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July 29, 2014
NEWPORT, RHODE ISLAND
THE MODERATOR: Good morning. Welcome to Newport and thank you for coming today. We're delighted to have you here as the American Athletic Conference launches into its second season. A little bit more than a year ago when this conference was born, the leaders realized there was a need for a special person to navigate what has become a fairly difficult and confusing athletic landscape out there.
They realized that with a league such as this, with the footprint that it had coming into existence, there were special qualifications they had to find.
All of you are leaders in some fashion in your industries and your professions. One of the things we learn early on is that in order to be successful, it requires more than just a structure and a Mission Statement and a business plan. The true successful leaders also bring to their jobs a heart and a soul and a sense of passion.
When the leaders of this conference went looking for a commissioner, that's exactly what they found. I'm delighted to introduce to you now the commissioner of the American Athletic Conference, a good friend of mine, Mike Aresco.
COMMISSIONER MIKE ARESCO: Thanks, Jack, for your kind introduction and for hosting our media day. We are privileged to have you here. Jack is an old friend. I am in awe of his impressive background – Yale football player, lawyer, distinguished commentator, a member of the board of the National Football Foundation and associated with one of our own partners – CBS Sports.
I’d like to welcome all of you to our second annual American Athletic Conference Summer Kickoff and Media Day. We have 11 coaches and 34 student-athletes with us, whom you will meet today. Needless to say, we are very proud of them.
I want to thank Chuck Sullivan, Lisa Zanecchia, LeslieAnne Wade, Mark Hodgkin, Jamie Corun and Catherine Carmignani for all they have done in planning and organizing our kickoff and media day. It is a wonderful event thanks to their efforts.
I want to thank all of our guests – our friends in the college community, the bowls, the media and other guests for their support. We appreciate the number of reporters who attend our event and value the excellent coverage of our conference, our schools, and college sports generally, that you provide.
I want to recognize Scott Draper, who is our new – relatively new – associate commissioner for football. He has hit the ground running and is doing a tremendous job. He will be a great resource and support for our coaches, officials, TV and bowl partners, the media and everyone involved in college football.
Michael Costa also earns our recognition and thanks for the outstanding job he does running our increasingly complex day-to-day football operations. As you know, we have more bowl tie-ins than we’ve ever had, we own and manage our own bowl game – Carlos Padilla does a great job as Executive Director of the Miami Beach Bowl – and next year we will have divisional play and a conference football championship game – a lot to manage, but Scott and Mike do it extremely well.
I’d like to congratulate our coordinator of officiating, Terry McAulay, who – in addition to his great service to our conference – is one of the top NFL game officials. Terry officiated his third Super Bowl this past February, which is a testament to his hard work, professionalism and attention to detail. Our game officials are the best at what they do and are unsung heroes.
I also want to recognize Tom Odjakjian of our office, who does a tremendous job scheduling our football games. We do a fair number of Fridays and Thursdays. We have interesting windows all day Saturday. Tom does an outstanding job in creating a fair schedule, and one that is friendly to TV, which is important when you consider the growth of the conference.
I want to take this opportunity to extend a warm welcome to our television partners. We have colleagues here from ESPN and CBS. ESPN and CBS are the gold standard in the broadcast industry and provide us with unprecedented national exposure, branding and support. They help us in many other ways as well. We enjoy working with them. John Skipper, CEO and president at ESPN, Sean McManus, chairman of CBS Sports, and David Berson, president of CBS Sports and CBS Sports Network provide strong leadership and support for us. We welcome you.
I want to take this opportunity to extend a warm welcome to our three new schools - East Carolina University, Tulane University and the University of Tulsa - and to their directors of athletics - Jeff Compher, Rick Dickson and Derrick Gragg, respectively and to their coaches, Ruffin McNeill, Curtis Johnson and Bill Blankenship, respectively. We are thrilled to have them in our conference and they will thrive here. They are great institutions and they are excited to be joining us.
As you know, Navy joins us in 2015, giving us 12 teams, and I want to recognize and thank Navy athletic director Chet Gladchuk for his efforts in positioning Navy to join our conference and for his active involvement and support as we have built this league. I want to thank Vice Admiral Mike Miller, who recently retired as the superintendent of the Naval Academy. He is an outstanding gentleman who was instrumental in our league’s development and I will always treasure my warm friendship with him.
I want to welcome Bob Diaco, the new head coach at UConn. Bob brings an impressive background as the former defensive coordinator at Notre Dame and Cincinnati, but he also brings enthusiasm and charisma and has been outspoken in his support for our conference and its prospects.
The fact that Bob is our only new coach speaks to the stability in our coaching ranks. We have a group of veteran and younger coaches who are the equal of any in the country and they prove it where it counts – on the field.
