When the version of the Big East Conference that most of us grew up on was in its last throws of life, Mike Aresco was the league’s commissioner. A former television network head honcho, the death of the Big East’s scorn was widely thrown on the shoulder of a man who was only overseeing the league for a very short time. Right or wrong, Aresco became the face of the death of one of the nation’s most historic and beloved leagues.
Fast-forward some time, add more objectivity, and while we can still point fingers at him, Aresco was no more or less to blame than the allure of football money. Say what you want about his plans to make the Big East a national brand, through football and the money it brings, but refusing to acknowledge the great idea behind his premise is lacking foresight.
Aresco wanted to expand the league. Through football, football money and the already steep tradition of basketball in the Big East, his plan was to get college programs from huge markets, which would increase the profitability of the league all around, and use that as the Big East’s foundation going forward.
Really, the plan wasn’t to rely on tradition and history. Aresco didn’t want the Big East to be stagnant.
We couldn’t have blamed him for wanting the league to be better, right? Well, except we did. Myself included. Pretty harshly, actually.
Fans, media and the like were not alone. The Catholic Seven — seven basketball only schools — were frustrated over the Big East expanding. Especially when the expansion meant that programs like Tulane were going to join the fold. Not only were they upset over the quality of programs joining the league, but they were equally as disappointed that they weren’t consulted regarding the matter.
Like everyone else, basketball-first schools saw the ruse. That the league was looking for more football money, even if that was at the expense of the historic basketball league.
All of the league’s expansion hit the same time as conference realignment was having major connected repercussions throughout the country. Which meant that every university in the Big East saw an opportunity to either get out of the league while the getting was still good or attempt to take the conference over via legal deals.
Syracuse and Pitt were leaving for the ACC. Two of the best basketball programs in the entire Big East, with Syracuse being a longstanding member of Big East awesomeness. Not only did all the then members of the Big East realize what a huge hit it was going to be to lose those programs, but Aresco was losing two potential football breadwinners.
However, the league’s shift in dynamic wasn’t over yet. The Catholic Seven proclaimed they wouldn’t be lost in the football fold. They made an agreement with Aresco’s soon to be nameless league, that they would forgo a large portion of money to have the rights to the league’s name and playing the conference tournament in Madison Square Garden.
At the time, it felt like the new version of the Big East won. That the Catholic Seven would go back to being a basketball only league, which was its original premise, while Aresco and the rest of his band of former Conference USA, Big East and whomever else he brought in leftovers, would go the way of the mid-major as far as expectations and success.
More time passed and the nameless league found an identity. While it was originally a punchline for people still distraught over the dismantlement of the old Big East, the American Athletic Conference (AAC) was born. It even came with a pretty neat logo. Although, to be honest, the jokes about it being a sequel league to Conference USA or a place where programs died was at an all-time high. Not to mention, sometimes accurate.
Nevertheless, the American was born. It was given an identifiable logo. It also had a leader at the helm who knew the other side of the running a sports league spectrum. Because as important as it is to have a good product on the field, that would result in it being profitable off of it, Aresco already had a deal in place to keep the AAC in a good place financially.
By having a deal with ESPN worked out, Aresco and the “charter” members of the American only had to focus on one thing, being a good league in all the sports they competed. For the sake of what we are talking about, though, only football and basketball are relevant to the masses, so breaking down how the lacrosse teams would be rather futile.
The television deals, which now also include CBS, keep the American nearly always in the spotlight. As their official website boasts, “Nearly 90 percent of the games will be carried on national broadcast or national cable.” The deal(s) are also rather lengthy. Giving the league time to grow from its foundation. Which is something most new leagues or perceived mid-majors don’t have the benefit of having.
But that is just the semantics of it all. As fans, who drive the perceptions of conferences, you don’t care if the AAC was able to land a deal with a television network despite not having a proven product. It is the league’s actual product that matters. That will either keep you tuning in or filing the American away in your cranium as an iffy-at-best-conference.
