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AAC commissioner: Big 12 expansion won't diminish league's stature

FILE - In this Aug. 4, 2015, file photo, American Athletic Conference Commissioner Mike Aresco addresses the media during an NCAA football media day in Newport, R.I. The AAC gathers for its media day, but hanging over the start of the season is Big 12 expansion. There is a chance the AAC could be lose a member or two (or three or four) when the Big 12 decides to add schools.  (AP Photo/Stew Milne, File) NY190
FILE - In this Aug. 4, 2015, file photo, American Athletic Conference Commissioner Mike Aresco addresses the media during an NCAA football media day in Newport, R.I. The AAC gathers for its media day, but hanging over the start of the season is Big 12 expansion. There is a chance the AAC could be lose a member or two (or three or four) when the Big 12 decides to add schools. (AP Photo/Stew Milne, File) NY190
Published Aug. 3, 2016

NEWPORT, R.I. — With all the deftness he could muster, Mike Aresco tried navigating the fine line fate had set before him during his annual preseason address Tuesday morning.

Facing dozens of reporters at the American Athletic Conference media day, the fourth-year league's commissioner acknowledged the elephant in the hotel ballroom, all while trying to keep it from trampling the proceedings — or his product.

Big 12 expansion could wrest two teams — possibly more — from the AAC, Aresco hinted. The stature of the American, which he at least twice called a "Power Six" conference, could be affected. Another makeover could be inevitable.

But hold off on the eulogies.

"Although perception of our conference may change somewhat as a result of further realignment — and I say may — that will be temporary, as I can assure you that our success is going to continue," Aresco said.

"Regardless of what may happen, we're going to return most of our membership and our schools that have been high-achieving and have made incredible progress. This progress is not going to be interrupted. … We're going to get right back to work building the league if something does happen."

The league's looming upheaval, seemingly inevitable at this point, prevailed as a profound undercurrent on a day normally reserved for talk about depth charts and schemes.

Some, such as Aresco, tackled it head on. Others sidestepped it, or were vague. Some, such as new UCF coach Scott Frost, made not-so-subtle pitches for their programs.

"I think the place has absolutely unlimited potential and can be a dominant program," Frost said. "If people are looking for potential and have a big-picture view of things, I think UCF would be a welcome asset in any league."

But absolutely no one dismissed it.

"Everybody in here's trying to get an invitation (to the Big 12)," Cincinnati coach Tommy Tuberville said.

"Everybody says, 'Do you feel awkward?' I said, 'No, everybody in here's trying to get in.' That's no hit on anybody, it's just the bottom line is money. … Nobody knows what's going to happen, but I do not want to get into a situation where it takes away from our seniors."

USF athletic director Mark Harlan, whose school has remained silent in terms of its Big 12 pursuit strategy, maintained that stance.

"But I also remain steadfast in my belief that we're an aspirational institution, and we're gonna continue to try to do great things on the football field and in the rest of our sports," Harlan said. "As the landscape shifts, we'll be in the middle of it."

Aresco, the commissioner of record when the Big East essentially dissolved (and reinvented itself as the AAC) four years ago, said a contingency plan is in place if and when Big 12 expansion trims his membership.

"We don't want to have a public discourse (on the plan) … but we can react quickly because we've been talking about this," he said.

"We've got open dialogue with our ADs and presidents. We're not shying away from the elephant in the room. We understand that there's an issue here and we have to deal with it, and we have contingency plans. I think we'll adapt pretty quickly."

Meantime, he and his constituents wait, trying to forward a "Power Six" narrative even as the Power Five beckons.

"I think Commissioner Aresco's done a Herculean job in continuing to build this conference, move it forward," new Connecticut athletic director David Benedict said. "And I think everyone is focused on this upcoming season."

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.