East Carolina got some welcome news on Monday. And no, it wasn’t that the flood waters causing so much devastation in the Eastern part of our state have finally begun to recede or that Philip Nelson appears to be healthy enough to play quarterback for the Pirates at Cincinnati on Saturday.
Though both of those developments are sure to bring a smile to everyone wearing purple and gold, the real cause for celebration came from Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby when he announced that after months of posturing, his conference’s expansion talk was nothing more than a bunch of sound and fury signifying nothing.
The Big 12 won’t be expanding after all, meaning that the American Athletic Conference will continue to live on in its current configuration.
It had been widely speculated that Cincinnati and Houston — two of the AAC’s strongest and most marketable members — were on the short list of potential Big 12 candidates and that several other league schools were also in consideration should the predominantly Midwestern league decide to go from its current 10 teams to 14.
Such a defection would have gutted the AAC and left ECU right back where it was three years ago — a in a watered-down group that would have born a strong resemblance to Conference USA.
But that didn’t happen.
In retrospect, the Big 12 ended up doing the Pirates a favor by rejecting their bid right out of the chute back in July. The early “snub” ended up saving ECU and its fans from feeling like a lovestruck teenager getting stood up by his or her prom date — the way the folks at Cincinnati, Houston and others probably feel today.
So why is the Big 12’s decision to stand pat such a big deal for ECU?
First and foremost, it’s because the status quo allows the Pirates to maintain their position on the doorstep of the five autonomy conferences commonly referred to as the “Power 5.” But even beyond that, the unsuccessful raid has helped strengthen an already solid AAC and vastly improved the league’s stature as it battles to raise its profile in the ever-changing landscape of college athletics.
“We’ve probably gotten more attention in this process than we got in the couple of years prior,” AAC commissioner Mike Aresco said. “I think our brand is national now. I think the AAC, the American, the fact the light was shining on our schools, they were the targets for the most part. We had a certain status. I think that’s really important and I think it’s important to capitalize on that.”
There are several ways for that to happen, not the least of which is to have teams such as Houston and Navy to maintain their standing in the national polls and for other members — ECU included — to continue knocking off name-brand opponents every chance they get. It also wouldn’t hurt for UConn to challenge for another men’s basketball national championship and have at least one or two others advance deep into March.
Aresco has already hinted at plans to begin an effort to have the AAC recognized as a sixth “power conference” — as it once was before the ACC began gutting what was then known as the Big East by poaching most of its marquee programs.
The former ESPN executive can accomplish that by scoring a major television deal that increases the league’s revenue stream at least into the same zip code as the Pac-12, the Big 12 and the ACC. Although the AAC’s current TV deal doesn’t expire until 2020, you can bet Aresco has already begun talks with his former network, CBS, Fox and NBC in hopes of putting together as lucrative a package as possible.
Ironically, it’s the future viability of the Big 12 that could hold the key to the AAC’s negotiations.
By standing pat with only 10 teams — and no protective grant of rights to keep them in the fold — the Big 12 has left itself vulnerable to being the hunted rather than the hunter in the conference realignment process.
Wouldn’t the SEC love to have Texas and Oklahoma? And the ACC would gladly take West Virginia if it finds itself needing a 16th member. That would leave the rest of the league, including football stalwarts TCU and Baylor along with basketball powerhouse Kansas, available to be absorbed by the AAC.
That, obviously, is a far-fetched scenario. But it sure beats the one ECU thought it might have to face before receiving the good news on Monday.