As is his custom, American Athletic Conference Commissioner Mike Aresco led off the league’s football media kickoff Tuesday with an opening speech.
Aresco recognized passings in the league community such as East Carolina play-by-play voice Jeff Charles, a recent selection for the ECU Athletics Hall of Fame.
Aresco lauded the league’s accomplishments, including Tulane’s improbable come-from-behind Cotton Bowl triumph.
He also continued to question Power Five nomenclature — to the AAC’s exclusion.
The commissioner also made clear where he stands regarding the rewards generated by unregulated NIL deals and their potential to distort equitable competition in college athletics.
Aresco reconstructed the AAC after Central Florida, Cincinnati and Houston announced their departure to the Big 12. New members Alabama-Birmingham, Charlotte, Florida Atlantic, North Texas, Rice and Texas-SanAntonio were attracted from Conference USA.
Greetings and salutations
The late Jeff Charles was among those recognized by Aresco.
“We celebrate our reinvented conference, and we look ahead to an exciting football season,” Aresco said. “We’re proud of the student athletes and coaches who will be representing us here today. The Dallas-Fort Worth area and the state of Texas have become an important part of the fabric of our conference. We now have two outstanding institutions, SMU and North Texas, located near our headquarters in Las Colinas (TX). Our men’s and women’s basketball championships are held annually at Dickies Arena, in Fort Worth, and we are proud to share a home and region with many of our key bowl partners. I extend a special welcome to Rick Baker and his staff with the Goodyear Cotton Bowl, and we all have fond memories of that, and Sean Johnson and his team from the Frisco Bowl.
“I also want to welcome Alan Gooch, from the Cure Bowl, and Missy Setters, from the Radiance Technologies Independence Bowl, for their support and their partnership. I want to recognize some individuals who have been instrumental in our conference, and in its success. Mike Fitts, the president of Tulane University, recently completed his term as our board chair. No one has made a bigger contribution to the conference. Mike has enthusiastically supported our important initiatives, and his wise counsel has guided my approach and the approach of others in our conference to the tough issues that we face. I also hope Mike is still basking in the historic success of the 2022 Tulane football team. More on that success later.
“I also want to recognize Philip Rogers, the chancellor of East Carolina University, who has succeeded Mike as our chair. Philip is committed to the success of this conference, and will do a great job, and also as a member of the NCAA Division One Board of Directors. I want to thank Rick Hart, the AD at SMU, for his outstanding service as our chair of the AD group. We are fortunate also to have Jaime Hixson as our associate commissioner for football. No one does a better job. Jaime has earned the respect and trust of everyone in this room. I would also be remiss if I didn’t thank Chuck Sullivan and Leslie Anne Wade for their excellent work in organizing our football media days, and my executive assistant Michael Reed has also contributed significantly to the effort.
“There are four individuals I would like to briefly recognize posthumously. The first is Jeff Charles, the longtime ECU voice of the Pirates, who called East Carolina football, men’s basketball and other sports on radio and television for three decades, doing a great job. Another is the long time Dallas Morning News football correspondent Chuck Carlton, whom I enjoyed dealing with. Chuck was a great one. Legendary coach Mike Leach, a unique and brilliant voice who changed the face of college football. Last but not least, Lew Perkins, who passed away last week, was a highly successful athletic director at Wichita State and several other schools, including UConn, which was once in our conference.
“Bill Hancock recently announced his retirement next year, and we wish him well. This will be a well-deserved retirement. He has done a magnificent job with the college football playoffs, and everyone in this room and everyone around college sports is in his debt. I also want to give a well-deserved shout-out to Tulane athletic director Troy Dannen. He has served ably on the NCAA’s Constitution and Transformation Committees, as well as representing our conference on the Football Oversight Committee. He also chairs our Strategic Planning Committee. I don’t know how he gets any sleep, but kudos to him.
“I want to thank ESPN for all they’ve done for us and have meant to us. President Jimmy Pitaro and Executive Vice President Burke Magnus are outstanding and visionary executives who’ve been staunch supporters of our conference. Nick Dawson and his team do a great job day to day, working with the conference staff to maximize our TV and online opportunities. ESPN played a pivotal role in the success of our first decade and will do so in our second decade. I’m also pleased today to applaud the recent announcement of our officiating partnership with the Big 12 conference, which will deepen our pool of topflight officials and enhance their training. Our own Bryan Platt, who does a terrific job for us, will continue to oversee our officiating, and we look forward to working with the Big 12 Football officiating coordinator, Greg Burks.
