Raising the AAC Flag

US PRESSWIRE

How important is UConn to it's new conference? And how long are we staying?

Did you see the new logo for the American Athletic Con...—uhh, sorry, Mike Aresco—the American?

It's actually pretty good (link: http://theamerican.org/member-schools.html). Yeah, it's filled to the brim with red, white, and blue, so much so that you could probably hang it from your porch on the Fourth of July and fit right in with your neighbors, but for a conference that purposely went the blah root for a name, the logo actually has some appeal.

Why do I bring this up?

Well, because that logo and UConn's new, meaner, leaner Husky are suddenly tied at the waist. This is a shotgun marriage, and unfortunately for the Huskies, it appears it might just be “death do us part.”

If we are all being honest, there isn't a Husky fan in America (or the American) that thought the AAC and UConn would be anything more than a fling. Wham, bam, thank you ma'am was what was expected.

That's because, even though the pretty girl at the ball (the ACC) had shot down UConn's advances twice already, eventually the two would come together for some kind of John Hughes-esque union in the end, complete with cheesy 80s music playing in the background.

UConn made sense for the ACC and the ACC made perfect sense for UConn.

A Virginia defection here, a Clemson jump to the SEC there, and the Huskies would finally get their invite.

It was inevitable.

That was then.

This is now.

After the ACC tied all its members to a grants rights agreement that guarantees television money (now, and in the long future) stays with that conference no matter where the schools call home, college realignment stopped dead in its tracks. One report suggested that any ACC team that ups and leaves before the agreement expires (reportedly after the 2026/2027 season) could be forfeiting as much as $300 million. Safe to say, no one is doing that.

What it means for UConn is that, unless Notre Dame suddenly decides to abandon its precious football independence and join the ACC in all sports (giving it 15 teams and needing 16), the conference will stay at 14 and be happy to do so.

That's it. Goodnight Irene. Check and mate.

Now, if you're an eternal UConn optimist, this is where you make the case for the Big 10 going to 16 teams and inviting the Huskies along for the ride. Maybe the Big 10 wants more of a footprint in the Northeast, as well as in the New York and Boston markets. Perhaps they want an eastern division, with Penn State, which for so long complained about the lack of “neighbor” rivalries, suddenly buffeted by Rutgers, Maryland, and UConn.

While the ACC only saw what UConn IS as a football school, maybe the Big 10 will see what it CAN be, and could afford to be more patient because, unlike the ACC, it doesn't need to try and establish any kind of football reputation. And perhaps academics does matter and the Big 10 would like a highly-regarded institution with a terrific reputation for research in certain subjects.

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Let's be honest, it ain't happening. We know that. We know it in our bones. The ACC was UConn's one trip out of the American, and a big, fat, tree has fallen along the path, and there isn't a chainsaw or blue ox in sight.

That means that, unless the Big 12 decides it wants to spread itself extraordinarily thin for no reason, or the SEC feels the need to have an outlier program in New England, UConn and the American are officially riding off into the sunset in a 1982 Gremlin with “Just Maried” painted on the back.

And here is the truth: this marriage has to work, for both parties.

I know I'm biased here, and I'm sure other bloggers on other sites will dispute what I'm about to say (they wouldn't be much in the way of fans if they didn't) but I think it's clear UConn is this new conference's most important member.

Why?

It's the only one with real, honest, actual brand name appeal.

I know from personal experience that when I visit other parts of the country, if UConn comes up in conversation, people know the school and its athletic history. They mention Jim Calhoun, Ray Allen, Kemba Walker, the 5 in 5 run at the Big East Tournament, the 1999 Championship against Duke (if they are old enough to remember). They know UConn. It has a name. It has a reputation. It has a brand people know.

