American determined to make mark

Despite defections, conference out to prove it belongs with the best

Updated: February 14, 2014, 11:14 AM ET
By Matt Fortuna | ESPN.com

His high-wire act seemingly complete, his head no longer spinning, Mike Aresco needs less than a minute to begin telling you about how much simpler life is now as commissioner of the American Athletic Conference.

"It's fun now," Aresco said. "I can't tell you a year ago it was a lot of fun, going through all the different things we had. But it's come out in a good place, so everybody's happy."

Five teams ranked in The Associated Press men's basketball poll has helped boost optimism as the American hits the home stretch of its inaugural academic year. Looking ahead to the fall paints a slightly more complicated picture for the conference.

[+] EnlargeMike Aresco
AP Photo/Jessica HillAmerican Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco knows his work is hardly done, but things are moving forward at least now.
As Louisville and Rutgers move on to the ACC and Big Ten, respectively, and as the American brings aboard East Carolina, Tulane and Tulsa to replace them -- with Navy joining in only football in 2015 -- life without automatic entry to the upper echelon of college football is right around the corner. The biggest of the so-called "group of five" conferences, the American finds itself at the head of a crowded table vying annually for a berth in one of the sport's six "access bowls," which will grant admittance to the best team of that group.

Diminished in stature but not in confidence, administrators and coaches from the conference know it is up to them to change the narrative and crack the code, to push their way toward the adults' table and ascend from this purgatory between the haves and have-nots.

"We all kind of have a stake-in-the-grounds thing, that it's up to us to change that, to demonstrate we are worthy, that we are capable," Tulane athletic director Rick Dickson said.

No one is ecstatic about the conference's diminutive stature in this new arrangement, to be sure. And Aresco's stated intent of adopting potential stipends and other goals the big five have in seeking autonomy from the NCAA is the surest sign that the league won't be cast aside so easily.

Louisville, Pitt, Rutgers, Syracuse and West Virginia didn't disappear without a price, after all, as their departures and the reversals of Boise State and TCU netted the conference upward of $70 million in exit fees.

Ruffin McNeill, whose East Carolina team routed a pair of ACC schools last season, expressed frustration at the generalization that often comes attached to a program like his. Having spent 10 seasons on Texas Tech's staff, including a brief stint as interim head coach after Mike Leach's firing, McNeill remembers high school coaches describing prospects for him as discarded leftovers who would not make it at bigger programs.

"I said, 'Well hold on now, we're playing those teams,'" McNeill said. "I need those same kids, too. When they start categorizing and saying 'big guys' and 'other guys,' that always bothers me a little bit. What determines you as a big guy? Because I've been there in that league."

Among the trio making the leap from Conference USA to the American, perhaps no program can see a clearer path to prominence than Tulsa, despite a 3-9 campaign in 2013. The Golden Hurricane were just a year removed from a league title, a crown they earned by beating UCF twice along the way.

Central Florida's 12-1 record and Tostitos Fiesta Bowl win in their first season in the American has made them somewhat of a trailblazer for their former C-USA brethren set to join them this coming fall.

"It really will help us in a weird sort of way," Tulsa coach Bill Blankenship said. "Coming off of an admittedly very down season, we were able to look back 365 days or less and talk about two wins over that team, and the fact that we know that we can match up if we'll continue to build this program to be able to play at that level, and they really set the bar. I think that helped us get a feel for where we needed to be, and that it's not as far away as sometimes people want to perceive it to be."

Added Tulane coach Curtis Johnson, speaking a day after signing day: "It came up a lot because everybody wanted to know more about the conference, and now those [recruits] feel like they can identify with a program with one of the teams in its conference winning the Fiesta Bowl. So they would ask questions and they felt good about it, about just the caliber of teams that we're playing against and what direction the conference is going in."

Increased television exposure and the revenue that comes from that won't hurt the newcomers, either, and they are keenly aware of just how rewarding a shot at upsetting one of the big boys can be.

McNeill's boss, Jeff Compher, came to East Carolina following Northern Illinois' historic 2012 season. Compher recalled asking MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher late in the season to seek a warm-weather destination for his Huskies as a reward for what would turn out to be a 12-1 regular season.

When the verdict came down on bowl selection day a few weeks later, Compher was hardly able to comprehend the heights his program had just reached.

"[Steinbrecher] called me that afternoon around 2 o'clock and he said, 'Jeff, you know you've been wanting that warm-weather bowl? Well you've got it: You're going to the Orange Bowl,'" Compher said. "And at that point the emotion of actually hearing that we were going to be in there, it about captured me at that point, so I was kind of speechless. And I said, 'You're not kidding, are you?' And he said, 'No, I'm not kidding. Congratulations.'

"And I knew it would change the complexion of not just our football program, but the whole university, and I knew the gravity of it, so it was pretty overwhelming."

As relentlessly positive as the league has been, however, uncertainty still lingers.

McNeill When they start categorizing and saying 'big guys' and 'other guys,' that always bothers me a little bit. What determines you as a big guy? Because I've been there in that league.

-- East Carolina coach Ruffin McNeill
In hiring former Colorado athletic director Mike Bohn to the same position last week, Cincinnati sent a not-so-subtle sign that its heart is hardly devoted to its current domain. It was Bohn who helped the Buffaloes escape the then-floundering Big 12 for the Pac-12 four years ago, and his and Bearcats officials' comments upon his introduction made the school's priority clear.

"Obviously, that's the issue and the opportunity," Bohn said, according to the AP. "We talked a great deal about it. The trustees were very clear about their commitment and trying to help.

"We talked at length about it and understand the landscape. I believe I've got a good sense of what's going on around the country. I lived it in the move to the Pac-12."

Little on the horizon suggests any moves are imminent. For now, the American hopes to use this period of relative stability to further enhance its reduced spotlight.

"You'd rather not see that, no one's arguing that you would," Aresco said of Cincinnati. "On the other hand, this is a good conference, and we staunchly defend the conference. We know Cincinnati is going to be obviously an important part of it, and a good partner. We don't worry about realignment; we have to build what we have, we have to think about what we've got here.

"We've got 12 schools that can compete, and that's our focus, our focus is on that. And whatever happens, let the chips fall where they may. But we're worried about building the conference, and Cincinnati will be a good partner, they'll be an important school."

A new name, logo and brand helped the American lay its foundation in 2013. The Big East as the world once knew it is a thing of the past, and it is now on to the next era of college football for this new version of Aresco's reinvented league.

"The progress we've made as a conference is I think pretty remarkable," Aresco said. "Look where we were a year ago -- I think we've surprised a lot of people. We're a one-year-old league which endured a lot of turmoil, and it now has really good standing in football and basketball."

Matt Fortuna | email

College Football

Comments

Use a Facebook account to add a comment, subject to Facebook's Terms of Service and Privacy Policy. Your Facebook name, photo & other personal information you make public on Facebook will appear with your comment, and may be used on ESPN's media platforms. Learn more.