the level of competitiveness in Conference USA. Our goal is to put all of our 18 sports in position to win conference championships. I'm very curious to know how we're going to slot in, in terms of our place within the conference."

Football certainly is a step up, to the Football Bowl Subdivision from the Championship Subdivision. Conference USA men's and women's basketball are rated higher than their CAA counterparts, though the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) might be a more flawed gauge than usual because of the departure of the league's marquee men's program, Memphis, and membership changes.

Men's soccer and baseball are often rated among the top five leagues in the nation.

"We're very much a flagship sport in Conference USA and we're treated that way," men's soccer coach Alan Dawson said. "It's all about venues. It's all about playing on good fields and in good weather. Hopefully, what comes with that is good soccer."

Because Conference USA doesn't sponsor all of the sports that ODU fields, several of the programs sought affiliate membership in other leagues. Wrestling and the Monarchs' historically successful and top-shelf field hockey program made out well, with field hockey joining the Big East and wrestling now in the Mid-American Conference.

Field hockey plays a nationally-challenging schedule anyway, but the Big East gets the Lady Monarchs into the talent-rich Philadelphia area and throughout the northeast.

"It's probably the best thing that ever happened to the program," wrestling coach Steve Martin said of the move.

The Mid-American already has a handful of nationally-ranked programs, including affiliate members Missouri (the Southeastern Conference doesn't sponsor wrestling) and Northern Iowa. The MAC sent 40 wrestlers to the NCAA championships last spring — 30 automatic qualifiers and 10 at-large invitations — while the CAA sent 21.

"You're not going to qualify nine or 10 guys to the national meet," Martin said, "but the guys that get in are going to be higher seeds and have a better chance to get to the podium (and qualify as All-Americans.)"

As members of the MAC, the Monarchs will be a regular presence in wrestling hotbeds such as Michigan, Iowa and Ohio, which helps scheduling as well as recruiting.

Indeed, the flip side of the increased travel for ODU's teams is broader exposure for the school and an expanded recruiting footprint. Florida and Texas have beaucoup athletes in many sports, and the fact that the Monarchs will compete in those states, and all over the south, should open doors.

"From that standpoint, it helps us elevate the program," baseball coach Chris Finwood said. "If you look at our recruiting the last couple years, we've gotten kids from Hawaii, California, Arizona — places where the sun shines a lot. This move gets us into a lot of warm-weather places."

Travel costs jump significantly — Selig said they aren't likely to know just how much probably until after the first of the year — and there are some challenging road trips.

Women's soccer, for example, has a Friday-Sunday road trip in September, to West Virginia (Marshall) and then Miami (Florida International). An October trip has a Friday game at Rice and a Sunday game at Southern Miss.