I've long been against leaving C-USA, but the more I think about it, the more palatable and even positive a regional conference seems to me. The truth is we will never draw for UAB or ECU or South Florida. Neither will we get huge crowds for SMU or Rice or TCU, but we could get 1-2 thousand in the visitors‚ section, and that beats the heck out of the 27 people in the stands for East Carolina yesterday; moreover, there would be more local interest and better exposure for us playing former SWC rivals. Other benefits would be significantly reduced travel costs, a chance to develop rivalries, and a golden opportunity to be the program in a conference. With some local bowls needing teams, such a new league wouldn‚t have trouble securing at least a couple of solid tie-ins, and getting an automatic NCAA bid shouldn't even be an issue. The key questions, I think, that need to be addressed if we did decide to move are which schools do you go after and how do you avoid damaging the basketball program.
As for the schools to invite, you‚d have to decide just how "regional" you want the league to be. You could make it just Texas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma. If you do that, you get the four former SWC schools along with any or all of Tulane, UTEP, Southern Miss, Tulsa, Louisiana Tech, U-LA-Lafayette, and North Texas. My choices would be Tulane, UTEP, Tulsa, Southern Miss and possible U-LA or Louisiana Tech. Other than the C-USA programs, those schools would jump at a chance to be in such a conference. You'd probably have to do some convincing with the Green Wave, the Frogs, and the Golden Eagles.
You‚d have 8-9 schools, which would mean a 7-8 game conference football schedule; that would leave room for 3-5 non-conference games. UH could try to schedule a 2 for 1 with SEC opponents such as Arkansas or LSU, maybe a home and home with a lower-rung SEC program such as Mississippi State (in fact, I think we already have), possibly Army (it would be great to sign a long-term deal with them), and then a regional Sun Belt team like North Texas or Arkansas State. Such a schedule would slash the travel budget, and who would argue that our strength of schedule would really be any worse than it is now?
Tulane, TCU, and USM will go bowling this year, SMU should improve under Phil Bennett, and the other schools likely will get better in a conference superior to the WAC or Sun Belt.
The conference would need bowl tie-ins, and the Sun and New Orleans bowls should become available with UTEP and Tulane in the league. UH and Rice might eventually mean the Houston Bowl would get on board, and SMU and TCU could even bring the Cotton if the league could produce some Top 25 programs or a team could break into the Top 10.
Getting an automatic NCAA basketball bid would just be a formality; however, the concern would be how such a new conference would effect the UH basketball program. Frankly, it wouldn‚t help. Louisiana Tech doesn‚t compare to Cincinnati nor does SMU with Louisville. On the other hand, Tulsa always has a solid program, UTEP has historically been strong, and Tulane, TCU, and SMU have potential. It is difficult to see this new regional conference ever quite getting to where C-USA is (though C-USA basketball has never lived up to expectations) in hoops, but the league could be every bit as good as the SWC was in its last few years, and one very strong program, like a strong tide, could lift all boats.
The new league would have formidable spring sports. Having UH, Rice, and Tulane in one baseball league would be a little like Duke, North Carolina, and NC State in basketball in the ACC. The former SWC teams have strong track programs, and SMU, I believe, is to swimming what UH is to golf.
The other option would be to try to induce Louisville and Memphis into the new league. Neither is a football powerhouse, but if you could lure them into a regional conference, you lose next to nothing in basketball. You could have a league consisting of the following schools: Houston, Louisville, Memphis, TCU, SMU, Rice, Tulane, Southern Miss, and maybe either Tulsa, UTEP, or one of the Louisiana schools. Keep Memphis in your league and you hold the Liberty Bowl, not to mention the NIT champion.
So, overall, joining such a league would be beneficial to UH. Attendance and possibly other revenue streams would likely increase while drains on the budget such as travel costs would drop. More interest would be created locally, which would mean more exposure. All things considered, UH should take a long, hard look at talking to our former SWC brethren along with some other regional institutions and determine if and when forming a regional conference would be feasible. I think that in the long run, it would be beneficial. So what would you call this new league? Hmm . . . How about the Southwest Conference?