New Haven Register (New Haven, CT)
Aresco, Benedict ponder realignment chaos
Mike Aresco grew up in Middletown and went to Xavier High, where he played football under coach Larry McHugh, UConn’s former longtime board of trustees chairman.
Aresco’s sister still lives in Connecticut, as does his oldest son. He’s lived in West Hartford, Westport, Greenwich and Southport over the years while holding key jobs at both ESPN and CBS.
Aresco’s a Connecticut guy, through and through, which makes it somewhat surprising to find him now living in the Dallas/ Fort Worth area, some 1,600 miles from home. A Connecticut Yankee in King Jerry Jones’s Court, if you will.
Conference realignment and the never-ending winds of college-sports change can take you to some unlikely places.
Aresco has been commissioner of the American Athletic Conference since its inception nine years ago. You remember the AAC, the league UConn men’s basketball belonged to for seven largely underwhelming seasons (and one national title). The league that constantly seems to be disrespected, whether by UConn fans, the College Football Playoffs or the NCAA tournament selection committee.
It’s also a league that has had some impressive success on the football field in recent years and sent Houston to the Final Four in April.
“This league has done a lot over the last 10 years,” Aresco said. “It’s one of the great stories in college athletics, how it’s succeeded from being given up for dead in 2013. It’s got a good foundation.”
That foundation now has some cracks in it, however. Major cracks. On Friday, Houston, Cincinnati and UCF — arguably the league’s three top football pro
grams — were officially invited to join the Big 12, along with BYU. They will join the league some time over the next few years.
“No one likes it,” Aresco noted, “but it’s a fact of life and you can’t take it personally, that’s for sure.”
Last year, the AAC moved its offices from Providence (site of the Big East’s former offices) to Dallas. A few senior staffers were able to remain back home to work virtually, but most (including Aresco) uprooted to the Metroplex. Now, the league is in danger of falling apart at the seams.
Or is it? Not if you ask the eternally-optimistic Aresco.
“I’ve made it clear that we will replenish,” Aresco said. “We’ll get back to 10 or 12 [programs], probably 12.”
About a month ago, Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby publicly hinted that the AAC and its TV partner, ESPN, were going to try to raid the league after Texas and Oklahoma announced they would be heading to the SEC.
“It’s interesting that the Big 12 is doing what we were accused of doing — and we’re not doing,” Aresco said. “We’ll be fine. There are a lot of really good schools that have interest in us … that’s evident. We’ll end up with schools that play good football and basketball.”
Aresco has long championed the AAC as a “Power 6” league, belonging in the conversation with the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, SEC and Pac-12. He’s since changed that nomenclature to “Autonomy 6” or “A6.” Whatever the term, Aresco is convinced his league still lives up to the billing and will continue to have a seat at the table, and perhaps an easier road into the College Football Playoffs each year if the playoffs expand, as has been proposed.
“It’s also interesting to note that, although we’ve been an A5, A6 conference all along, now, here’s an A5 conference taking three of our teams to try to remain one, essentially,” Aresco said. “How ironic that is. It just shows all along that we’ve been an A6. Even in a new configuration, we’ll be strong enough to pursue it.”
It’s fair to note that success in college sports, particularly
football, can be cyclical. Short of Alabama, Ohio State and a few others, most programs experience ebbs and flows of success. Even Clemson wasn’t a dominant program 10 years ago.
“These teams that are leaving aren’t dynasties,” Aresco pointed out. “The teams remaining in our conference, some are struggling right now, but others aren’t. I’m not gonna knock any of them — Cincinnati’s doing great right now, but a couple of years ago they weren’t. The point is, our schools have done really well against them. The DNA that’s in this conference is going to remain. To see another conference using our teams to try to preserve their P-5 status is very interesting.”
Still, it’s an uneasy situation for the league. And it may not be over. Memphis and South Florida could still be on the Big 12’s wish list. Temple may feel compelled to return to the Atlantic 10.
The conference realignment musical chairs game takes occasional pauses, but never really ends. Just ask UConn.
