Remember when Mike Aresco was being blamed for the demise of the old (real) Big East Conference?
Media, fans and lovers of college basketball were blaming the former TV executive for not helping a once proud and historic basketball league. Instead, he was charged with quickening the process of it becoming a shell of its former self because football money was too tempting to pass up.
Basically, especially at the time, Aresco became the scapegoat for some Big East university presidents, and a poster boy for conference realignment and the greed that started all of it.
If we are able to put the emotions of the Big East being put down like a dog with only two legs aside, we’d come to the realization that the new version of that old league is trying to rebuild itself. And, if just looking at Mike Aresco through the microscope of building the American Athletic Conference as a complete league, you can see things are actually brighter in the world of mid-level college football because of everything that precipitated the Big East’s schism into the American.
Sure, it certainly stinks that the Big East is gone. Well, at least the Big East we all grew up on it.
But let’s be honest with each other here; the football part of that league was as bad a “power” league as there could possibly be in college football. Spewing out a decent team or two a year that was forced onto us during BCS season was not exactly doing anything for anyone — not even for the Big East itself.
However, Aresco and the AAC are not Big East — thankfully. The AAC is a “new” league, which is comprised of programs from many other leagues, including some prior Big East members.
In a weird, completely ironic way, the American is the melting pot of college football conferences, much like the way the population of our country has more diversity than any other in the world. I guess what I am trying to say is that The American is appropriately named.
That is not the point, though. Whether The American has a neat name (check), a cool logo (check), or a mix mash of programs from one side of the country to the other (check), the AAC’s success won’t be based on how well they do when compared to the old Big East (football) league.
Really, it comes down to the league’s ability to possibly bubble up and become the best mid-major football league in the country or — even — the sixth power conference.
Oddly enough, The American’s success may hinge on the development of both football and basketball success. Even though college basketball doesn’t generate nearly the same amount of loot football does, hoops can help with the perception of both the league and Mike Aresco.
I mean, we have already seen the tables turn a bit on the idea of Aresco’s abilities after this past basketball season. Gone were losers (like this guy) taking pot shots at him over the still bitter taste left in their mouths because of the Big East collapse. In its place is a more positive outlook, with people even suggesting that the AAC could become a truly deep and powerful basketball league.
That is a tremendous start for The American. However, that’s only the basketball side of things. Aresco and the boys need to continue to make strides in their football division.
There’s a double-edged sword for The American now, though. Schools that joined the then Big East because of the respectability that came with joining that league (at least on the basketball side) do not have the luxury that came with being a member of an established power conference. The Big East was attractive because of its automatic bid into the BCS, a reward that came with exclusivity and a big paycheck.
At the same time, however, the conference no longer has to carry the burden of a prestigious basketball league while its football plays the role of Rodney Dangerfield, with mopes like me complaining about the watering down of the league every time a new member is added to bolster football.
Essentially, while the AAC now longer has a built-in reputation to uphold, it is freed from the tyranny of its basketball-built reputation. Even more so, Mike Aresco does not have to do the balancing act as commisioner of a dying league while trying to expand the programs in it as a last-ditch effort of making the league more profitable through football.
Now Aresco can focus on things he is really good at. You know, making The American as television-friendly as humanly possible.
There is unlikely any man running a conference better equipped than Aresco to do just that. He was already making strides while heading up the Big East to open up the league to new markets by going after teams with bigger (potential) audiences.
While that may have been much to the chagrin of the Catholic Seven, these wasn’t moves made in vein — at least not now, as Aresco is building something newer, fresher, and with a higher ceiling than any version of the old Big East actually had.
Yes, the Big East was great, will be remembered fondly and it will be sorely missed for what it was. But the league was limited because of its regional feel. The American is attempting to be as national a conference as possible.
The next progressive steps for the AAC are not completely up to Aresco, though. While his primary concern going forward will be to continue to navigate TV deals, stabilizing the programs in the league and preventing some of the better programs from leaving it, the conference’s success will hinge on its members and their willingness to spend money to make their football league something of worth and consequence.
Aresco’s responsible for giving AAC members the tools to succeed: a solid TV deals and big markets with high potential for visibility. An example is Memphis. Tigers head coach Justin Fuente told the Commercial Appeal last year that the American offered Memphis greater exposure than it gained in Conference USA, but also more than nationally ranked TCU teams on which he was on assistant.
However, that will all be for not if the programs in it don’t capitalize on the money and mobility gained by no longer carrying the non-football members of the Big East.
Improving in college sports, particularly football may be complex, but can be simplified.
Programs that want to attract higher caliber recruit can by investing in facilities upgrades and hiring better coaching staffs.
While that is much easier to do for basketball programs — as one giant basketball coaching hire can change the fortune of a program — it does hold true to football programs.
Granted, it isn’t as nearly as easy as giving John Calipari a billion dollars a year, but if some supposed ho-hum AAC football program wants to matter, they can, just by hiring a coach highly regarded coach. Memphis did it when it landed Fuente, and the Tigers are surprises to watch in this year’s conference race.
That’s not the only way they can continue to succeed. Much like Aresco is attempting to (now) grow the league from within, programs can develop their own coaches. The biggest problem with that will be for them not to be treated as stepping stone programs, but as destination spots for up-and-coming coaches like Fuente.
Meanwhile, the longer currently successful coaches stay, the more they’ll help change the perception of the entire conference. While George O’Leary’s remained tied to UCF despite its success for unique reasons, keeping Ruffin McNeill at East Carolina or Tony Levine at Houston and winning will help established The American’s reputation.
All of that is asking a lot from people who are not exactly invested in the success of The American long-term. Really, the only who people who are truly tied to the league’s success are Aresco, the university presidents and athletic directors of the member programs and fans.
Money talks, and that’s where the TV revenue comes into play. Give successful head coaches a monetary reason to invest in the long-term success of The American.
There’s much not known about the direction of the AAC going forward. Heck, we don’t even know if the league will look that similar in a few years or if they will lose some of their bigger name-brand programs to the established power conferences with College Football Playoff access.
There’s as much the AAC must work against as it has working for it. But with huge TV markets and their massive potential reach, the basketball members making strides to becoming a true power conference and with Mike Aresco leading the way, the table is set for The American to make a run at respectability.
It can even reach a level of dominance both on the field and in the bank account the old Big East never could.