“Thanks go to Big 12 Commissioner Brett Yormark, who has become a good friend, and has been a dynamic leader for the Big 12 conference, and to our former associate commissioner for football, Scott Draper, who helped broker this. He now has that role that he had here in the Big 12. We enjoy a strong bond with Scott, who did a terrific job for us for many years.”
Welcome and congratulations
Tulane rallied for a 46-45 win over Southern California to finish with a 12-2 record in 2022.
“We call today Football Media Day for a reason, and I’d like to welcome our media friends, including Steve Richardson, executive director of the Football Writers Association of America,” Aresco said. “Steve and the FWAA are strong advocates on behalf of the media. They recognize that our schools provide great value, and we hope we provide great service to them. I’m pleased also to recognize Scott Strasemeier and Stacie Michaud of Navy, and Ted Feeley and his staff at UAB, who were honored with the FWAA Super 11 award last season. Congratulations to all.
“I want to take this opportunity to congratulate Tulane on its historic season: its American championship; it’s stirring, virtually unprecedented come-from-behind victory over eighth-ranked USC in the Cotton Bowl; and its eighth-ranked finish in the polls. There were 1,162 games played in the previous several years where a team was down by 14 or more points with less than five minutes left in the game, and only one of those teams won until Tulane did it. Think about what that means. It was absolutely incredible.
“Also, there are a lot of challenges in college sports these days, and there are some unpleasant issues that we have to deal with. Tulane’s story, that special season, the greatest one season turnaround in NCAA history, defeating all three teams which are leaving for the Big 12, defeating Big 12 champion Kansas State on the road, the Cotton Bowl victory, it makes it all worthwhile. Just to stand on that podium and see the looks on the faces of the players and coaches, it was a supreme moment. (Coach) Willie Fritz has done a superb job at Tulane, and I applaud his hard-earned success and that of his team. We’ve had a lot of memorable moments in this league, big wins and big bowl games on the biggest stages. We had a playoff team to boot, but that victory was certainly among the best.
“We have two head coaches in our ranks who won conference championships last season. Congratulations again to Willie Fritz and the Tulane Green Wave. Again, they orchestrated that great turnaround, and they obviously had the great victory over USC in the Cotton Bowl. Also, congratulations to Jeff Traylor and the UTSA Roadrunners, who come into the American as the winners of back-to-back Conference USA championships.”
New coaches, new playoff format, tradition
The new membership of the AAC will have better access to the playoffs.
“I’d also like to acknowledge the seven head coaches who are beginning their tenures with their new teams this season,” Aresco said. “Trent Dilfer at UAB, Biff Poggi at Charlotte, Tom Herman at Florida Atlantic, Brian Newberry at Navy, Eric Morris at North Texas, Alex Golesh at South Florida and Kevin Wilson at Tulsa. They join an outstanding incumbent group to form a contingent of coaches that I would compare favorably with any conference.
“The expanding college football playoffs set to debut in 2024 creates a long overdue opportunity for our conference. Had the 12 team, six-six playoff model existed from 2013 onward, we would’ve been in it eight times in 10 years, eight times. Make no mistake, the significant accomplishments of our teams, the American becoming a force and constantly knocking on the playoff door, finally making it in 2021, all of which could not be ignored, helped lead to the six-six model, whereby the top six ranked conference champions earn automatic playoff spots, not simply the so-called P5 conferences, and not five plus one either.
“Again, I want to recognize Bill Hancock for his superb work, and his staff as well in getting this playoff over the finish line. Having been in those meetings, it was Groundhog Day for a long time, because we just kept going back and forth on it. If it weren’t for Bill’s steady hand, it would not have been accomplished. I also want to thank Gerald Turner, SMU president Gerald Turner, for his steadfast support for the six-six model. That means the six top conference champions and six at large teams. His eloquent lobbying with the management councils of the CFP definitely made a difference. We’re thrilled to welcome our six new member schools, but I also want to recognize our departing schools, Cincinnati, Houston and UCF, who did so much to help build our brand, who were committed to this conference and what this conference was trying to achieve.
