Southern Miss plays home football games at The Rock, but league foes from a time zone away rarely bring many visiting fans.

The first thing I’d do as commissioner of Conference USA? I’d blow it up.

It doesn’t work.

It didn’t work long before the pandemic. It certainly won’t work now.

Most of all, the economics don’t work. There’s too much travel, not nearly enough revenue.

In many ways, the league was designed – and has been altered over the years – with TV markets in mind. That’s why FIU and FAU were accepted as members in 2013, to regain the Florida TV market lost when first South Florida and UCF exited. That’s why UTSA was accepted in 2013. San Antonio is a big city with lots of TVs.

Rick Cleveland

But the various networks have not been impressed. Big city teams do not necessarily translate into big TV contracts. People in Florida prefer to watch the SEC Gators and the ACC Seminoles and Hurricanes. Folks in Texas tune in to Texas, Texas A&M and TCU. For Conference USA, FIU, FAU and UTSA added little other than acronyms and airfare expense.

Conference USA stretches three time zones from El Paso to Miami, 1,932 miles by highway, more than 1,600 miles by air. That’s too far. The league goes as far north as Marshall in Huntington, West Virginia, with intermediate stops in Charlotte, Bowling Green, Kentucky, and Norfolk, Virginia. It’s too spread out, it makes no sense.

This is Mississippi Today and we are much more interested in Southern Miss. The geographic nightmare that is CUSA really makes no sense for the Golden Eagles, who along with UAB, are the only original members remaining in the league.

In its wildest dreams, Southern Miss would prefer to be in the SEC and share in its riches. That’s not going to happen. Secondly and more realistically, USM would prefer to be in the American Athletic Conference with former CUSA mates such as Memphis, Houston, UCF, East Carolina and Tulane. That probably isn’t going to happen, either. The AAC still longs for the lucrative TV deal that hasn’t materialized and the Hattiesburg market adds little to that. Besides, Memphis (22-40-1 against USM in football), Tulane (8-23 against the Eagles), UCF (2-6), East Carolina (12-27) and Houston (5-9) got tired of getting their brains beat in back in the day. They are 49-105-1 all-time against Southern Miss. Most of those schools have only nightmares about Hattiesburg.

The best remaining alternative for Southern Miss is a more regionalized league with more natural rivalries and less travel – a bus league, for lack of a better term, that includes teams that make sense from CUSA and the Sun Belt Conference.

We can quibble about the exact makeup, but I’d take Southern Miss, UAB, Louisiana Tech, Rice, North Texas and Middle Tennessee State from CUSA. I’d take Arkansas State, South Alabama, Louisiana, Troy, Georgia Southern and Georgia State from the Sun Belt. Crank up the buses. Save the airfare. It makes sense and would save dollars, thousands and thousands of dollars.

Look at Southern Miss’s 2020 football schedule, assuming there is a 2020 season. On Oct. 17, the Golden Eagles fly more than 1,000 miles to play UTEP in a CUSA league game. That same day, Coastal Carolina flies more than 900 miles to play Louisiana in a Sun Belt game. The expense of both trips is enormous. And how many USM fans do you think will make that trip? How many Coastal Carolina fans will go all the way to Lafayette? Not many is the answer to both questions.

Clearly, it would make more sense for Southern Miss and Louisiana to be in the same league playing one another. They have a long, shared athletic history. They’ve played 51 times over the years. They are three hours apart by bus. It’s an easy trip for fans.

Surely, Coastal Carolina could have better rivalries with, say, Charlotte, Old Dominion and Marshall of Conference USA.

Basketball travel is an even worse. Last season, Southern Miss made a two-game CUSA road trip to Marshall and Western Kentucky. It was more like an odyssey. The Golden Eagles took a bus to New Orleans on a Wednesday to fly to West Virginia, by way of Chicago. From Chicago, they flew to Charleston, West Virginia, and then bused from there to Huntington for a Thursday night game. Then, they bused from Huntington, to Bowling Green, Kentucky, to play WKU on Saturday. They bused back to Hattiesburg after the game. The players missed three days of classes. That’s just nuts.

Why didn’t they charter, you ask? Can’t afford it.

Baseball teams face the same dilemma, the same travel nightmares. So do women’s basketball and softball teams.

This pandemic is going to change so much about so many facets of life, including athletics. Already, universities around the country are discontinuing sports because of economic realities. Finding ways to cut costs has become more essential than ever, especially for schools not in the power conferences.

There will never be a better time to make this happen. Unless it was 10 years ago.

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.