We also have some new athletic directors – Mark Harlan at USF and Mike Bohn at Cincinnati. Both have been engaged and have made immediate contributions to their schools and to the conference. I look forward to working with them. We have the best group of presidents and athletic directors in the country. They are immensely knowledgeable and engaged and supportive. We have a vision for this conference which I will talk about today, and they are firmly in support of that vision.
Gerald Turner, president of SMU and Chair of our Board, and Susan Herbst, President of UConn and our Vice Chair, have shown superb leadership and commitment to this conference and its bright future. John Hitt of UCF represents us extremely well on the NCAA Board of Directors and Judy Genshaft of USF likewise as a member of the College Football Playoff Board of Managers. Our presidents, athletic directors, senior woman administrators, SIDs and conference staff all work hard and well for our conference.
I would also like to acknowledge and congratulate the communications staff at SMU. Many of you know Brad Sutton and Herman Hudson, who do an outstanding job and were recognized as one of the top 11 communications staffs nationally for excellence by the Football Writers Association.
I think that this conference has really had a remarkable year. I think the apt phrase that comes to mind today is, “What a difference a year makes!”
I stood in front of you last year here in Newport and talked about the progress we had made in reinventing our conference. We had reached milestone after milestone – a settlement with the Catholic 7, television deals, a new name and logo, new sites for our basketball championships – the list goes on. But we had not yet played a game as the American Athletic Conference. And although I felt strongly that we had great schools that would do well, it was all promise and surmise at that point. Not anymore!
We have had, as you know, a remarkable inaugural year. We far exceeded everyone’s expectations, although perhaps not our own. UCF won the Fiesta Bowl in convincing fashion, defeating the Big 12 champion. We won the men’s and women’s Division I basketball national championships, a magical run by the UConn men and women. UConn also won the national championship in field hockey as part of an incredible year in Storrs. SMU was runner-up in the NIT. We won the women’s NIT. We had a team in the College World Series. Twenty-one of our men’s and women’s sports produced a combined 34 NCAA postseason bids. We had top-10 finishes in football, in men’s and women’s basketball, in men’s soccer, in baseball and in men’s golf. It has been a storybook year!
How do you spell power? We are speaking of power here when you do as well as we have done. As I look at our journey, I am reminded of something St. Francis of Assissi said, “That one should start by doing what is necessary, then doing what is possible and suddenly you are doing the impossible.” We put our heads down, tuned out the distractions, laid the foundation and began competing, and we pretty much did the impossible – an emphatic victory in the Fiesta Bowl when few people gave our champion a chance, and upset win after win in the NCAA tournament for the UConn men, beating teams like Michigan State, Florida and Kentucky. The exception, of course, is the UConn women – they do the impossible routinely and are simply remarkable. When you think about it, with all of the great conferences out there – the Big Ten, the SEC, the ACC, the Pac-12, the Big 12 – all of the other conferences that play basketball at a high level. Again, as I said, a remarkable achievement.
Yes, we have now set a high bar for ourselves. We will not rest on our laurels. Far from it. Lincoln once said, “Some see opportunity in every obstacle, while others see obstacles in every opportunity.” We saw opportunities where we had problems many months ago and we will continue to approach things in that spirit. We intend to compete, and to win. That is why we are here. We believe in the idea of this conference, what it can achieve. We know we will be judged and measured by how we perform. But we relish that test, we do not flinch.
Houston and Tulane will open new, state-of-the-art on-campus stadiums next month, bringing the energy and passion of college football back to their campus communities. Cincinnati is renovating Nippert Stadium, which will transform one of the most historic stadiums anywhere into a modern marvel of engineering. Other of our schools are considering new stadiums. You can take each of the schools represented in this room and find evidence of progress and a desire to succeed at the highest level of college athletics.
We all hear a lot about the Power Five conferences, the Equity Five, High-Resource Five, Autonomy Five, Group of Five, whatever you choose to call them, but we consider ourselves a power conference as well. We will not take a backseat to anyone, we see the landscape as five plus one, and we are knocking on the door. Our goal is to be in the conversation as the sixth power conference. I believe, by virtue of our performance, that we already are. As I said, we are knocking on the door and we will eventually knock it down. We hear that the new NCAA governance system, which affords autonomy, in limited areas, to the equity five conferences, will cause us to be left behind, that the resources of those conferences are too great, that we will not be able to keep up and compete. I don’t buy that for a minute.
When our schools won the Fiesta Bowl and basketball national titles, reporters asked about power conference status and my response was, look at the student-athletes on the podium, tell those kids they are not power teams in a power conference. They just won the national championship, they just won a BCS Bowl game. This is America. We believe in upward mobility. This success will translate into greater success.