“Realignment is definitely the elephant in the room. It has been for decades, actually. It’s been going on for a long time. It’s a tough and unforgiving business. It can be managed, though, in a civil and respectful way. The three departing schools leave as friends, and we will root for their success in their new conference, except, of course, when we compete against them, which I’m sure we will. Further realignment and consolidation may well occur, but whatever happens, whether there’s a media driven P2 or P3 or P4 or P5 or P6, we will consider ourselves part of that group. Not because of a manufactured label that is viewed as written in stone, but because we earned it on the field and on the court. Today represents a new beginning for our distinguished conference, as we welcome six outstanding new schools to our football media day and to our conference: UAB, the University of North Carolina Charlotte, Florida Atlantic University, The University of North Texas, Rice University and UTSA.
“These schools bring energy and excitement to the conference, and together with our eight outstanding incumbent schools, they’ll form a formidable 14-team conferences. This is the first time we’ve been this big. They bring excellent football programs, they bring accomplished student athletes and coaches, and they bring talented administrators and staff. We celebrate today our remarkable decade of achievement as well, eight out of 10 years playing in the New Year’s six, including four wins and close to a fifth win, Cincinnati came close to defeating Georgia, which a year later won the national championship, over top 10 teams. It included, obviously, the playoff team in Cincinnati in 2021, and no one thought that was possible. Over this period of time, we’ve had 63 wins over the P5 teams. I don’t love that term, as you know, but we had 63 wins over teams in those conferences.
“We’ve had six top 10 teams at the end of the year. We’ve had major national award winners. I want to remind everyone who follows college football what this conference has accomplished. It’s sometimes hard to understand how some of the media have continued to call us non-power, and some have even called us a mid-major. Nothing could be further from the truth. Has anyone forgotten the big New Year’s Day wins over, again, top five and top 10 teams? Over Baylor in 2013, UCF defeating them. UCF defeating Auburn in 2017, one of the great upsets. Houston over Florida State in 2015, and Tom Herman is in the room. He orchestrated that tremendous win. We had close calls, Tulane, of course, over USC in 2022, one of our great moments. We had that close call against Georgia in 2020, and against Penn State in 2019, and against LSU in 2018. We have always played competitively with the best of the best.
“Of course, I don’t think anyone’s forgotten that we did produce that playoff team, and we’ve produced other teams worthy of a playoff spot. Again, when you’re dealing with a four-team playoff, it’s awfully tough to get in. Has anyone forgotten that convincing Memphis win over an Ole Miss team in 2015 that had just defeated mighty Alabama, or the Memphis win over a UCLA team on a beautiful sunny day in the Liberty Bowl in 2017? That team had just defeated A&M, and they were defeated by Memphis. Or, the Temple win over Penn State, the first time they’d done that, and their epic loss to Notre Dame late in the game? They almost won that game in 2015, in front of a national television audience of over 6 million people. And, all of those wins over the P5 teams.
“Our schools have hosted four ESPN College Gamedays. Four. Our players have won numerous national awards, the Outland Trophy, the Nagurski Award, the Bednarik Awards, among many others. Mid-major conferences simply don’t do that, and to call such powerful performances non-power is utterly silly. Major media outlets have, however, recognized our success. Sports Business Journal in 2016 nominated us as Sports League of the Year, and Sports Illustrated nominated us as one of the best football stories of the past decade. This conference will continue to achieve at the highest level. We’ll continue to upset that P5 narrative. As an ESPN announcer recently said, we provide rocket fuel to our members. As a P5 commissioner mentioned to me, we will continue to will our conference to greatness. All credit goes to our gritty teams and outstanding coaches and administrators who, day after day, put in their sweat equity, displayed their fearless determination, and against all odds, took down the best of the best.
“I myself did not play a down. I didn’t throw a pass. I didn’t make one block or one tackle, but I’m proud to give voice to these brilliant accomplishments, and I’ll continue to do so. This conference has always challenged itself. It has become and is a power conference. Our teams are playing the best of the best in non-conference play this year, as we always have. Alabama, Notre Dame, Georgia, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Michigan, Washington, Ole Miss, Clemson, Texas, the list goes on of teams we’ll play this year. We’re a battle hardened, resolute group. We refuse to embrace a stereotype that our achievements have clearly put a lie to. College football comprises a big tent, and upward mobility should be applauded, it should not be ignored. Money is important, but competitive success is more important. If money were the only determinant of power or elite status in college football, then why play the games?”
Power status of AAC
Aresco has long campaigned against ommision of the American from the upper echelon of college athletics.
