The American's awkward start
A creation of realignment, it begins as a mix of different agendas and destinations
If only Mick Cronin had kept all of the coaching swag. He could be a walking, talking, golf shirt-wearing historian for Cincinnati's conference affiliation.
As a kid growing up in Cincinnati, he rooted for a Bearcats team competing in the Metro Conference. As an assistant with Bob Huggins, he coached UC through the Great Midwest and then Conference USA. Finally as head coach, he guided the university through the rigors of the Big East.
Now Cronin leads Cincinnati into its first year in the American Athletic Conference.
"This is par for the course for me," he said. "I guess that's why it's not a big deal."
It is and has been a very big deal to plenty of other people, of course, especially in Cronin's new digs. The American Athletic Conference is a direct outgrowth of conference realignment, a league formed not by the wishes and desires of like-minded universities but by the very need to survive.
If Syracuse and Pittsburgh hadn't left the Big East, if the threat of others bolting didn't follow, if the Catholic schools didn't worry they'd lose a chance to control their own destiny, the American wouldn't be here.
It is a post-conference-realignment baby, the progeny of the landscape-shifting boom.
And as if birthing this baby wasn't hard enough, now for the really hard part -- helping it grow up. The league will bypass cute and cuddly infancy and hop over the toddler years.
In fact, it's headlong into the awkward stage already.
Rutgers and Louisville are here, but for just one year, one headed to the Big Ten in a year's time, the other to the ACC. Memphis is in for the long haul, but only after years of trying to move into the Big East. The tough-luck Tigers finally got the call as the league basically turned into the old Conference USA.
Three more current C-USA members (Tulane, Tulsa and East Carolina) will join next year, with Navy jumping aboard for football in 2015.
And that doesn't even account for Cincinnati and Connecticut. Both are in the American, but both would jump in a heartbeat if a better deal came calling. UConn athletic director Warde Manuel said his school is done pursuing other leagues, but that doesn't mean the Huskies wouldn't bolt if asked.
"It will be a little uncomfortable with the teams you're playing," Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. "No one is going to be rooting for the University of Louisville in the conference. We'll get the business on the road, but we just put up with that for one year."
Commissioner Mike Aresco is charged with the thankless job of keeping everyone happy. If anyone has had his fill of realignment, it is Aresco.
He won't be on the job a year until Aug. 14, yet no one has aligned, realigned and been more maligned in the past 12 months. Hired to replace John Marinatto in the Big East, he's now in charge of an entirely different league.
He's done the best he could, and with so many fewer chips to play in this high-stakes game, doing your best isn't too bad. To him, this doesn't feel like a transitional year coming up.
Of course, that could all be based on his view. Aresco has been transitioning for a year now.
"We spent so much time re-establishing the conference, it really doesn't feel that way," he said. "But I understand that the jury is out. It should be out. We're forming a new mosaic, and we have to prove that it works."
Aresco's point is fair. That the league even exists is a more solid foundation than he's had to stand on in 12 months.
Still, there is no arguing the American is gawky for this season.
If Louisville should defend its national title, for example, it will have won back-to-back championships in two different leagues (one that was defunct and reborn and another that is new) and will be in a third by the time the next season starts.
"I hope we have to deal with that," Pitino said, laughing. "That's a great problem to have."
Meanwhile, Rutgers was so excited about its one season in conference purgatory, it sued the Big East before it went belly-up in the hopes of joining the Big Ten early.
That's left the relationship between university and conference right up there with War of the Roses. They're divorcing, but stuck with each other for now.
"We have a wonderful relationship with Louisville, but the situation with Rutgers is not the same," Aresco said. "They sued us, and it was utterly without merit. We've taken the high road in all of this, but you can call it what it is. That, though, has nothing to do with the coaches and the players."
This new conference, like its predecessors, is football-driven. Aresco doesn't try to argue otherwise -- "We need to build football. That's how you achieve a certain status," he said -- but he does insist that football-driven doesn't equate to hoops neglect.
He said the basketball programs are involved with and part of every conversation and that the goal is to emphasize both.
The old Big East's biggest problem was that it tried to combine two groups with divergent interests, schools with and without football. When the moneymakers (football) made the decisions, the others felt left out or, worse, run over.
And they weren't wrong. Basketball was easily more successful than football in the old Big East but nonetheless was an afterthought in negotiations, expansion and planning.
Not much will change here. To succeed and to survive, Aresco is right; the league needs football. That's where the big bucks are.
But at least now, all of the schools are chasing the same pot of gold and can divvy it up more fairly; each has to feed both the basketball and football beasts.
"We are more aligned now," Aresco said.
Still, the basketball programs are at a disadvantage, at least the ones that used to call the Big East home. The Big East, remember, was the league that once earned 11 bids to the NCAA tournament. It was a known commodity for the selection committee and earned the just deserts of its successes.
No one knows exactly what the American will be or what value it will offer. Certainly the top -- Louisville, Cincinnati, Connecticut, Memphis and Temple -- is attractive, but SMU, Houston, South Florida and UCF do little to move the needle in terms of strength of schedule.
East Carolina, Tulane and Tulsa don't do much for the basketball muscle in 2014, either.
"It's really like the old Conference USA, with the exception of Connecticut. UConn is sort of taking the place of Marquette," Pitino said. "When you look at it, you don't know how good some of these teams are. You just don't have a pulse on them yet."
But as this critical month of college basketball begins -- coaches were allowed out to evaluate high school players starting Wednesday evening -- Cronin at least believes that all of the shifts and noise won't make a huge impact with the people who matter most.
"Kids don't care," he said. "You'd be amazed at how many kids couldn't tell you who was in the old Big East. Some of them don't know who Bob Knight was, or at least not about his coaching.
"Their questions are always the same -- can you develop them and help them chase their dream? What style of play will you use? What are your facilities like? And are you on ESPN? The rest, we all overthink it. It's just not that big a deal."
Maybe he's right -- he should know.
He's got the collection of conference swag to show for it.
Editor's note: For more on the American Athletic Conference, check out Andy Katz's Daily Word on the future of Cincinnati and UConn and Jason King's blog post on the league's top challengers to Louisville this season.
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