The Florida Atlantic athletic department got a promotion Monday, officially joining Conference USA. What’s needed next is an official commotion, the kind that goes beyond the listing of all the teams in the Owls’ new league, which are many but not quite magnificent.
Will a significant slice of South Florida, for instance, plan its autumn around an FAU home schedule of Middle Tennessee, Marshall, Tulane, New Mexico State and Florida International?
That’s the new Conference USA formula, and it doesn’t vault customers off their couch any more than the crew that came through here last year (Wagner, North Texas, Troy, FIU and Louisiana-Lafayette) when the Owls were still part of the Sun Belt.
An average crowd of 13,458, less than half a house at practically perfect FAU Stadium, found Carl Pelini’s 3-9 football team worth coming out to see in 2012.
“Attendance is nowhere near what we need it to be,” FAU athletic director Pat Chun said Monday following a pep rally during which a new football helmet design was introduced, with a shift from white to blue and a new logo to boot.
“We recognize we’ve got to start winning to get there. The ‘Field of Dreams’ model doesn’t work. If you build it, people won’t come. You’ve got to have a product and we recognize that. We take ownership of that.”
No sugar-coating necessary there, well, at least not after a happy crowd of close to 400 boosters and students had taken a shot at a celebratory sheet cake baked up for the occasion.
That’s the thing about FAU. It’s pretty tough to criticize the overall plan while standing in a spacious banquet room located halfway up a six-story tower at the Owls’ dynamite 30,000-seat stadium, which has been in use for just two seasons.
All of this is better than it really should be for a program that didn’t even field a football team until 2001 and probably would have spent this whole time playing home games at borrowed high school facilities without the unending energy of founding coach Howard Schnellenberger.
This Conference USA rebranding has to do, meanwhile, with all sports on campus, men’s and women’s. It’s good for the travel budget to be sending all those teams no farther west than El Paso (for UTEP) and no farther north than Huntington, W. Va. (for Marshall), and all with the promise of better conference television packages. Throw in the increased possibility of landing a postseason bowl game – Conference USA has six bowl agreements, topped off by the Liberty Bowl – and there is nothing sad about leaving the Sun Belt.
The original FAU football pep rally, before there was a stadium on campus or a fieldhouse or even a football, featured Schnellenberger’s classically over-the-top prediction that the Owls would one day be part of the ACC or the SEC or, at minimum, the Big East.
Schnellenberger sounded Monday like a man who, at 79, has accepted a safer, sounder pace in his continuing role as FAU fundraiser and ambassador.
“All along, more realistically,” said Schnellenberger, “we were looking towards the Big East conference but they didn’t sustain their growth and development and I’m thankful that Conference USA was there as a very solid option.”
The most serious slippage would have been if FIU, the bigger Miami school with the lesser football stadium, had left FAU behind. That seemed a real possibility last summer, when Conference USA invited FIU and North Texas to join the league but not the Owls. The constant reshuffling of conference affiliations throughout all of college athletics eventually put the two natural rivals back together and on par.
One last thought for any who think that Conference USA has no clout whatsoever. Britton Banowsky, the league’s commissioner, is chairman of the dreaded NCAA Committee on Infractions.
It’s good to be on a friendly, first-name basis with a guy like that.