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Rebuilding Conference USA

After the realignment of 2012-2013, Conference USA lost several members to the American Athletic Conference. The AAC has arguably become a more renowned Group of 5 league since. C-USA has struggled to compete head-to-head against the AAC. It has had difficulty fostering its own identity and distancing itself from other Group of 5 leagues – particularly the Sun Belt. Schools within C-USA, however, have made strides to improve league play and its place among other G5 leagues in the last couple seasons.

Conference USA experienced a renaissance of sorts when ten of its teams were bowl eligible in 2017. Of the nine teams C-USA was able to send to a bowl, six were lead by coaches in their first or second year with the team. UTSA would have made a seventh had they not been left out but they had the requisite wins. Only four teams were ineligible for the postseason: Charlotte, Rice, UTEP, and Old Dominion. UTEP and Rice replaced their coaches after combining for one win last year.

Those two coaches? Dana Dimel and Mike Bloomgren, respectively. Dimel spent his head coaching career as a rebuilder for Houston and Wyoming, and the past nine seasons as Kansas State’s offensive coordinator: “Most places that I’ve gone have been places that we’ve needed to turn around.” Bloomgren most recently spent his time as offensive coordinator for some prolific Stanford teams.  

In fact, most of the newcomers to C-USA were assistants from Power 5 teams. Many of them are offensively-minded. Many come with a winning history, including Southern Miss’ Jay Hopson who took Alcorn State to two SWAC championships and voted HBCU national champions in 2014.

Schools in C-USA are recruiting coaching talent that have experience at a higher level of play in P5 leagues and the NFL. Responding to another reporter’s comment on coaching quality in C-USA, UTSA’s Frank Wilson believes “it’s pretty good, pretty stout.” 

The focused effort by C-USA schools on bringing in coaching talent has paid dividends throughout the league. All new coaches hired since 2016 made a bowl appearance in their first year (we are counting UAB’s Bill Clark’s Return Year as a Year One because of the circumstances).

“In this conference you better be ready to play. First of all, there’s excellent coaches,” FIU’s Butch Davis said when asked about the influx of new coaches. “The competitiveness: they recruit well, there’s a lot of talent…if you don’t show up and you’re not prepared to play on Saturday, you’re going to get your butt beat.” 

Louisiana Tech coach Skip Holtz is the longest tenured coach in his division – and rightfully so. Through five seasons, Holtz has lead La Tech to two championship appearances and is currently on a 4-bowl win streak. While Holtz has been a mainstay for the West division, he mentions the rebuild work that Littrell, Davis, Kiffin, and Wilson have accomplished in a short amount of time.  

“[There is] a lot of parity in this league, everybody’s going to keep getting better, and everybody’s going to keep challenging – but you know…one play is going to make the difference in winning or losing the conference championship.” La Tech was 1-4 in one point games, and lost in second overtime to Southern Miss last season. Only time will tell if Dimel and Bloomgren will transition successfully into C-USA. 

Dimel and Bloomgren come with plenty of experience in more competitive leagues including the NFL. With his experience recruiting to a Good School for Smart People, Bloomgren feels he can sell Rice with a downhill-running, West Coast offense in a state where passing is king: “I think there’s a lot of people that want to be like Christian McCaffrey and Bryce Love, too.” Point taken.

It could be difficult during a rebuild for UTEP and Rice to compete in a league with so much parity, but FIU, FAU, UAB, UTSA, and North Texas proved it can be done.

Expectations are being set. 

As the quality of coaching improves, so will the quality and stability of those teams, and finally, the quality of Conference-USA itself. That is good for league perception, attendance, and revenue – as long as league officials take advantage of the situation member schools are fostering.  

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