After Dust Settles, Aresco Says AAC (And UConn) Will Be Fine

NEWPORT, R.I. — The five super conferences are breaking away from the NCAA. UConn is forever stuck on the outside. Repeat. UConn is doomed. UConn will drop football. UConn will be playing in the Northeast Conference in basketball.

When it isn't being used for Demolition Derby on Friday nights, Rentschler Field will host a farmers' market every Sunday morning. So plan accordingly and order your tomatoes now.

OK, now that we have your attention, forget that stuff. American Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco doesn't believe that the Big 5 will break off and form their own uber-powerful organization. Neither do I. Of course, Aresco also doesn't recognize the title Big 5. He wants it to be called Big 6. That is wishful thinking, of course. But let's stay on point.

"I do not expect [a break-off], and conversations with other commissioners confirmed to me that that is not a preferred option," Aresco said at AAC football media day. "However, there clearly seems to be support and momentum for exploring a separate division for the schools with the most resources."

With Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby speaking ominously of "transformative change," and each of the commissioners from the Big Boy leagues falling in lock-step to some degree, it's easy to sound the twin alarms of hyperbole and panic. The truth, in all likelihood, will be far less sexy.

Ask yourself. Do you think the powerhouses really want to kill their second golden goose — the NCAA basketball tournament — and start all over with a satellite tournament? Do you think they want to address all the Title IX, academic-performance and non-revenue-producing sports questions? Heck, it took the BCS more than a decade to decide on a four-team football playoff. Could you imagine them wrestling with all those heavy and crazy nuances? They'd be looking at many of the same things they're accusing the NCAA of now. Too slow to change. Too unwieldy.

And what about the lawsuits and congressional hearings that undoubtedly would ensue from schools that are willing to pay the freight to join their uber-conference but are left out of the $7.2 billion pie from the new 12-year playoff system that starts after the current BCS model expires this year?

So while it's cool to rush to the extreme, the much more likely scenario is for another division, the so-called "Division IV" to emerge within the NCAA umbrella in the next year or so. Division IV would be the highest and most exclusive division. Heck, NCAA President Mark Emmert, desperate to save his job, is even trying to hook his beleaguered wagon to the idea. There's a huge confab scheduled for January. UConn's Warde Manuel wasn't at media day because he is at a national meeting of an AD advisory group. There is obviously much work to be done.

Who knows exactly how many schools the super division would include? Yet here's one bet that it will be a lot more about dividing UConn from Central Connecticut than about dividing Louisville from UConn. We're talking 10, 12 conferences, maybe even a few more, and more than 100 schools. I don't believe this will be about dividing football school No. 64 from football school No. 65, with No. 65 damned to ruin.

The most important thing is that the Big 5 want to be able to have much more flexibility in making the rules and moving quickly to enforce them. There is no slower and more ponderous entity than the current NCAA. And make no mistake, this ultimately will be about money. Isn't it always? How much money can go to "cost of attendance" stipends for athletes, separating major infractions from minor infractions, scholarship numbers, all those type of things. Instead of the smaller schools gathering to block a law, the super conference members could pass it and the individual schools can either decide to spend the money or not.

"I understand the frustration felt by the largest conferences with the largest revenues and expenditures, issues of governance and finances that are important to them, and, I might add to us, have become bogged down in a structure that well need reworking in this new era," Aresco said. "There's a real concern that schools with dissimilar objectives and resources can buy their votes, frustrate the perceived needs of larger, better-financed schools."

"One cannot disagree with Bob Bowlsby … he mentioned that Northern Iowa [where he once was AD] does not have a lot in common with Texas. I would submit Northern Iowa does not have a lot in common with our schools either."

There is something democratic about money in sports. If you are willing to spend it, you ultimately can find inclusion. Both at the podium and later in the Hotel Viking hallway, Aresco was a one-man filibuster selling all the ways The American belongs with the big boys. He said he has no idea exactly where all this will end, but at the same time he feels the urgency.

"Whatever the highest level of Division I is in the future, we expect to be part of it," Aresco said. "And if a fourth division materializes … the American Athletic Conference belongs in it."

"We don't want to be left out of the conversation. But there is a momentum that if we're not vigilant, not pleading our own case, no one is going to plead it for us."

So Aresco broke out the size of the AAC markets, successful bowl records, ambitious upcoming schedules. He talked about athletic budgets and revenue. He talked about sizes of stadiums and attendance and investment in facilities.

"All these measurements separate us from conferences we are being compared to and put us above the line and, in my opinion and in the opinion of many, into the power group of conferences," he said.

Aresco said he already has begun dialogue with conference presidents and ADs on stipends. That figure has ranged from $2,000 to $5,000 and, hey, who knows how far the Big Boys want to push it. If schools start looking at going into a general fund to pay for it, that will be a hot debate.

"Some conferences and some schools might opt out," Aresco said. "Once we know more details, our presidents and ADs will weigh in. Every indication I've had with them is that we feel it's really critical to part of it, to spend the money we need to spend to play at the highest level."

Will there be attendance levels that must be met? Will there be minimums that must be spent on programs? One thing I do have a hard time digesting is the saber-rattling that the Big Boy schools could only play games among themselves. Somebody has to lose. Ten-win schools could be going 6-6 for years. Let's see that fly among some fan bases.

Aresco said The American has done much to stabilize in recent months, especially solving the Catholic 7 question. And although the new six-year TV deal certainly isn't what he wanted, the money from the Big East split is enough to carry the conference for now.

"In fairness, we must perform," Aresco said.

In the meantime, UConn must perform. It must win on the field. The fans must buy tickets. It must play big-time teams, and Michigan and Maryland coming in certainly plays to that. If I'm reading the possibilities correctly and The American does, indeed, clear the "Division IV" hurdle, at a certain point, it's going to come down to how bad does UConn want to be a football school? How bad does Connecticut want to be a football state?

Apart from the national semifinals and championship game, which ostensibly The American is eligible for, starting in 2014, there will be four other big-money bowl games. Only one guaranteed spot for the best team from the AAC, Mountain West, Sun Belt, Conference USA and Mid-American. The question is would there be a more democratic system in place in a new system or could the Big Five make it even more difficult on the others? There is no answer today, but it's coming.

"We do have a 12-year [playoff] deal," Aresco said. "We want to make sure we play in the highest level so we have an equal opportunity."

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