In hiring a new commissioner to lead it through tough times, the Big East went with a guy who played quarterback during his freshman year of high school and shortstop during his freshman year of college.
Yeah, it's a cliche. But stories from Mike Aresco's days at Xavier (Conn.) High School and Tufts University, along with those from his nearly 30-year career with ESPN and CBS, paint a picture of a leader adept at mending fences and taking charge in whatever venue he happens to occupy.
"He was always pretty smooth, and I don't mean that in a bad sense," said Aresco's brother-in-law Rich Magner, a former prep teammate and the current baseball coach at their alma mater. "He could talk to people, he always knew how to smile — some things other professionals haven't learned how to do. He didn't aggravate kids when he was a younger kid. He had a close group of friends through high school and college and maintained those friendships."
For a league struggling with perception problems amidst a sport built largely on perception, perhaps nothing was more validating than the 62-year-old Aresco's departure from CBS Sports — where he was executive vice president of programming — to take on the challenge of negotiating the Big East's new television deal and refurbish its status as a major conference.
Just ask Rutgers athletic director Tim Pernetti, who returned to his alma mater after a career with ABC and CBS College Sports, where he had risen to executive VP of content.
"I think it's very validating," Pernetti said. "You look at what went on with the Big 12 in the last year. A year ago, what were people saying about the Big 12? It essentially was over as people knew it, and you look at it now a year later and things are very, very different. Certainly just from my background, [Aresco's] position at CBS Sports in what he was doing — there's not a higher profile, more prestigious in the business on the TV side. So to see him take the jump and feel really strongly about the value of the league, the future of the league, the ability to maximize the TV and media deals and expand the profile, the brand, all those things — it was very validating because Mike has done a lot in his career.
"You can look at somebody like him and say, 'Why?' But I think Mike probably looked at the opportunity the same way and thought about what he knew about the business, and I think his question was, 'Why not?' So it really made everybody in the league feel very, very good."
Having worked both against and with Aresco in his previous posts, Pernetti always came away impressed by the new commissioner's relationships, a natural ability that should serve him well when negotiating a new TV deal or developing consensus between football and non-football leaders of conference schools.
Those same traits helped Aresco negotiate several landmark deals for CBS, including moving back the annual Army-Navy game, landing a 15-year deal with the SEC and creating the partnership with Turner to gain March Madness rights through 2024.
"Negotiations are a complex process and they're often more art than science," Aresco said. "Once you’ve done the deals, it's more often science. But there's an art to negotiations. One, is to listen. You glean information and you listen. You take your partner seriously. You care about what they say. You try to tailor the conversation to their needs. You make sure that everybody is comfortable. You make sure that the talking points are clear and that everybody understands what the goals are. You try to align your goals."
"Second, obviously financially, you have to make that commitment," he later added. "If the network is not willing to make the commitment it made with the NCAA, it wouldn't have mattered what I said. The other thing is persuasion. You don't dictate things ever. I think this hire seems to be well-received because I’ve always tried to treat people with respect. I never want people to walk away feeling bad. There are always some tough negotiations, but I always want people to feel we were fair and honest, that there was no rancor and bitterness. … Army-Navy is a unique situation — I was able to convince them to move the game a week later, with that lone time spot, the last game of the college season, Army-Navy takes its rightful place in American sports. The ratings have doubled since then. Army-Navy is seen by people who never appreciated what the academies are, what they represent, the wonderful traditions they have. Sometimes you have to try to recognize reality. The Army-Navy game on BCS Saturday was not generating interest. It was getting lost.
"I have to do that with the Big East. We took some hits in the spring, that's been the narrative. I have to change that narrative. People have focused on the few teams that left but they haven’t focused on the new teams that have been added. Things have calmed down, and now it’s up to us to do a good TV deal to make people happy and excited about the Big East."
Aresco said he hoped people would look back on his time at CBS Sports and call it the company's golden age. Upon his introduction in New York earlier this month, the new commissioner said he wanted to make the Big East defectors regret having left.
If that sounds like a former athlete speaking, well, that may be just the mind-set the Big East needs up top.
"I think anybody in our business — especially on the sports media and on the administrative side — that has a background competing at a high level of athletics at whatever age you are and has experience at leadership positions in whatever form you have them, it definitely applies to the position," said Pernetti, who played tight end at Rutgers. "So I think that will give Mike certainly a leg up."