ODU's first year in Conference USA: Expenses rise, along with competition and opportunity

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."