Alabama is universally recognized as the gold standard of college football. But it’s not a designation that simply came about because the folks in Tuscaloosa woke up one morning and proclaimed it to be so.
The Crimson Tide’s elite status is something that’s been earned over decades of excellence, sustained by a seemingly never-ending stream of Hall of Fame players and coaches.
That’s a reality commissioner Mike Aresco and his fellow American Athletic Conference leaders should keep in mind as they continue to push for recognition as one of the so-called power conferences of college sports.
Though they should be applauded for their effort and encouraged to keep fighting the good fight, the cold, hard truth of the matter is that it takes more than just a defiant hashtag or “P6” stickers on the back of a football helmet to earn equal footing with the SEC, ACC, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac 12.
To that end, Aresco — with the help of ECU athletic director Jeff Compher and others — unveiled a strategic plan last week designed to help change the current dynamic and elevate the AAC to its coveted “Power Six” status. (View the 24-page PDF of “The American Athletic Conference Strategic Plan” in a new window.)
The plan, as described on the league’s official website, is a working document which identifies The American’s core philosophies and activation plans that will support the league’s mission.
It contains five areas that are the key to the conference “maintaining and enhancing its role as a national leader in intercollegiate athletics.” They are student health, safety and well-being; academic excellence; athletic excellence; branding, marketing, communications and public relations and revenue generation.
“This document provides a blueprint for our conference’s continued growth and success,” Aresco said. “(It) serves to enhance our cohesion and camaraderie in pursuit of our shared objectives.”
Cohesion in seeking power status has always been something of an iffy proposition for the AAC since its formation from the remnants of the original Big East in 2013.
Unlike the so-called “Power Five,” whose core members are bound together by a shared history and tradition developed over the years through committed, long-term relationships, the American is more a marriage of convenience among its current 12-team lineup.
That’s best illustrated by the mad dash so many of those schools made for the exit last year the moment the Big 12 announced it was exploring the possibility of expansion. As many as 10 AAC teams openly politicked for a seat at the adult table, none more passionately or publicly than the Pirates.
It was only when they were rebuffed by the Big 12’s decision to stand pat that they realized their best chance at gaining the enhanced status they all crave might be as a group rather than individuals.
The #AMERICANPOW6R hashtag and P6 stickers, which debuted in November to a less-than-rousing response, were a first attempt at that. The new strategic plan is a much more credible way of getting the message out.
And yet, even that is likely to be taken about as seriously by skeptics outside the league’s circle as a third party Presidential campaign.
The reason is simple.
As well-researched and intentioned as the AAC’s written blueprint might be, there is only one real way to gain entry into the most exclusive club in college athletics. It’s the same golden ticket required for membership in every privileged entity from Augusta National to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Yacht Club.
Money. Lots and lots of money.
The problem is, accumulating the kind of cash flow necessary to crash the Power Five party has become increasingly more difficult over the past few months with the financial upheaval that led ESPN to lay off most of its best writers, broadcasters and analysts.
With the network already tied into huge long-term contracts with the highest-profile conferences — the ACC’s deal, for example, is worth approximately $155 million per year through 2035-36 — there won’t be as much money left to go around for everybody else. The American’s current seven-year tie-in with ESPN, which pays the league about $19 million less in total revenue than the ACC gets annually, is up for renegotiation in 2019.
The only way ECU and its conference cousins are going to up that ante high enough to gain legitimate recognition as anything more than just the “best of the rest” is to prove their worthiness on the field of competition.
They’ve already taken steps in that direction with the men’s and women’s national championships won by UConn in basketball and such high-profile football upsets as UCF’s win against Baylor in the 2014 Fiesta Bowl and Houston’s nationally televised defeat of Oklahoma on the opening Saturday of last season.
The AAC also helped its cause by having a record 15 players selected in last week’s NFL draft — more than the Big 12 had called — and strengthening its basketball profile by adding nationally relevant Wichita State as its newest member.
Those successes, however, are only just the start.
It’s impossible to be taken seriously as a power league when your football champion is matched against the lowest team in the ACC’s pecking order in the Military Bowl while everyone else is playing in the traditional New Year’s classics. Or when the MEAC, Southland and Big Sky conferences get only one fewer NCAA men’s basketball tournament bid than you.
There’s more to being recognized as one of the nation’s elite than just waking up one morning and proclaiming it to be so. Such a lofty goal can only be accomplished through years and sometimes even decades of sustained excellence.
And the process has only just begun.