BENEDICT: WE’RE NOT CONTENT YET
As UConn’s former conference gets raided and faces an uncertain future, while the Huskies’ men’s basketball program enjoys a happy return home to the Big East, one might picture athletic director David Benedict sitting back, a content smile spread across his face, relieved to not be worrying about the last realignment chaos.
Nothing could be further from the truth. In today’s college sports world, ADs always have to be looking forward.
“To say that we’re not interested in the landscape of what’s going on, from a college football perspective, is not the case,” Benedict said. “I have said that I feel good about where we’re at, and that I think we’re positioned well. Obviously, I think our schedule is really good as an independent football program.
“But we’re very much continuing to evaluate our situation, and we’re going to be interested, obviously, in how things play out.
And we’re always going to be aware of potential opportunities that may or may not be something we would consider. The only thing that is constant in college athletics is change, and
we’re going to continue to monitor the landscape — and ultimately try to put UConn, and all of its athletic programs, in the best situation possible.”
Perhaps no school was hurt by the last big wave of conference realignment a decade ago more than UConn. Now, Memphis and USF appear left out to hang.
“Obviously, there are people that will be affected by this most recent change that will be out of their control,” Benedict said.
“We don’t have that to deal with right now. But to say that we’re not interested or we’re just content with our current situation — we’re never going to be content, unless we absolutely feel like we’re in the best situation possible.”
Football independence may have seemed like a good idea for UConn. But the program is now a national punchline. A decade ago, UConn famously lost out to Louisville for a spot in the ACC. A few years later, the Big 12 appeared to have some interest.
Now? Crickets. UConn’s three former AAC mates get Big 12 invites instead.
Had UConn remained in the AAC, would its football team be better and would it have garnered a Big 12 invite — either now or whenever the next wave may come? Would it even be worth joining a weakened Big 12, or wait and hope for another Power 5 invite at some point? Or would being in a now-weakened AAC hurt UConn’s chances of the latter ever happening?
In short, would UConn be in a better position right now if it had stayed in the American, Big East basketball be damned?
“I don’t know how to answer that type of hypothetical question,” Benedict said, after a long pause. “We’re not in the American right now. Obviously, if you lose arguably the top three programs from a football standpoint … that hurts a league. How does that league get reconstituted, how would that impact us? It’s hard to say right now. But, we still feel strongly that even with football being an independent, we were able to put ourselves in a very good situation relative to our schedules, and the TV situation. And those things are very important to us. So, I can’t speak to how it would compare to what it was previously, if the league breaks up, and how we would be impacted.”
“Had they remained in the conference,” Aresco noted, “they would have been in a very strong football league. Look at Cincinnati. We’ve made the playoff four years in a row.
And, if this playoff expansion happens, we’ll have a clear shot to have a playoff team every year, which we were really struggling to get in the old system.”
“And by the way,” Aresco continued, “even with these three teams leaving, this league is still going to be very strong. There are plenty of good football schools that want to be part of our conference. But they chose a different route. They chose to focus on their basketball and go independent in football, and that’s fine. It’s their decision.”
UConn had hoped to keep its football program parked in the AAC, but Aresco quickly rejected that idea. He never begrudged UConn’s decision to return to the Big East and its hoops roots.
“I could fully understand it,” he said. “(But) I think that if you’re UConn, and you want to be a top-tier university and have that national reputation, football is still the foundation. It just is.”
Three major conferences have new TV deals over the next few years. Instability and uncertainty will continue. And, of course, with an NCAA constitutional convention slated for November, who knows how the college sports structure will look even a year from now?
Out in Dallas, Mike Aresco has plenty of tough questions facing his conference in the coming months and years. Some 1,600 miles away, in Aresco’s home state of Connecticut, David Benedict and the UConn athletics program face just as much uncertainty.
“I feel really great about the situation we’re in right now, as a whole,” Benedict said. “We obviously have to get more competitive in certain sports, and that’s not just football. We have sports that we’ve got to be more competitive in, and we will be. But, yeah, as it relates right now, we feel very good about where we’re at. But that doesn’t mean that we’re not going to be paying attention or just sit back and watch things happen.”