Middle Tennessee, Florida Atlantic joining Conference USA

MURFREESBORO, Tenn. — Middle Tennessee and Florida Atlantic will join Conference USA, leaving the Sun Belt as part of the ever-changing college landscape.

Conference USA announced the addition of its new members Thursday, just two days after Tulane and East Carolina left Conference USA for the Big East even with East Carolina just leaving in football.

When the two new members join Conference USA by 2014, the league will consist of 14 schools in 10 states.

Middle Tennessee President Sidney McPhee said at a news conference that universities have been in “constant movement” to align themselves. The Blue Raiders have won eight all-sports Sun Belt trophies in 12 years and McPhee says their desire is to compete with the best.

“I’ve been told when the invitation was made that Conference USA has had their eyes on us for a number of years and a number of institutions have been very impressed by the progress of this university,” McPhee said.

Florida Atlantic athletic director Pat Chun calls it a “momentous day.” The move caps the Owls’ jump from Division I-AA and puts them in the league with rival FIU, which joins C-USA in 2013.

C-USA Commissioner Britton Banowsky called the addition of Middle Tennessee and FAU a logical move for his league.

“These schools fit well within our strategic plan to be a major market, two-division conference that is student-athlete and fan friendly,” Banowsky said. “We know they will make great contributions to our bright future.”

Middle Tennessee is the largest public university in Tennessee with 25,394 students and located 30 miles southeast of Nashville puts C-USA into a media market ranked 29th nationally and its fourth Top 30 market. Florida Atlantic in Boca Raton puts the league into the Miami-Ft. Lauderdale market, which ranks 38th in the country.

The Blue Raiders announced the move in their new $65 million student union building with the pep band and cheerleaders on hand. The news conference was open to fans and the crowd included plenty of graduates from the days when Middle Tennessee competed in Division I-AA and was a member of the Ohio Valley Conference. Athletic director Chris Massaro pointed to the a new $30 million education building that just opened near a $147 million science building being built across the square and called the move validation of what they’ve been building.

“This announcement is just an evolution of the growth of our institution from the Ohio Valley Conference to the Sun Belt Conference to Conference USA, so … really what we’re doing is mirroring the growth of the entire institution,” Massaro said.

What remains to be determined is how quickly both schools start competing in C-USA.

The Sun Belt recently added a $1 million exit fee, and Massaro said the Blue Raiders would like to switch conferences sooner than July 1, 2014, if it works for both the Sun Belt and C-USA.

Sun Belt Conference Commissioner Karl Benson said he was disappointed in the two schools leaving but that the outlook for his league is good.

“The SBC is still very well positioned for the future and I remain very optimistic that the momentum that has been created in the past six months will continue to grow,” Benson said. “The continuing 10 members of the SBC are committed to excellence and I am confident that the SBC will take advantage of these latest changes in the landscape. As I have stated many times in the past six months, the SBC will be a major player in the future, especially within its geographic footprint.”

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