Caught in the Middle: AAC Faces Tough Reality Over Coaches, Playoff Access

As Mike Norvell becomes the latest AAC coach to jump to the Power 5, it's worth examining the state of the top Group of Five conference.
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AAC football Mike Norvell Memphis

A fellow college administrator jokingly told Mike Aresco recently that he should have been an evangelist preacher. The commissioner of the American Athletic Conference has been working the pulpit hard in recent weeks, spreading the Good News of the Group of Five’s best league.

Aresco spent late November and early December proselytizing for pigskin respect for his league, both in the near term and the big picture. He pushed hard for his league champion to get the G5 bid to the Cotton Bowl (it did), and for the eventual acknowledgement of a Power 6 leagues, as opposed to the Power 5 (good luck).

“This is the strongest we’ve ever been, top to bottom,” Aresco said Tuesday, winding up for a sermon suitable for a megachurch’s display screens. “We’ve made our mark, even though the (College Football Playoff) selection committee is still not giving us the respect it should. We’re getting better and better.”

He’s right about that—it was a great year for the American, a league considered on life support earlier this decade and now the dominant Group of Five conference. For the third straight season, the AAC grabbed the available New Year's Six bid. Three teams made the committee’s final Top 25, with Cotton Bowl-bound Memphis No. 17, Cincinnati No. 21 and Navy No. 23. (The other G5 leagues combined for only two ranked teams.)

But unless the Power 6 pipe dream comes into being and the league gets a New Year's Six contract bowl and legitimate access to the College Football Playoff, here’s the dual reality:

The American’s best coaches will continue to be poached on an annual basis.

The latest is Mike Norvell, introduced Monday as the new coach at Florida State just two days after leading Memphis to the AAC title. He’s the ninth coach from the conference to take a Power 5 job in the last five seasons.

Before Norvell, it was both Geoff Collins (Georgia Tech) and Manny Diaz (Miami) leaving Temple in 2018. The previous year, Scott Frost left Central Florida for Nebraska and Chad Morris left SMU for Arkansas. In 2016, the evacuees were Matt Rhule from Temple to Baylor, Willie Taggart from South Florida to Oregon, and Tom Herman from Houston to Texas. And in 2015, Justin Fuente departed Memphis for Virginia Tech.

The results of those presumptive upgrades have been a mixed bag.

In the case of Rhule, the payoff is obvious—he led Baylor to an 11-2 record this season, a New Year's Six Bowl and was rewarded midyear with a big new contract. (It still might not be enough to keep him from other jobs, particularly in the NFL.) Fuente’s first four years are better than Frank Beamer’s last four in Blacksburg, but not as good as his glory years. Herman has made Texas better than it was when he arrived, but not as good as it should be or was expected. Frost is similarly behind schedule after two years at Nebraska. Morris and Taggart probably dearly wish they’d never left.

Yet even with several cautionary tales out there, the Power 5 keeps shopping in the AAC and the AAC coaches keep going. The brain drain has been chronic.

“Mike Norvell going to Florida State is a reflection and affirmation of the coaches in our league,” Aresco said. “(Losing Norvell) is a concern, it would be silly of me to say it wasn’t. Fighting these other conferences is tough.

”But we’re replacing good coaches with good coaches. We’ve got better jobs to offer than we ever have, jobs that are attractive to coaches coming in.”

It’s worth noting that the AAC actually reversed the direction of the coaching pipeline in one instance last season, bringing in Dana Holgorsen from West Virginia by paying him a ton of money at Houston. It’s also worth noting that Holgo had about worn out his welcome in Morgantown, and his 4-8 debut with the Cougars was notably underwhelming.

We’ll see how the hire plays out at Memphis, which should be able to land a good replacement after six consecutive winning seasons—the first two under Fuente, the last two under Norvell. South Florida just became the first school in five years to crack the continuity code at Clemson, grabbing co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott.

The good news, thus far this cycle, is that the rest of the league’s top coaches don’t appear to be voluntarily leaving. But for how long?

Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell, with 21 wins the last two seasons, never threw his name into what has been an admittedly slow coaching carousel. Will that continue if, say, Mark Dantonio steps down at Michigan State next year?

Likewise, there was no buzz about SMU coach Sonny Dykes looking elsewhere after a breakthrough, 10-2 season. After being miscast at California, Dykes is very much at home in Texas and may want to stay at SMU for the long haul. But if a Big 12 job comes open in the state, who knows?

Willie Fritz is still the coach at Tulane, having secured the school’s first back-to-back bowl bids since 1979-80. But his name was in circulation regarding a few open jobs.

The universally respected Ken Niumatalolo will complete his 12th regular season at Navy Saturday when the Midshipmen play Army. He dramatically reversed his career arc this season, with a 9-2 record after watching things dwindle from 11-2 in 2015 to 9-5, 7-6 and 3-10 the next three years.

(Struggling Power 5 programs seem perpetually curious about grabbing a military academy coach and trying to level the playing field by embracing option football, but it never gets beyond curiosity. Which is why Niumatalolo, Air Force’s Troy Calhoun and Army’s Jeff Monken have a combined 31 years in charge at their current locations. They’re all good coaches.)

Coaches all say the same thing about the jobs they currently occupy: they’re the best, and they never want to leave. That’s a recruiting tactic and a means of reassuring the fans. But the truth is, they are like most people in most professions: motivated to maximize their professional success and earning power.

Pursuing the ultimate professional success for college football coaches means going where you at least have a path to the playoff. That means a Power 5 job, which also happens to be where the big money is.

For now, the American Athletic Conference is just good enough to produce quality coaches that are poached by the Power 5, but not good enough for its champion to make the playoff. It’s a tough spot to be in—which is why Reverend Aresco is continuing to pound the pulpit for greater inclusion for his conference.