Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Could Conference USA return ODU women's basketball to glory days?

Old Dominion is taking a leap of faith, finances and football - not necessarily in that order - with its move to Conference USA, and obviously, the fortunes of the women's basketball team weren't part of the calculus.

But that's OK. Because if this move pays off - and we mean really pays off - this could turn out to be the best thing that's happened to the Lady Monarchs since Ticha Penicheiro.

Remember when Old Dominion was part of the women's basketball elite? Those days weren't coming back as long as the Lady Monarchs operated out of the CAA. Sure, ODU produced plenty of good, NCAA Tournament-caliber teams out of that league, and probably could have built itself back up to field more of the same in the years ahead. But a consistent Top-10, national-championship contender? Absent special circumstances, like the Penicheiro-led "Portuguese Connection" or Elena Delle Donne landing at Delaware, we argue that simply can't be done out of any mid-major league.

If the Lady Monarchs are ever going to get back to the big girls table of women's basketball, a big-time football program will have to lead the way. Old Dominion doesn't have one of those yet. But with the move to Conference USA, the process may be under way.

Changing leagues won't help women's hoops team initially. In fact, joining C-USA starts off as a step back, a relegation to another one-bid league where the prospects for an at-large NCAA Tournament bid figure to be even dimmer than those in the league they're leaving behind. Conference USA ranked 11th in terms of conference RPI last season, four spots behind the CAA. Only two of the 14 teams that will be in Conference USA by the time ODU gets there in 2013 (UTEP and Tulane) finished in the top 100 of the RPI last year, and neither of those teams is projected to be in the Lady Monarchs' seven-team C-USA division.

That division will reportedly include Florida International, East Carolina, Marshall, Southern Miss, Charlotte and UAB. No disrespect to these teams, particularly a UAB squad that won 19 games and scored a win over Hampton. But we believe the Lady Monarchs would have been a contender in a division with these teams even last year, when they won just 11 games.  If ODU isn't at least one of the favorites to win that division in 2013-14, the rebuilding process ain't moving nearly fast enough.

But being the best team in Conference USA shouldn't be what this move is all about - not for the women's basketball team, and hopefully, not for the football engine that is driving this whole process. It won't happen overnight, and given the uncertain nature of big-time college athletics these days, it may not happen at all. But Old Dominion has a realistic chance to grow that football team into something really special.

Look at how far ODU football come already. A 27-8 record in its three-year existence. A playoff berth - and a playoff victory - in its first year of CAA eligibility. Sellouts for every home game, and a waiting list of nearly 4,000 for season tickets. And advertisers and boosters seemingly handing over money by the fistful to be a part of it all.

Now, think of what this could look like when the program moves up a level. As just the third FBS program in the state, ODU football could become more of a regional draw. Now, that's no sure thing in a quirky market like Hampton Roads, which has proven to be extremely finicky when it comes to supporting local sports. So far, no sport has been able to galvanize this region. Could big-time college football be that sport? We're about to find out.

Some might chuckle at the designation of Conference USA as "big-time football." But the end game for ODU shouldn't be to have a team as good as Tulsa or Marshall. If this thing grows the way it could, how about one as good as Virginia or Virginia Tech? Both programs, particularly the Hokies, have built their strength in part by tapping into the fertile Hampton Roads recruiting turf. By moving to Conference USA, ODU has positioned itself to start getting keeping some of this talent home and, eventually, giving the two state powers some competition.

A huge challenge? Absolutely, although we're sure it's one a Type-A-plus-plus personality like Monarchs coach Bobby Wilder won't back down from. And given the way he's managed the remarkable first three years of ODU football, we're not betting against him.

Plus, there's precedence for a school going from zero to 60 through FBS in short order. UConn moved to the FBS level in 2002. By 2007, the Huskies were co-Big East champs. Three years later, they played Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl.

Of course, playing in a major conference like the Big East certainly helped. But who's to say a successful ODU football program wouldn't at some point be attractive to the Big East, or whatever the East Coast major-college football alliance may be called in the days ahead? And were that to happen, ODU could find itself in partnership with schools such as UConn, Rutgers and Louisville.

Among other things, that's one heck of a women's basketball league. And from a league like that, anything is possible, including building your program into the very best in the country.

Of course, the Lady Monarchs don't need to worry about any of this now. The first order of business is to finish strong in their final year of the CAA, then prepare to raise hell in Conference USA in 2013-14. Who knows? Twenty years from now, that might still be their home.

Still, the rise of ODU football opens up a world of possibilities, including the dream that the Lady Monarchs might one day be what they used to be.


  1. heres to our ladies making a comeback, honestly all they need is the recognition of being in a big time league, thats what draws big time recruits.

  2. C-USA is not a big time or big name conference! In fact, at present for WBB it is a weaker conference than the CAA. The travel costs of competing in such a far-flung conference will be huge. This change of conference affiliation was largely about football. The A-10 which VCU is joining is a much stronger WBB conference; which probably bodes poorly for VCU unless the Lady Ram program is improved significantly.

  3. Doubtful. CUSA is substantially weaker than the CAA in WBB...looks to me as if the WBB programs at ODU and VCU will struggle to remain competitive.