Last week was a big one for the American Athletic Conference, which added Wichita State to its ranks on Friday, immediately boosting its basketball resume and bolstering its claims that it should be the sixth league in a “Power 6” conference tier. A day after the announcement, Sports Illustrated spoke with AAC commissioner Mike Aresco about the addition of the Shockers, which he termed a “win-win,” and the state of his conference.
SI: As a conference commissioner in 2017, do you always have to have realignment in the back of your mind?
Mike Aresco: Yes, you have to be thinking about it. It never goes away. There is probably some stability now. The Big 12 doesn't look like it's going to do anything for quite some time. So therefore, at the level we're at, there probably isn't going to be a lot [of movement]. But you hear rumors. You always have to be thinking about it because you never know. Four or five years ago we were blindsided a few times, and everybody thought stability had returned and the landscape was going to be level for a while. But I think if there's going to be more realignment at this level, and there probably will be—it's probably going to occur when some of the [television] deals start running out in mid-2020s. So yes, you're always thinking about realignment.
SI: And what about your conference in particular? Where do you feel like adding Wichita State puts you in terms of remaining at the status quo or exploring further?
MA: People have said to me, are you thinking about expansion down the road now that you've done this? This was prompted a little bit by what we went through this spring and summer with the whole Big 12 thing, and we started thinking, if we lose teams, what do we do? At the end of that process, I and others felt that we had room for one team, perhaps, in basketball, and Wichita was an obvious choice. It made sense because we wouldn't be going back to that old model that I didn't like, the multiple basketball-only school model. You never say never, and so I'd hate to say that we'd never think about it again, but it really is a difficult situation when you have a group of schools that have a different outlook. And Wichita really fits our profile better than, say, a small private school would.
In terms of the future, would we look at expansion down the road if it makes sense? Sure. If there were some schools that would add a lot of value and would fit culturally with the conference, sure, we could go to 14. The good thing about this is that it keeps us at 12 [basketball schools] and 12 [football schools]. That doesn't stymie the possibility of expansion down the road. We're not out looking to raid anyone. That's not what we're doing; that's not what I'm suggesting.
SI: When did Wichita State come onto your radar as a move that would make sense?
MA: I think during the Big 12 [expansion]. Everybody sort of assumed they were going to expand. We had a number of schools that expressed interest in us as a result of that. Everybody in conferences that were perceived to be below us wanted to be with us. Many of our members threw their hats into the Big 12 ring because of the money and the prestige. I didn't have any animosity toward them at all for doing that. I think that's why our conference is in pretty good shape now, because no one ever took that personally. You can't.
In terms of Wichita, they expressed interest in us, and they'd expressed interest over the past five years in finding a conference that was perhaps a better fit for them. And they were open with their own conference, the Missouri Valley, about that. So we looked at it, and we thought a lot about it during the [Big 12 expansion] period. You had to do a lot of contingency planning during that six-month period. We were going over our options: What if we lose two teams? What if we lose four teams? What if we lose a football-only school? Wichita was certainly in the mix; we knew we needed to strengthen our basketball. To make a long story short, once [the expansion talk] was over, we met in the fall, our presidents and ADs. I felt, and many in the room did, that we didn't need to do it. We no longer needed to do anything. But we might want to consider whether we should add a basketball school. There was also a feeling that maybe we should look at multiple basketball schools. We ultimately decided we didn't want to go back to that model, that that was to some extent a very difficult and failed model because it creates tension because schools don't have the same outlook.
We wanted [the negotiations] to be quiet. We didn't want it to be a public thing, and while there were some leaks along the way, we pretty much deliberated privately on this for a while. This takes thorough vetting. When you add a new member, it's a big deal. We wanted to make sure the culture was a good fit. Because this is a marriage. It's going to be permanent.
SI: The AAC is a somewhat modern conference in that you all in your current form were a product of realignment and you've never really had tight geographic constraints or too many traditional rivalries. Does that free you up a bit when it comes to considering realignment? It seems like it'd allow you to look at a wider range of schools.
