If I were the commissioner of the American Athletic Conference, I would be nervous right now.
I would be nervous because when the Big 12 announced last week that it was going to jump back into the expansion waters, the list of likely candidates to join included Houston, Cincinnati, Memphis, Connecticut, UCF, BYU and maybe Colorado State. Five of those schools are members of the 12-team AAC.
What if the Big 12 gets really frisky and takes four of those schools? Can the AAC, which has been the strongest conference outside of the Power Five, survive such a blow? That’s why I would be nervous.
But when I talked to AAC commissioner Mike Aresco this week, he was anything but nervous. He is doing what all good leaders do. He’s working the issue with his eyes wide open, his ego in the desk drawer and with the best information possible.
“In these situations, communication is critical,” said Aresco, who was a long-time television executive before getting into college administration. “I’ve been talking to the (athletic directors) and the president of the schools that might leave, and it looks like some of them will. We’re talking to each other and trying to figure out the future. We expect everyone who leaves will leave on good terms.”
Aresco’s biggest immediate concern is next week’s AAC media days in Newport, R.I. He would rather this topic not dominate those meetings the way it did the Big 12 media days last week.
Good luck with that.
“I’ll have two days of meetings with our athletic directors and this will be a topic in that room,” Aresco said. “But outside of that room, we won’t be talking about it. The focus needs to be on our teams and the 37 players who will be at our event. We’re getting ready to kick off what looks like a really good season for us.”
Aresco said he’s heard a little bit of everything when it comes to which of his teams would get tapped by the Big 12. He’s aware that Houston looks like a strong possibility, given the state of the program (13-1 under Tom Herman last season, beating Florida State in the Peach Bowl, and 88 wins in the past 10 seasons) and that Texas governor Greg Abbott has said Big 12 expansion without Houston “is a non-starter.”
“I can understand that because Tom (Herman) has done a great job at Houston,” Aresco said. “I talked to a lot of coaches and they were impressed by Houston last season. And if this year’s team has a big year against that schedule (which includes Oklahoma and Louisville), they have to be considered a playoff team.”
But it’s not just Houston that gives the AAC clout and makes its members attractive, Aresco said. Cincinnati (Sugar, 2010), UConn (Fiesta, 2011) and UCF (Fiesta, 2014) played in BCS bowls this decade. Memphis upset Ole Miss 37-24 last October; Ole Miss was one bad bounce away from playing in the SEC championship game.
Temple went 10-4 last season, which included a win over Penn State and a 24-20 loss to No. 9 Notre Dame in a game the Owls controlled until the last two minutes.
“Everybody knows what Navy can do. Chad Morris is going to get things going at SMU. Scott Frost is going to do a good job at UCF. Keep an eye on Bob Diaco at UConn; they are going to be pretty good,” Aresco said. “We have a lot of really good coaches.”
Aresco also has heard that the Big 12 is looking at bringing in some schools as football-only members.
“Right now, we’re shadow boxing a little because we don’t know what is going to happen,” he said. “But have already started our contingency planning for just about every scenario. Whatever happens, we’ll have a plan. We’ll be fine.”
You see, Aresco has been through this before. After a long career at ESPN and CBS, where he negotiated some of the biggest deals in the history of college athletics, Aresco was named Big East commissioner in August 2012.
Current AAC members
* East Division: Cincinnati, Connecticut, East Carolina, Temple, UCF, USF.
* West Division: Houston, Memphis, Navy, SMU, Tulane, Tulsa.
In 2013, Aresco negotiated a settlement that allowed the non-football playing schools in the Big East – dubbed “The Catholic Seven” – to leave and retain the Big East name. Then Aresco had to go to work taking the football schools that were left and forming a new conference – the AAC.
“You think the Brexit negotiations were tough? They should have called me. I had to negotiate with the Catholic Seven,” Aresco said with a laugh.
“The reality is that you have to have some perspective in situations like this. Last time (the breaking up of the Big East) was the most complicated negotiation I’ve ever been a part of. And when we started building our new conference, we didn’t have a name. We didn’t have a venue for our basketball tournament. We didn’t have a TV contract. But we all worked together and got those things done.”
Aresco said he will hold no ill will against the teams that eventually may leave his conference.
“Everybody understands the allure of the (Power) Five,” he said. “I’m sensitive to what the athletic directors and the presidents are going through. They are getting pressure from their boards. If leaving is the best thing for their institutions, we understand. There won’t be any hard feelings.”
The only sticking point for schools leaving the AAC is that they must give 27 months’ notice and pay an exit fee of $10 million. Schools that want to leave quicker can negotiate a larger exit fee.
The exit fees paid by the schools that left the Big East have given the AAC a sizeable war chest to get through any economic difficulties in the short term.
“The bottom line for us is that the high road is always the best one,” Aresco said. “And the good thing for us is that people are talking about our schools and looking at them. So we must be doing something right.”
Aresco would not say which schools would be considered should several schools leave the AAC. But it is fair to speculate that any additions would have to come from the other Group of Five conferences: Conference USA, Mountain West, Mid-American and Sun Belt.
He did say that if only two schools left, staying at 10 would be an option for the AAC because conferences with 10 members now can play a championship football game.
“We’ve been working with the shadow of this (expansion) over our heads for the past two years. We haven’t been sitting back and waiting for things to happen,” Aresco said. “No matter what happens, we will have a conference.”
(You can follow Tony Barnhart on Twitter @MrCFB)
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