MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Conference USA is back to using the personal touch.
A year after switching to video as a cost-saving move for the league's annual football media day, 11 of Conference USA's 12 coaches gathered Sunday in Memphis to preview the upcoming season. All 12 remain in the league after being ignored in all the realignment shake-up of the Football Bowl Subdivision, even though UCF and Memphis still would like to jump given the chance.
Houston coach Kevin Sumlin has the league's preseason offensive player of the year and an early Heisman Trophy candidate in Case Keenum. Getting as much exposure for Houston and the Cougars' players helped trump the need for cost-containment.
"This can only help our perception as a league as the media really gets to know the coaches and the players," Sumlin said.
He called video conferencing extremely sterile. Of course, Sumlin sat through so many glitches a year ago he still had to talk to a bunch of reporters by telephone, which is why Houston was a proponent of returning to the face-to-face approach.
"I know we've got to use it," Sumlin said of video conferencing. "But to develop the type of exposure that any league wants, it all gets back to relationships, whether guys like people or not. I think you feel differently about a person if you actually get to talk to them and know them."
Tulane coach Bob Toledo was the only person unable to attend Sunday due to weather delaying his flight.
UCF coach George O'Leary joked that gave up golf with his wife to attend but said later what the league did last year wound up with too much attention focused on the cost-saving feature.
"This is something the conference has to do and the coaches have to be involved in and be free to handle the questions that have to be asked and go from there," O'Leary said.
Commissioner Britton Banowsky said league officials still plan to use technology as an efficient way to reach more people. Video of Sunday's news conferences were streamed live to reporters who couldn't attend, a number league officials plan to track.
Still, Banowsky admitted the league lost a "little bit" of the personal touch from bringing coaches together a year ago.
'I think we're doing the right thing. I think we're back to a good format. I appreciate this format ... I think we're back on track," he said.
On the field, Conference USA returns Keenum, last year's defensive player of the year in UCF defensive end Bruce Miller and even last year's special teams player of the year in East Carolina's returner Dwayne Harris in a chance to build on name recognition as well. The league also has added a seventh bowl tie-in, up one from 2009.
Media day also offered the chance to reaffirm the Conference USA brand after all the reshuffling this spring, including in June when reports surfaced linking Memphis and UCF as teams about to be invited to join the Big East only to prompt Big East officials to quickly debunk those talks.
"I'm not naive enough not to think there might not be change down the road," Banowsky said. "Every time we go through one of these, people learn you have to have a really compelling reason to make membership change. When you do, you have to reinvent your brand. You take the risk of taking a half-step back."
Memphis has hired consultants like Mike Tranghese or Chuck Neinas most recently in June, trying to position for a move to a Bowl Championship Series conference.
UCF only joined C-USA in 2005 after Louisville, Cincinnati, Marquette and DePaul left for the Big East. Officials are spending millions on facilities, and the Knights have big hopes as Florida's third-biggest university in the nation's 19th-largest TV market. An Orlando columnist asked Sunday why Vanderbilt, not UCF, belongs to the Southeastern Conference.
O'Leary said he knows about the realignment talks but doesn't get involved.
"Football drives the engine, and I think the success of your football program and obviously the TV market in Orlando and a lot of those things take place. You need to continue winning. That's the key I think moving on as far as expansion," O'Leary said. "It's the key to a lot of the teams that are looking to get involved in talk of expansion."