The football season was, well, the football season. But we would be lying if we said the product was any worse or better than any of the Big East football variations thrown out for many seasons before it. A couple of good teams at the top, with the rest of the league being packed with ho-hum to atrocious squads. Regardless of what you expected the American’s football league to be, it was, at least in year one, no different from the blasphemous football hurled out each year before it under a different banner.
Unlike the Big East’s football acumen, at least this league has the potential for growth. Football programs under the AAC aren’t looking to go elsewhere. Well, at least for now. Which is pretty different from every football school in the past looking to leave the Big East at the drop of a hat. The potential for the teams in the American, especially ones that call a big market home, is there to succeed.
Also, far different from other perceived mid-majors, the already aforementioned television deal will keep the programs in the limelight. Which will be a great recruiting tool for the league’s coaches. Not nearly enough has passed, though, to make a realistic prediction as far as an estimated growth for the football side of the conference goes.
To be honest, though, that’s not how the league was going to be judged anyway. Not to folks who cried “football money” when the Big East became a lingering memory and a new version of it emerged. It was going to be the American’s basketball product for which it would be judged.
In fact, it would be their basketball programs’ success, specifically in comparison to the new Big East Conference, that would drive the perception of the league going into the lull of after college basketball, but before college football.
Granted, it has been written about a million times, but it is worth saying again, the top of the AAC was as good as nearly every league in the entire nation. Apparently, though, the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee was not too fond of the league’s lack of depth. That is what essentially kept SMU from getting an at-large bid in the Big Dance. That, and perception.
Still, even without getting a probably deserved SMU a spot in the NCAA Tournament, the AAC outshined the Big East in every way. Four teams from the American got a spot in the NCAA Tournament, with one of them winning the whole thing — and, for what it is worth, unlike Louisville, UConn isn’t bolting the league. Not yet, at least. They currently lack any real options to jump ship. But we will touch on that in a minute.
What did the Big East do? They floundered. They rummaged in and around mediocrity all season. Even when one of their more traditional powerhouse programs, Villanova, climbed near the top of top-25 polls during the season, not a single source of reliability believed in their chances come March.
What the Big East was for such a long time, college basketball dominance and the measuring stick for other leagues to be judged, was now what so many people assumed the AAC would be, a less than great league. A conference, mind you, that had its stars, teams and moments, one that could certainly regain its position in the realm of college basketball, but a conference that certainly felt more like a mid-major.
If any form of transitive property existed, you could even say that the inaugural year of the AAC had a far better start than the rebirth or relaunching of the Big East Conference. Which, still, feels like saying that the Red Power Ranger is cooler than the Green Power Ranger — because everyone knows that Tommy was all that and a bag of chips. Even with that, though, the Red Ranger was the leader, voice, and the foundation of a team that battled Nylocks and the like from all over the universe.
That’s not to say the future of either league has to go in the direction it seems to currently be going on. Although, the two of them are probably forever linked at the hip.
It also helps the AAC that the perception of the new Big East is changing. That the formula for its success seems to be diminishing. A league that was once built off the personality and successes of their coaches, are now losing them to programs who never showed a remote interest in winning basketball games. Take Buzz Williams leaving Marquette to join Virginia Tech. Moves like that did not happen in the old Big East.
Oddly enough, the old Big East formula is what throws the American to the forefront of possible dominance for the future. Depending on — sadly, possibly more — conference realignment, their foundation of coaches read like a who is who of basketball royalty or guys who seem destined to be great in the future.
Larry Brown, despite being a world-renown nomad — turned SMU into a good basketball program in just a few short years. Josh Pastner, even with his lack of postseason success, stays one of the best recruiters in the entire country. Kevin Ollie, well, outside of sporting one of the best mustaches in all of college sports, just won a National Title in just his second year at the helm.
The Big East, on the other hand, now seems to be a stepping-stone type league. Steve Wojciechowski replacing Williams at Marquette is a great get, but everyone knows the goal for Wojo is to take over at Duke. Say what you want about the AAC not being deep, but they have yet to lose their top coaches to dumpster fire types of programs, nor are they being used to get a bigger job. That’s not to say it won’t happen, but it hasn’t. At least not in the way the Big East feels like its losing its stranglehold on want to be great coaches.