“As you know, I’m pushing for the abolition of the Power five nomenclature,” Aresco said. “It’s manufactured, in my view, and it’s inaccurate now in the world of an expanded playoff, realignment and media rights. We hear a lot about student-athlete health and well-being, and therefore, we should not tolerate this system. It’s flat-out wrong, and I call on the media and the P5 itself to support doing away with it. There are 10 FBS conferences, and any division at five is not healthy. The American, as I said, has been and is a power conference. We’ve separated from those other so-called group of five conferences, and they’re excellent conferences, but we have separated ourselves. Our conference branding will continue to embrace the word power, because we’re a powerful conference. Our DNA aligns with the so-called Power Five, and we have to remember that.
“A related but important initiative will be our continued campaign to be recognized as an autonomy conference. I realize this is inside baseball to most fans and observers, but we belong with the five conferences that were granted a measure of autonomy in passing NCAA legislation. We have earned that designation. Back in 2021, we sent a long and well-reasoned brief to the A5 presidential chairs, making the case for inclusion in that autonomy group, but realignment in the summer of 2021 intervened, and disrupted our efforts. Our conference is now back to strength, will be stronger than ever, and we’ll be very aggressive in making our case for autonomy status, if that status even continues in the NCAA transformation era.
“Today is about our future. There are new names in collegiate sports brands joining our membership. These schools, along with our longstanding members, own a competitive DNA, as I pointed out, specific and proven in this conference. Our DNA is marked by, ‘Do not accept, do not allow, do not acquiesce to the manufactured labels and media mantras currently dividing college sports.’ The next undefeated UCF teams, the next CFP Cincinnati team, the next several top 10 and top 20 nationally-ranked teams are represented here today in this room, along with the Cotton Bowl champions from Tulane. The DNA of this conference is our desire, our proven ability to compete and win at the highest level.
“We’re not just one team and one story. We’ve had a lot of teams win. We’ve had Temple win our championship, we’ve had Navy play in our divisional championship game. We’ve had Memphis win our championship. Obviously, teams that left won those championships as well, but we’re a new and winning story each year, and we’re here to compete at the highest level. As I said earlier, we’re every bit a power conference. Our power cities, we have coveted media markets. Our student athletes are power players academically and athletically. Our coaches are power coaches. They’re proven names and champions. Our partnering media platforms are the most powerful platforms in the industry.
“The P5/G5 divide was manufactured, and with questions still looming in a destabilized landscape, and it still is destabilized, it’s increasingly clear that there is more distance now between the second and third conferences in college athletics than between the third and the American. That’s important to recognize and remember.”
NIL compensation and the intent of states to circumvent the NCAA were a topic.
“I’d like to address some of the important macro issues facing our conference and college sports,” said the AAC commissioner. “I admire NCAA President Charlie Baker. I’ve been able to meet with him personally. I applaud his commitment to student athletes, and I respect what he’s trying to accomplish with Congress with respect to NIL and other key issues. I do have some concerns that I’ll talk about briefly. We have to acknowledge the difficulty of getting any NIL legislation passed by Congress.
“However, what I believe is more important at the moment is getting federal legislation or a court court decision, which I believe we could get, that would prohibit states from negating NCAA rules and protocols. We now have a patchwork of state laws, some of which seek to deprive the NCAA of it’s authority or enforcement power. College sports is a national endeavor, a national enterprise. It requires uniform rules, protocols and penalties. Otherwise, you have chaos, and that’s what we’re approaching now with some of these state laws. The situation is fast becoming ridiculous, and this is not a revelation. It’s easy to see the slippery slope here. If the NCAA is denied broad authority on legitimate and necessary rulemaking and enforcement, what’s to stop a state from allowing 200 football scholarships for schools in its jurisdiction? From allowing 100 coaches? From allowing complete pay to play? From changing the recruiting calendar?
“The list is endless. Do states dictate to the NFL the size of their taxi squads, if that term is still used, or their commissioner’s ability to enforce NFL rules? As for NIL itself, the larger issue is maintaining the NCAA’s ability to set guidelines around it. NIL is often disguised now as, “Pay to play, pay to recruit, pay to retain.” The joke now is that the acronym stands for, “Now it’s legal.” Unfortunately, this is no joke. It was entirely predictable. The collectives that have sprung up are sometimes a clever way to facilitate paying for players. This is not NIL, it’s not what NIL was meant to be. The states are looking to provide recruiting advantages for their schools, that’s understandable, and some are brazenly defying the NCAA by legislating non-compliance to NCAA rules that may thwart illegal NIL schemes.
