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Thursday, February 14, 2013
Q&A: Big East commissioner Mike Aresco

By Matt Fortuna

Mike Aresco's five months on the job as Big East commissioner has been anything but routine. The former CBS Sports executive vice president of programming has seen Notre Dame, Rutgers, Louisville, Boise State and San Diego State make plans to leave his conference since he took the job. He has seen the "Catholic 7" basketball schools break off in an effort to form their own conference, while he has added Tulane and East Carolina, the latter currently set to enter as a football-only member. There is also the matter of negotiating a new television deal.

With moving days taking part across the blogs this week, we caught up with Aresco to talk about incoming 2013 members Central Florida, Houston, Memphis and SMU, as well as several other topics facing the Big East.

Obviously there's a lot out there right now about the TV deal. Where do you guys stand with that, and do you need a 12th school immediately to move forward with any further TV negotiations or deal?

Mike Aresco: I think we are getting closer. The TV doesn't really depend on whether we add another team or teams. I think our position has been that we're not interested in numbers just for numbers' sake. We don't need to be 14 or 16 teams or any of that. We just want to make sure we have the right teams and the right mix athletically, academically. And right now, as you know, we're at 10 with Navy going to join in '15. And Louisville/Rutgers -- if they leave after next year, we're not sure yet -- but if they leave after next year, we would replace them and have 10 and we would also have Navy coming in obviously a year later. At this point, we would definitely look at a 12th, because you'd want even divisions if you ultimately go to a championship game, which I think is our goal. We don't absolutely have to do that, but we think that that's what we would want to do. You can play unbalanced divisions, but it's not a great idea. It just isn't. So I think in that sense we would look at perhaps adding another team -- you know the usual suspects, you've heard those. And I don't know when we would make that decision. We've got some meetings coming up, we call it our group of 11 schools, and we could make a preliminary decision as to whether we want to expand, in probably the next several weeks, and then determine just what we want to do. And then if we did expand, [we'd choose] that team. But in terms of our football, I think everybody's fine playing as a 10-team league until we get Navy in. If we feel the need to expand, great.

Mike Aresco
American Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco said he's confident that the league will have an attractive future bowl lineup.
But you mention some of the teams, I think our conference is really built on some programs that have had success and that really have a lot of potential. We look at SMU, and June Jones has done well there, but I think their best years are still ahead of them. Houston a couple years ago, obviously a tremendous season with Kevin Sumlin. Again, they need to sustain that. Same thing, USF has had years when they've been highly ranked and had good seasons. And UCF, you've seen what UCF has done, very strong program with good facilities. I think what we're looking to do is with our group from the North, Cincinnati, [Tommy] Tuberville there now. UConn. Temple, Al Golden left a program that was definitely rebuilt, and they have to sustain that. And eventually Navy, East Carolina with a great fan base. It's a good group of schools that frankly need to probably develop a storyline, now that we're going to be together. The schools haven't played together before. But I think they're all spending money, they're all trying to improve. Many of them are in big markets. I didn't mention Memphis -- they're spending a lot on their programs, and I didn't mention Tulane, they'll stay until 2014. Houston, building a new stadium.

So I think it's a story of growth. That's what we're looking for, we're trying to grow. We think we can compete. Our goal is to be competing with the five conferences that are perceived as the five power conferences. As you know, we were one of the six, we're still one of the six BCS conferences, but we know that we have to fight and try to be, again, a challenger, to challenge those other five. And that's why I think TV and exposure and marketing and promotion are really important. I think we've got some good brands, some good schools, but there's a lot of untapped potential there.

You mentioned Rutgers and Louisville in passing there. Do you plan ahead as if next year will be their last year in this conference? Where do you guys stand with them as it relates to that?

MA: Don't know yet, Matt, we're still negotiating with them. I think they would probably want to leave after '14, and if a reasonable settlement can be negotiated, we'll certainly look at that. We just haven't made any decision yet. They're definitely in for this year, and then the question is whether they would stay through '14.

Similar with Notre Dame. I know they announced last week that they were going to be in there for at least one more year. Would you envision that being their last year there?

MA: Again, all three of those schools have a commitment through the summer of '15 and then the question comes whether they would stay that extra year. That's going to depend on what kind of agreement we negotiate with them. We certainly have shown a willingness to engage in those kinds of negotiations.

With all the moving parts, do you plan or foresee a nine-game conference schedule in the future?

MA: We don't right now. It's something we could look at, but right now we plan to do an eight-game conference schedule. As you know, a lot of conferences are adopting nine games. Again, we'll either be at ... 11 or 12 [in 2015], '14 we'll either be 10 or 11. I think our membership has expressed preference for eight games. Eight conference games allows them to play more nonconference games. But that's something we can revisit certainly.

As you guys move forward, as the landscape itself moves forward, what are your plans as it relates to bowl tie-ins? What do you guys hope to accomplish in those negotiations?