For a conference that has none of that, UConn instantly becomes its flagship. Which AAC school (not counting Louisville, cause why should we) do you think is making the list for most appearances on ESPN and CBS next year? When those television partners request a game, who do you think they will want? UConn is in the 34th biggest television market in the country (the biggest, by the way, without a professional sports team) and reaches into both the Boston and New York areas. And isn't it more likely that a casual fan is going to be interested in UConn as opposed to, say, Tulane?

Granted, UConn's name is built on basketball, and we know that football “drives the bus.” But, honestly, even on the gridiron, can you make the argument that the new American has a program that is far and away more attrative or recognizable nationally than UConn? Maybe Cincinatti, but they were routinely overshadowed in the old Big East. Houston? Down the road, maybe. Now, I doubt it. USF or UCF? Again, we are talking about now, not down the road.

Even in football, UConn's name is the most eye-catching.

That means the conference needs the Huskies to be a good football program. They desperately need UConn to continue being a great basketball program. They need that brand, at least initially, because the rest of the conference is devoid of it. That new, wolf-like Husky is probably going to get a lot of play in the first couple of years.

On the flip side, UConn needs the AAC to be better than people are predicting right now.

Granted, I'm a big believer that, if you take care of your own business you can overcome a mediocre conference. Boise State in football and everyone from Butler to VCU in basketball is a testament to that.

Yet it's fairly clear that, at least in football, conference goes a long way. I'm not worried about basketball. I have an absurd amount of confidence in Kevin Ollie, his ability to recruit, and his ability to coach. Plus, the AAC actually isn't that bad when it comes to the court. Along with UConn, Memphis is a top program, and Cincinatti and Temple are certainly formidable, tournament-quality programs. If you get a surprise jump from, say, a UCF and/or an SMU, both of which seem to be making basketball a big priority, the conference will be even more potent. And Tulsa believes in Danny Manning, so why not them as well?

It's football where things are shaky.

CFB is, in a lot of ways, the last bastion of the old boy’s network. Even the Masters are letting women through the door now, but college football is run by stuffy old guys making a lot of money off their brand. If you don't have the right name, right history, or right conference, breaking in to that club is damn near impossible. There's no NCAA Tournament that throws everyone into a meat grinder and asks them to “survive and advance.” This is invitation only, and if you're not playing for the right conference against the right opponents, your request for a seat at the table is getting an ugly “Return to Sender” stamped on it.

UConn needs its football program to build towards the future, but it also needs a lot of help. It needs the conference as a whole to establish a football reputation. It needs something to feed off of, and collective football victories are what's in the trough.

Who are the most likely candidates to help establish the conference's new football identity?

I'd say Houston has the best chance. They were a Conference USA Championship Game away from a trip to the BCS two years ago (non-automatic bid), they play in the right part of the country, and play in the right city. Houston just seems like it should play big time college football, doesn't it?

Cincinatti is also right at the top of the list. They have battled for Big East supremacy now for the last several years, and replaced their departing coach Butch Jones, who went to Tennessee, with Tommy Tubberville, someone with a reputation for high-octane offense who previously coached at Ole Miss, Texas Tech, and Auburn.

SMU could be interesting as there is some brand recognition there, although for all the wrong reasons. You remember SMU, don't you ...the only football program to be given the “death penalty” by the NCAA because they blatantly paid players for their services, even after being punished and reprimanded repeatedly for it back in the 1980s?

Well, that's not exactly a story you build on, but at least it's a name familiar to most in college football, and if the school can find a way to make itself attractive to some Texas kids, they could be a formidable program yet again.

And then there is South Florida. It seems that, for the last half decade USF has been predicted to be the new kid on the block of college football. Alas, it hasn't happened. The Skip Holtz era ended badly, and USF continues to be an up-tapped resource for college football relevancy. Maybe that changes.

Whatever the case, UConn will be asked to carry the biggest load of recognition on its shoulders early in the process. I have all the faith in the world that Kevin Ollie and his squad will do its part. Coach Paul Pasqualoni and company ….ahhhh, not so much.

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