Friday, December 15, 2017

AAC makes reshuffling a hurricane-ravaged schedule look easy (Hint: it wasn't)

TAMPA — In the sobering wake of Hurricane Irma, as first responders mobilized and power trucks converged on the Southeast in merciful convoys, the American Athletic Conference brandished its own level of compassion.

It wasn't as noble as a paramedic working overtime, or as courageous as a lineman delicately mending a transformer 50 feet above the ground. The AAC's efforts were more altruistic.

But in those anxious days, the American finally became a power conference. Or at the very least, a power community.

"I think people will always remember this as something that showed the cohesion of the conference," commissioner Mike Aresco said.

Only four days after Irma churned its way up the spine of the Florida peninsula, causing three games (Memphis-UCF, Georgia Tech-UCF and USF-Connecticut) to be called off and putting the conference slate into disarray, the league announced a revised schedule agreed upon by all 12 schools.

As a result, every AAC team still will play a normal eight-game conference schedule. Controversial divisional tie-breakers (currently based on winning percentage, not head-to-head results) will be averted.

And the league's chance at the New Year's Six bowl berth, awarded to the top-ranked Group of Five champ, won't be compromised.

"This was really a great example of a young conference that came together and really worked for the good," USF athletic director Mark Harlan said. "When we crown a champion in the first week of December, we'll truly crown a champion."

But the revision required sacrifice, a little cajoling, outside-the-box thinking, expedience and — by Aresco's estimation — at least 1,000 phone calls between his office and member schools.

"That was an intense five or six days, I'll tell you that," he said.

The scurrying actually began a few days before Irma's arrival, when it became clear Memphis-UCF and USF-UConn — both originally slated for Sept. 9 — wouldn't go off despite last-ditch efforts to get the games in.

"So consequently, that Thursday and Friday (before Irma), we started at least thinking about contingency plans, never really sure we could implement any," Aresco said.

The firm that crafts computer models for the AAC's schedule was consulted, and a series of alternate schedules were pondered. Some appeared feasible. Others, which would have required a school to play three or four consecutive road games, were not.

Meantime, Harlan was in another world, one dominated by storm surges and student welfare, power outages and projected trajectories. Once the Bulls' game against UConn formally was called off on Thursday, Sept. 7, Harlan said he had no contact with the league office until the following Monday.

"The storm went through, and obviously Monday morning we checked on all our student-athletes," Harlan recalled. "And I think some time probably Monday afternoon the conference said, 'Hey, we want to talk to you about some opportunities to make the conference (schedule) full, when you're ready.' "

Multiple hours of phone calls ensued, with multiple people — coaches, administrators, league officials — engaged at a priority level.

"There was a lot of moving parts. I don't know that there was much precedent from moving that many games in conference play," UCF athletic director Danny White told reporters in Orlando last month.

"There's only 13 weeks in a football season and everyone has 12 games, so until you get into it, it's really hard to explain how difficult it is to move football games when you have everybody's schedule involved. It just gets extremely complicated."

Among the "moving parts" to ponder: Could charter flights be re-scheduled? Could hotels be re-booked? What about stadium availability? What about stadium staff availability? How would season-ticket holders be affected?

And this: Would everyone be onboard?

"A lot of the schools' schedules are no longer as favorable as they were. So it's always possible that somebody could've objected and said, 'No, I'm not doing it,' and I wouldn't have forced the issue," Aresco said. "I was not prepared to force anybody to do something that was against their interest."

He didn't have to. Everyone complied, including those affected outside the conference.

USF had to reschedule its game against Massachusetts — today's original Homecoming opponent — for 2022 or '23. Instead, USF hosts Cincinnati, which it originally was set to play in two weeks.

"UMass was terrific," Harlan said. "They understood the dynamics in play."

So, too, did East Carolina coach Scottie Montgomery. The Pirates originally were scheduled for a bye the weekend of Sept. 23 after consecutive games against Power Five foes West Virginia and Virginia Tech.

But ECU and UConn agreed to move their Nov. 4 game in East Hartford to Sunday, Sept. 24 (because a pro soccer match was scheduled at UConn's Rentschler Field on the 23rd). That allows the USF-UConn game to be made up Nov. 4 in East Hartford.

"And this is where it gets really behind the curtain: We're now playing up there (Nov. 4) when East Carolina was to have been playing up there," Harlan said. "They had a hotel already booked for a football team. We assumed those reservations."

Speaking of reservations, Montgomery had some of his own. But he said his conscience wouldn't allow him to say no to the revised schedule.

"There's communities that were in a whole lot of need," he said. "There were just a lot of circumstances that morally, I would've never felt comfortable saying no to it."

A month later, the moving parts are still shifting. UCF, which also had to call off a Sept. 16 home game against Georgia Tech (UCF's Spectrum Stadium was being used for post-Irma recovery operations), still is trying to reschedule that game for a later year.

And Harlan remains concerned about his season-ticket holders showing up tonight with the correct ticket (the original Cincinnati ticket with the Oct. 28 date is the right one).

But the league successfully survived its most critical hour, which could turn out to be its finest hour.

"This is gonna bring honor to the conference for a long time to come," Aresco said. "Because what it showed is, people willing to sacrifice for the greater good."

Contact Joey Knight at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.


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