MA: You know, when we were reconfiguring four years ago when we were sort of given up for dead by a lot of people, I remember an old friend who had been a commissioner saying to me, "You have a chance to do something really exciting and new." And we have created our own world. We had to create a new world. Now, it was necessitated by what happened. It wasn't something that was by choice originally. We found ourselves with a group of schools that didn't necessarily have a home. The Big East basketball schools were flitting off, and Rutgers and Louisville had left. It was hard to figure out who was in our conference without a color-coded set of index cards at that time. What I realized at the time, and I think others did, is that we had a group of good schools that were aspirational and thought they could be among the elite athletic schools in the country if given an opportunity. My thought was if this group stuck together and found a decent name—and I thought American was good because it suggests upward mobility and aspiration, a conference of opportunity. That's what I thought we were, and that geography doesn't matter as much.
But that doesn't mean it doesn't matter. We didn't want to go to California. We didn't want to go to Boise, Idaho. We felt that that plan probably wasn't the best, with the travel. We looked at the Pac-12 footprint, the ACC footprint, the Big Ten footprint now going all the way from Nebraska to Rutgers, and we said, ours isn't nearly that bad. We have schools kind of clustered around the Mississippi Valley, Texas, Oklahoma, and Wichita adds to that group.
We really felt we were a conference of opportunity. We didn't have a ton of natural rivalries. We had a few. We can create rivalries. Rivalries develop if the teams are good.
SI: How do you measure the progress of your conference when it comes to football?
MA: [Just a few years into the conference, Houston and Temple] had built really good football programs. They played in our first championship game in front of 42,000 people on ABC. It was a full national game on ABC. We'd created something. We'd created a rivalry that two our three years ago, you'd say it didn't exist. The whole atmosphere had changed, the whole environment. And that showed me that the schools really were determined. They were serious about getting better. And they couldn't have done it unless they were in our league. That was the key. If they had filtered off to other conferences, whether it's Conference USA or the Mountain West. I don't know if they ever would have had that dynamic that's existed in our conference, where we've got these great schools in big markets that were not state flagship universities. But they still had a lot going for them. They were determined in a way they weren't 20 years ago. In a radio interview, I once said, "This is not your grandfather's Temple. It's not your grandfather's Memphis. It's not your grandfather's Houston." Mike Slive happened to hear me. He was retired. He called me and he said, "You've got to keep saying that. That's exactly right. I had those schools year ago."
SI: What's the challenge of being the sixth conference in a world where there are, at least for now, five so-called power conferences?
MA: Everybody felt that our conference was going to have a certain undercurrent of instability. That's an accurate statement to the extent that in the early days it did, and through this whole Big 12 process, no question. But if some schools left, we'd still have a great nucleus, a great core, and now we're aspiring to be a [Power 6]. That's the key. We've beaten [Power 5 programs] in football. We have 19 wins in two years. We have 32 games of over a million viewers on ESPN platforms. That's remarkable. Last year alone, we had a Tulsa-Ohio State game that had four million viewers, and we had a UCF-Michigan game that had two million viewers. Our championship game one year out-rated the Pac-12 championship game. And now the question is, if there's stability in the landscape, which it looks like there is, we've got to try to be a P-6.
And that's where Wichita comes into play. My feeling was if we weren't holding up our end of the bargain in basketball, it would be harder to claim that we were a P-6 conference. And we got off to a great start in basketball a couple of years ago. UConn won the national championship [in 2014]. Last year we had four teams [make the NCAA tournament], this year only two. But we haven't been getting high seeds. That's cyclical. We have coaches in place who are going to get it done. Gregg Marshall will be sitting around a table now with some coaches who have won national championships and gone to Final Fours.
I think [a Power 6] is attainable. I really do. I think these schools have resources. We'll get a better TV deal. That's going to be key. In a few years, we're going to be negotiating. We've got the '17–'18, '18–'19 and '19–'20 seasons left to go, but we'll negotiate well before that. I think our guys have done more with less already.
SI: Beyond the television deals, this really does come down to your teams being successful. How do you see that continuing going forward?
MA: I used to say, you don't need a waterfall in your locker room. It's great if you want to spend all your money on Doric columns and all this glitz. It might impress a couple recruits. But if you really get the kind of kids with a chip on their shoulder who want to compete at the highest level—that's been our goal, to make sure our kids can compete at the highest level. You don't need all that glitz and fluff. You need intelligent, hard-working administrators and coaches. Great coaches make great programs. Be smart about how you spend your money. You can compete. I think we've proven that in football. In football we didn't have the pedigree that frankly we had in basketball, and look what we've done. Look at how many teams have been great and have big wins.