“We should all care about the integrity of the process, and I know we do. I also realize it’s hard to put the genie back in the bottle, but the battle we need to fight now is for national rulemaking through the NCCA, which would encompass NIL. We need simple, easy to understand rules for NIL. We can permit all forms of NIL monetization for our student athletes, and there’s a wide variety of those. We want those. We want our student athletes to benefit, but we have to target obvious recruiting abuses, money paid without any real NIL quid pro quo. We have to have significant penalties for violation by schools and donors. We believe in student athletes’ right to NIL. We now have to do it the best way we can. We have to handle it in the right way. We have to conform it to true NIL. I fully understand we can’t roll back the ocean, but doing away with the year in residency requirement for first time transfers together with NIL has created a perfect storm.
“The year in residency caused student athletes to think harder about whether they really wanted to transfer. It prevented a portal with hundreds of potential transfers with no place to land. It created roster stability. There were reasons for abolishing the requirement, immediate freedom of movement among the most important. I ask you, is the unfettered free agency, the tampering going on, roster instability and other fallout that resulted from this, is it really worth it? We have to ask that question. We’ve been looking to Congress for answers to NIL and other questions, and I have concerns about that. I believe we have to be very careful with that approach. The current Blumenthal/Booker/Moran draft bill does concern me. Any such bill should be subject to great scrutiny. The establishment of a third-party governing body overseeing college sports concerns me. We should be able to do this ourselves. We should be controlling our affairs as long as we do it in a reasonable way. Yes, we do need some federal legislation or some court protection, but we need the ability to execute whatever reasonable plan that we adopt.”
Looking to the future
Aresco is not supportive of athletes becoming employees.
“In closing, there are a few overarching issues that will determine what college sports is going to look like over the next decades,” he said. “One is the ability, as I said, for the NCAA to establish and enforce uniform rules. Another is the question of employee status for student athletes, which we all oppose, many of us oppose. We don’t want pure pay to play. We don’t want the complete professionalization of college sports, especially football and basketball, which would be more prone to it. We’re almost there now. The big money era is here, it’s likely to get worse before it settles down, or it could accelerate to another arms race.
“An NFL-like college landscape spawns many wrong incentives for young people: money over choosing a school or coach they really like, money over staying at a school or with a coach they really like, money over trying to get a good education, and often, money that is not life changing. We want them to earn from NIL, but we want it to be a legitimate enterprise. One could argue that some of the other incentives are not good things. Will fans eventually revolt? It’s hard to say, because we all love watching sports. We need to keep education in our mix. We need to continue to emphasize it. The government, the courts and the media seem to think these days that education doesn’t matter much anymore in this new world, and that referencing it is rather quaint and outdated.
“We’re universities playing sports and sponsoring teams. We’re not club sports loosely attached to a university. Let’s not forget that the biggest win any college athlete can achieve is earning a diploma on graduation day. Other student athlete issues are becoming more acute. Gambling is becoming a major issue on the horizon, it potentially strikes at the heart of what we’re trying to accomplish with fair play and sports competition. As the stakes get higher, we need to be more vigilant than ever, and make sure we educate our student athletes, make sure we educate coaches and administrators to the dangers. Student athletes’ mental health and wellbeing is also a major issue, major focus of our academic consortium in the American. We’ve paid attention to it for years, but now, it’s getting the attention nationally that it deserves. A big money, NIL-driven world has the potential to exacerbate mental health issues. Combine that with often vicious social media, and you have a perfect storm that often affects our student athletes.”
Aresco spoke to the meaning and purpose of college athletics.
“Attention to these issues is critical to our mission,” he said in summation. “What, in the end, is our mission? This is what we have to continue to ask ourselves. At its core, it’s providing a great, safe and memorable experience for our student athletes, providing them with outstanding competition that permits them to be in the arena, on the field, battling, learning life lessons. College sports is part of our national cultural fabric. It’s important to millions of us, millions out there. If done right, it’s one of our greatest joys. It binds campuses and communities together. Just look at what happened at Tulane in the wake of their great victory. It galvanizes campuses.
“Our student athletes want to compete. They and we love college sports. A new age is dawning, and we have to shape it to our better instincts. This conference has provided opportunity at the highest level, and the fruits of our success are all around. We’ll navigate the shoals ahead, I’m confident of that. We’ll remain an important force in the governance of college sports, but we also will compete successfully, as we have in the prior, magnificent decade of this conference.”