By Chuck Burton
College Sports Journal
PHILADELPHIA, PA. — The movie “Face/Off”, starring John Travolta and Nicholas Cage, is the ultimate John Woo movie, filled with incredibly choreographed Hong Kong-style action but with top actors filling the starring roles.
Woo movies are also known for something that is called “Mexican Standoffs”, where “each participant holds power over one opponent, and is at the mercy of the other opponent”, as Wikipedia helpfully tells us. In Woo movies, it takes the form of multiple characters, pointing guns, with the barrel pointed at each other.
In the CAA, when all the rumors, media analysis and back-channel negotiations were done, George Mason, Old Dominion, and Virginia Commonwealth all had the guns pointed at each other – in the form of invites to other conferences.
The only remaining question is: will anybody actually shoot?
George Mason and Virginia Commonwealth are considering a move to the Atlantic 10, while Old Dominion is considering a move to Conference USA.
Interestingly, Old Dominion elected not to join Conference USA on the same day five other programs did so, North Texas, Florida International, Louisiana Tech, Texas-San Antonio, and UNC-Charlotte.
Some say it’s simply to get their affairs in order as they leave the CAA, but I’m not so sure.
To me, it’s clear that Old Dominion does not want to be the one that pulls the trigger.
If George Mason and VCU do not leave the CAA, it’s clear that Old Dominion’s best move is to remain.
Conference USA promises a net positive of TV revenue every year, but it’s not nearly enough to compensate the extra money for football scholarships, Title IX matching, and extra travel for all sports.
If ODU stays, it would remain in a league where the great majority of the travel is bus trips for all sports, and could poise the Monarchs to be even more successful as a major power in both FCS football and CAA basketball.
After the latest raids, Conference USA’s best remaining hoops program is Southern Miss, who has yet to win an NCAA Tournament game. Most of CUSA’s RPI came from Memphis, who left to join the Big East.
The CAA as it’s currently constituted is a better hoops league than CUSA.
But that’s only if George Mason and VCU remain.
In a weakened CAA, it would make little sense for Old Dominion to remain, with two nearby basketball rivals joining the A-10 — coming along side another nearby football rival, Richmond — and no real solid basketball programs to replace them.
Similarly, it’s very logical for George Mason and VCU to junp to the Atlantic 10 — if Old Dominion goes.
The flirtation with the A-10 would be a way to protect the Patriot and Ram basketball programs by parking in a league that routinely has at-large bids to the NCAA Tournament in basketball.
They’d also have some nearby programs to play in the A-10: Richmond and George Washington, with St. Joe’s and La Salle up I-95 near Philadelphia.
But travel would also increase for both schools, too, to play far-flung schools like Butler in Indiana, Dayton in Ohio, and UMass.
Furthermore, with Big East commissioner John Marinatto suddenly having been relieved of duties this past week, the prospect of the Big East basketball schools breaking off to form a new conference with the best and brightest lights of the A-10 looms large.
Do they want to move in on the prospect of playing Butler, St. Joe’s and Xavier, only to see them snatched away and replaced with lesser schools?
Maybe it’s worth it, but it’s very much worth it if Old Dominion goes to Conference USA.
The Mexican standoff illustrates the dilemma facing the three schools.
There isn’t much question that all three schools are better off in the short term staying in the CAA, saving on travel, keeping their basketball power, and building up football.
But is this a decision based on opportunities? Are moves to the A-10 or Conference USA an opportunity that has to be taken?
There is another way for all three schools — remain in the CAA.
What seems forgotten in all of this is how valuable the CAA is in terms of an athletic conference.
There is no more competitive conference in FCS football, with its representatives often making runs at the Division I National Championship.
No conference has had as many at-large qualifying teams to the FCS playoffs as the CAA.
It has bitter rivalries like Richmond/William & Mary, New Hampshire/Maine and Delaware/Villanova — rivals who don’t require a plane ride to see the games, home or away.
Old Dominion, which made its first playoffs last year (and won their first playoff game), could be a part of this excitement — an excitement, frankly, that is not present in Conference USA football, with its end-of-season bowl games and near-zero probability of playing for that audacious, BCS Crystal Trophy.
CAA Basketball, too, had seemed at times to eclipse the A-10 in recent years with the runs of VCU and George Mason to Final Fours. That doesn’t even take into consideration Old Dominion, too, nearly upset Butler two years ago in the first round when the Bulldogs made it to their second consecutive NCAA championship game.
If the center holds in the CAA, there promises to be a very, very good core of teams returning again next year – one that is the Atlantic 10’s equal, competitively.
There is a lot of promise and opportunity in this basketball league and football.
Unless someone shoots.