MA: We'd like to certainly keep the tie-ins we have; we have some good ones. It's a fluid situation. We also could look at some others that make some sense. Again, the conference now will have schools from Texas, from Carolina, very attractive. I think our goal will be to make sure we're in a variety of bowls in a variety of locations so we have nice experiences for our fans and teams. We're definitely talking. We know that that next round is coming up soon. There's going to be some change, we realize that. Could we have some slightly different bowl configurations? We could. But we really like the bowls we're involved in, whether it's the Russell Athletic, or it's the Belk, or it's the Pinstripe, the Liberty, the BBVA Compass. Go down the list, we've got good bowls. But we're going to look at others, too. And we're a bigger conference, Matt, than we were. We'll be at 10 this year, then we'll be potentially at some point 11 and maybe 12. That could give us a chance to develop more tie-ins.

I've seen you touch on this earlier in other interviews. East Carolina, is that a school you want to become a full member eventually?

MA: That's something we haven't decided yet. We're going to take a hard look at that very soon. I think that would certainly be their preference. We haven't made any decisions yet, but we would certainly give that a lot of consideration.

What about the name? I know there's been so much debate about who gets it, who's negotiating with what, what the real Big East is and so forth. How does that play out in your mind in terms of the Big East name? Is that something you really want to fight hard to keep? Do you think maybe a fresher approach would be best for the conference? What's your take on that?

MA: Yeah, people have speculated either way on that. I think our feeling is we would fight hard for it because we think that you can do a fresh approach and keep the name. We would talk about the new Big East or the reinvented Big East, because it isn't the same Big East it was a few months ago. We can't pretend it is. We've had 12 teams leave in the interim for various reasons, and no one's fault, but the point is we know we're a different conference even though we are the Big East. The Big East has tremendous brand equity built up over a lot of years, in basketball and in football. And so consequently our preference would be to keep the name and just rebuild our league and rebuild the brand. I don't think it needs much rebuilding, but clearly when you've had some of the publicity we've had, you need to deal with that and we will. So we think going forward with that brand, with that brand equity is more advantageous than not.

To go off that a little bit, what is it about this conference that you think makes it an elite conference moving forward? What are some of the characteristics that are going to make you a real player in the years to come?

MA: I think we have a real chance to be a player. I think that we have schools that historically have had success, that are in good markets, that have good brands, that have not played together and, as I said, have not developed a storyline yet. But if you look around and you look at the individual programs, they have good potential, they'll play good opponents and I think that they will hold their own. I think you've got schools in talent-rich states. You've got schools with good fan support. You've got schools, again, as I said, in big markets. And take it one by one. Again, Cincinnati with Tommy Tuberville, and they've had a history of hiring excellent coaches. One of the goals of our conference is to hold on to our coaches as long as we can. And you know that head coaches come in, do a great job and move on. We'd like to hold on to them, but if we don't, we'd like to get the next great coach to come along. We had Brian Kelly in this conference. We had Brady Hoke at San Diego State, which didn't end up joining the Big East. You had a lot of terrific coaches around. Kevin Sumlin, look what he's done. And we need to retain them.

But Cincinnati and Tuberville. Connecticut's done a great job over a 10-year period of building a program. Then you've got Navy, everybody loves Navy; they play good football. Temple, again, has just real potential in Philadelphia, has to realize it and it will. East Carolina, solid football program, will gain a lot more attention and exposure in the Big East than it did where they were. And UCF, you've seen what they've done. You've seen what USF has done over the years. USF a little disappointing recently but thinking they've got the coach that is going to take them to the next level. Memphis is spending a lot of money and resources on the program. They have real potential as well. Tulane, new stadium, rich recruiting area. They've had success historically in football. Katrina set them back but they're spending money, they've got the will and determination to get better. And the same thing with Houston and SMU. And as those schools get better they'll garner a lot of attention. Look at SMU, you saw what they did in the bowl game. And you saw what June Jones has done the last few years. So I think there's real potential. There's also a history of achievement. Not necessarily sustained achievement; they haven't had consistently great seasons sometimes -- that doesn't mean that we can't do that.

And one other thing, Matt, I would say: The Big East brand and the Big East conference has always elevated anyone who joined, and I think that's still going to be true. If you look at the history of Louisville coming into the conference, [they] didn't have programs like they have now. Tom Jurich has always credited the Big East with part of their success. Same thing with Frank Beamer and Virginia Tech. He'll always maintain that if it weren't for their time in the Big East, they never could've built their program and their brand. So I think we've always been a scrappy conference. We've had to reinvent ourselves a few times, we've done it successfully, we'll do it again. We also view ourselves as a challenger brand, meaning we're going to challenge. Perception is important. We need to show people that we've got a strong group of schools that are going to compete at a high level, and the goal obviously is to make sure we have the resources. And we'll look at TV. We'll do well enough on the TV in terms of finances, you've read about some of that. And we have resources in our conference, we're part of the BCS for one more year. Going forward we're still part of, I don't know what the whole system's going to be called, but we'll have significant revenue from that. And we'll have other sources of revenue in our conference. So financially we're in good shape. And we think our schools will have the resources to do what they need to do to compete.