What’s next?

Thursday, the U.S. Military Academy announced its football program will leave Conference USA after the 2004 season. Army cited scheduling conflicts and the program’s struggles in C-USA (a 7-27 record since joining the conference) as reasons the school is opting to return to independent status. One thing Army didn’t address was the fact that there may not be a C-USA after 2004.

Decisions this spring and summer have C-USA looking ripe for a mortician, and no, I don’t mean Seth Greenberg moving to the country. (By the way, won’t it be swell to see our good friend Greenberg matching wits with Coach K and the Williams boys, Roy and Gary, in a couple of years?)

There’s no doubt that Miami and Virginia Tech’s exodus from the Big East to the Atlantic Coast Conference impacts those two conferences greatly, but arguably the conference that could feel the brunt of the decisions most is C-USA. Lacking the sheer numbers to stay viable in the BCS, the Big East is looking to add some weight, and the top C-USA programs may be looking to unload some dead weight.

Louisville is the apple of the Big East’s collective eye right now, and if the Cards head east, so might Cincinnati and USF. Louisville and Cincinnati’s marquee basketball programs would be a nice fit in the Big East. And there’s no doubt that Rick Pitino wouldn’t mind patrolling the Big East sidelines again.

All three programs have something positive to go on, football-wise. Louisville has a 6-year-old, state-of-the-art stadium. Cincinnati finished second in C-USA last year. USF finished 9-2, missing out on a bowl only because of the lack of conference affiliation.

All three schools would need to cough up $500,000 in release fees if they wanted to move to another conference after 2004.

TCU, conference champ and ranked No. 22 in the final coaches’ poll last year, is on the Western Athletic Conference’s reported wish list for entry in 2005, along with Tulane and Houston. (The WAC had only one top-25 program last year, Boise State at No. 14.)

TCU’s up-and-coming football program may have the WAC positioned well when the current BCS contract ends after 2005.

Even conference cellar-dweller Army sees more promise in independence than in C-USA’s future obsolescence. Clearly realizing joining the conference in 1997 was the wrong move, they’ll play more teams closer to West Point, N.Y., (instead of the expansive C-USA) and will have the opportunity to schedule a division I-AA team or two each season.

Memphis, Southern Miss, UAB and East Carolina would remain in C-USA, and there’s no doubt the schools would attract some attention from other conferences, such as the MAC (should Marshall or UCF leave), the fledgling Sun Belt conference or even the ACC, if they don’t get approval for a conference championship game with only 11 teams.

Or the schools might just pull an Army and go it alone.

All may be moot if the BCS kicks out the Big East after next year. If the Big East loses its automatic bid after Miami and Virginia Tech leave, less than half the Division I-A schools will not be in BCS conferences.

The Associated Press reported last month that Tulane president Scott Cowen will hold a conference call July 22 with other non-BCS institutions to explore an exit strategy after the BCS expires in 2005.

This appears to be the only solution to stop the rampant switching of conferences because the source of all the expansion talk is retaining a BCS bid and the money ($15 million). Without one, C-USA will probably cease to exist.