That’s not to mention the potential of other schools using that dreaded football money to either upgrade coaches or facilities. Something the Big East can’t do (the Big East can, however, use their billion dollar Fox Sports deal, for what it is worth).
Nevertheless, the AAC doesn’t have to, or even need to, worry about competing with the Big East. They are two separate entities. A world exists where they can both be failures, only one of them can be a success, or the two can climb the rankings of fictional power conference polls.
Where does any of that actually leave the AAC? Nowhere really. They are going to lose Louisville at the end of this June. I mean, they will also lose Rutgers too, but worrying about losing them is like being upset that you lost a game of one-on-one to God. There’s nothing to be upset about.
The American’s primary short-term goal, anyway, should be about UConn. Because, for better or worse, UConn brings everything the AAC needs to the table. Without even mentioning their dominant women’s program, the Huskies have a historic basketball program. One coming off a National Title, led by a young and endearing coach, that could be the American’s flagship program.
That doesn’t mean it will happen, though. UConn is always rumored to go somewhere, anywhere, other than staying in the AAC. Even with that, though, Mike Aresco could go a long way in fortifying the league’s future product by locking up Storrs via as much money as humanly possible.
The rest of the American needs serious work, though. Losing UConn would certainly be a near deathblow for the conference, but it wouldn’t hurt the league as much as the bottom of the league already has.
That’s the balancing act that Aresco has to deal with. Making the conscious effort to claim some football money, has left the bottom of both the basketball and football divisions a mess. Unfortunately for them, as well, power programs are not going to be beating down their doors to enter the fray.
Now it is up to Aresco to build the league from within. To make university presidents and athletic directors care about the success of their programs outside of the money it brings in. While each schools’ primary objective is to make as much loot as possible, Aresco needs to find a way to have them interject at least some of that money back into the sports.
To be realistic, Aresco cannot afford to let the programs in his league to complacent. Unlike the Big East’s bottom-feeders, there is no history of the AAC to speak of that says it is okay that the hogwash programs of the league can stay horrible. I mean, everyone acknowledges that DePaul stinks, may not actually care about putting out a good team and such, but the Big East have yet to be bogged down by them. So, basically, they let them run the program how they see fit, collect money and get away with bad moves.
The AAC can’t do that. Not yet. Probably not for a long time. They need the bottom of the league to be competitive. Even if it is through a slight of the hand. Perception is reality, and the AAC’s perception, as shown through SMU’s Tournament snub, is that the league isn’t that good. Which, obviously, is true for its football and basketball leagues.
At the end of that day, though, the American is a far better product than anyone could have originally expected. They also still have a ton of work to do. However, while the foundation it was built off of (football money) might be the reason we all originally hated them, is part of the same reason its future is bright.
The AAC has all the resources. Money, network deals, and a commissioner who thinks outside of the box and has all the right credentials, in all the right backgrounds, to make the American into a power conference.
Life, as often said, is about taking chances. Aresco took the chance of expanding the old Big East beyond its own grasp. It failed, the league broke up, and two new versions of it were born. Now it will be up to Aresco’s forward thinking to keep the AAC relevant. Unlike the start of it all, though, it feels like The American’s stock is climbing.
If not for nothing else other than its far better than expected original success, the Big East’s opposite trajectory and the fact that Aresco clearly has enough faith in himself, to take such large risks, that the only goal is to become a major player in college sports.
Unlike some programs throughout the rest of the nation, Aresco is not happy with just collecting the money. He wants to matter. He wants the American to matter. Wanting to matter is half the battle. The other half, well, is finding a way to do it.
And Aresco has been working on that since the day he took over the already near dead Big East. The fact he was able to keep some of the programs along for the inaugural AAC ride is a testament to his abilities. The first successes of the league is proof of the quality of some of the programs within it.
While the initial carving on his tombstone might have read, Here lies Mike Aresco. Oversaw the death of the Big East, is it too far-fetched to see it saying, Mike Aresco: Visionary, now?
Because that’s what he is. For better or worse.