American Athletic Conference determined to slug it out with NCAA elite

Pat Forde
Yahoo! Sports

For a guy who's been punched in the face repeatedly over the past year, Mike Aresco sounds surprisingly lucid and pugnacious.

He was named Big East Conference commissioner in August 2012, which was kind of like choosing that precise time to invest in Blockbuster video. Since then he's seen Notre Dame leave the league; Louisville and Rutgers lay the groundwork to leave the league; Connecticut and Cincinnati try to leave the league; Boise State and San Diego State back out of coming aboard; the Catholic Seven basketball schools break off and take the league name with them; and the conference media rights sold for roughly the value of two blocking sleds and a defensive coordinator's salary.

Get this man a standing eight count.

"I took the Big East job with my eyes wide open," Aresco told Yahoo! Sports last week. "I did not know, frankly, it would get quite that bad."

It got that bad. But after a punch-drunk year filled with abandonment and a name change to the American Athletic Conference – suitably vague for a loose confederation spread from Storrs, Conn., to Orlando to Dallas – it's time to wobble off the corner stool and back into the fray.

"We're looking ahead," Aresco told Yahoo! Sports last week. "We've had a tough time, nobody's going to deny that. But you're tested by adversity, and I'm proud of what we've done, proud of how we navigated some adversity, during some of the wildest things you've seen in college athletics.

"We've got to show we belong with the so-called power five conferences. The biggest thing is just to win. To be competitive."

The league still has a pulse. That's a start. And there is a chance for some immediate success that could serve as a springboard into the future – if the 2014-15 membership can reap the benefits of that potential 2013-14 success.

So if Aresco and the American are going to prove it belongs with the power-five leagues that have plundered it mercilessly, here are five counterpunch strategies that can start the comeback to relevance and prominence:

1. Ride whatever momentum Louisville and Rutgers may provide on their way out of the conference.

The Cardinals, fresh off an annus mirabilis that saw them win the men's basketball national championship and the Sugar Bowl, still have a year of purgatory in the American before joining the Atlantic Coast Conference. It should be another good one, likely starting the season in the national top 10 in both sports – perhaps the top two in hoops. Although the exposure is short-term and will be reflected on the ACC as much as the American, it's still exposure.

"I think [Louisville] will benefit us enormously," Aresco said. "That's wind at our backs."

And if the Cardinals get off to an undefeated start and then are upset by, say, Central Florida or Cincinnati, I don't think the American brass would be heartbroken to see a member in good standing take down a member with one foot out the door.

As for Rutgers: well, at least the self-inflicted wounds appear to be healing there – and if they don't, it's the Big Ten's problem long-term. If a school that has invested (almost recklessly) in football success can win some games with an inexperienced team, that would be a bonus. The Scarlet Knights get two prestige-building opportunities in the season's first month, visiting what should be a very good Fresno State team Aug. 29 and hosting Arkansas on Sept. 21.

2. Get Connecticut and Cincinnati to quit sulking and start leading.

The two schools most despondent about not catching the last chopper out of the Saigon of sports leagues should now realize: that chopper isn't coming back, at least not anytime soon. The ACC's Grant of Rights deal in the spring solidified that league and presumably stopped realignment for the foreseeable future. Which means UConn and Cincy are stuck, and might as well make the best of it.

"In private, [UConn and Cincinnati administrators] have been great," Aresco said. "Incredibly supportive. They understand this is the best place for them to be.

"We have to be realists, but our schools know this conference can be a force, can be built. I don't get offended when people mention those other conferences. We have to show we can challenge them."

UConn has been able to not just challenge them but defeat them in basketball, though the future remains uncertain on the men's side in the post-Calhoun era. Football has taken a tumble since the uninspired hire of Paul Pasqualoni two years ago.

Cincinnati has had a quality football program for pretty much the entirety of the 21st century, and has replaced one good coach with another three times in that span. And the Bearcats should always be good in basketball.

If those two programs stay onboard and stay committed to competing with the big boys, it will significantly help the American.

3. Get the schools in the hotbed states of Florida and Texas performing up to their potential as quickly as possible.

South Florida and Central Florida have fluctuated between being rising power players and perplexing disappointments in recent years. UCF enters the league in a position of strength (10-4 last year), while USF is rebuilding under charismatic young coach Willie Taggart. If both programs get it together at the same time, it would greatly enhance the league.

"A potential major rivalry," Aresco said.

In Texas, the hope is that Houston and SMU can hit a few high notes. Houston is trying to find out if there is life after Kevin Sumlin and Case Keenum (the early returns were not good, tumbling from 13-1 to 5-7 in the first year under Tony Levine). SMU may have plateaued under June Jones (30-23 the past four seasons), but at least it has regained competitiveness after 20 years in the wilderness post-Death Penalty.

In addition to enhancing the league's recruiting, successful teams in those states would greatly aid media exposure. Tampa, Orlando, Houston and Dallas won't pay much attention – unless attention is demanded by performance. Win enough games and the big-city media will show up.

4. Improve the dregs of the league so they don't drag down the whole.

Memphis arrives as a football sinkhole. The Tigers were No. 123 in the Sagarin Ratings last year – and that was an upgrade over 2011. Tulane, which enters the American in 2014, was even worse at No. 155. Then there is Temple (No. 100).

If the basement of the conference doesn't improve, it will be an anchor on the power ratings of those at the top. There is a reason why the addition of Tulane was the last straw for some in the Big East, who saw it as an opportunity for a good road meal and an easy road victory but an overall detriment to the league.

5. Renegotiate to accelerate the rebuilding, and hope you bring something to the table.

A former CBS exec, Aresco repeatedly mentioned his optimism for a much bigger media-rights deal when the American's paltry current contract with ESPN can be renegotiated. Aresco didn't specify when a potential renegotiation window would be open, but said it could be "soon."

In the meantime, the league will have plenty of exposure, if not plenty of TV revenue. There will be ABC national games and 58 league games on a variety of ESPN platforms. Those entities will broadcast the league's first championship game as well, in 2015.

"The TV deal offers the same kind of exposure as any other," Aresco said. "We just didn't get the kind of money we wanted. We're hopeful to renegotiate and prove our value."

The punches to the face are finally over for Mike Aresco and the American Athletic Conference. Now the proving can begin.


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