Nevertheless, we will not always win, no one does, but we will compete at the highest level and we will win our share. And we will do it as we have always done it, with sportsmanship and with class. I am proud of our student-athletes, the way they play and the way they conduct themselves off the field and court. I cannot tell you how pleased and proud I was when the Fiesta Bowl representatives told me that they enjoyed the UCF team as much as any they had ever hosted. They said that the players were terrific to everyone. This is a great tribute to George O’Leary and his team and also to our conference.
We do extremely well in the Academic Progress Rate measurements. We are proud of the achievements of our student-athletes in the classroom, and education will always be the bedrock principle in this conference.
When you look at the makeup of our teams, you find some of the top players in the country. Just look around this room. Lorenzo Doss of Tulane was an All-American last year. Shane Carden, who spent some time with me at East Carolina and showed me around the facilities and who is a wonderful young man, is unquestionably one of the best quarterbacks in the country. We have as dynamic a group of quarterbacks as any conference in the country – John O’Korn of Houston, P.J. Walker of Temple. Tyler Matakevich of Temple is an elite linebacker. There’s not a conference in college football that has a better group of receivers than those who are here with us today – you saw what the group of UCF wide receivers did in the Fiesta Bowl against the Big 12 champion. We play exciting football in this conference. Power – it is here in this room.
If you will bear with me for a moment, I’d like to illustrate just how competitive the teams in this room are.
If you just look at the last five years, the 11 teams we have here, as well as Navy, have wins against the following teams:
From the ACC: Florida State, Miami, Clemson, Virginia Tech, Louisville, Pitt, Syracuse, Boston College, North Carolina, NC State and Wake Forest. That’s 12 of their 14 teams.
From the SEC: South Carolina, Georgia, Missouri, Mississippi State and Vanderbilt
From the Big 12: Baylor, Oklahoma State, TCU, Texas Tech, West Virginia and Iowa State.
From the Big Ten: Penn State, Purdue, Illinois, Rutgers, Maryland and Indiana.
From the Pac-12: Oregon State and UCLA.
That’s 37 of the 64 teams in the other power conferences that our members have defeated – in the last five years alone. And that does not include multiple wins against Notre Dame.
As proud as we are of our All-Americans and our NFL draft picks, we are equally proud of our players who distinguish themselves in the classroom and in their community service. We have eight players who have been nominated for the Allstate Good Works Team for their exemplary service, including one who is with us today - Kenneth Harper of Temple.
We are proud of the players who inspire us all in their fight to overcome adversity and injury. I am especially pleased to see Munchie Legaux from Cincinnati here with us today and will be even happier to shake his hand after he takes the field in a game this season. And, though he’s not here today, I also want to recognize the progress and the continuing fight of Tulane’s Devon Walker, who is an inspiration to us all for earning his degree while continuing his recovery from a paralyzing neck injury. Devon was signed by the New Orleans Saints as a free agent. I also want to acknowledge the perseverance of a young man from Newton, Massachusetts, just a short ride from here, who will be on Tulane’s roster as a long snapper this fall. Aaron Golub - who is legally blind – does not let that stand in the way of his dream of playing major college football.
From Storrs to Houston, from Tulsa to Philadelphia, from Annapolis to Dallas, from Cincinnati to Orlando, from Memphis to Tampa, from East Carolina to New Orleans – our student-athletes have distinguished themselves and will continue to do so.
We have outstanding basketball as well as football. Just like football, we have an all-star roster of men’s basketball coaches, including Kevin Ollie and Larry Brown, who have won national championships. We have UConn’s premier women’s program, coached by the incomparable Geno Auriemma, and several other highly competitive women’s basketball teams. We have national championship contenders in soccer, baseball, tennis, softball, track and field, and golf.
Today belongs to football. Coming off a successful year, crowned by UCF’s Fiesta Bowl win, what can we look for this season?
Although now a new brand, we were a BCS conference and we have not forgotten our roots. As I said, we will be in the power conference conversation. We have challenged ourselves with really tough non-conference schedules – in fact, our schools collectively play the toughest nonconference schedules in the country, including games against 10 teams in the final top 25 coaches poll from last season. We have three games this season against Brigham Young University – clearly a power team in our estimation and one of the great college programs – and are proud that several of our teams will be playing against BYU in the next several years. UCF opens the season in Dublin against Penn State and we are all looking forward to that.
We are just as ambitious when it comes to the postseason. We know that strength of schedule matters. We know that merit will matter. I’m happy to welcome Bill Hancock, the executive director of the College Football Playoff, who is with us today – as well as our friends from the Fiesta Bowl, the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, the AT&T Cotton Bowl, the Orange Bowl, the Allstate Sugar Bowl and the Rose Bowl. We are confident that we will have regular contenders for this exciting new postseason format and that we will be a fixture in the New Year’s bowls. We know we are going to be judged on our merits.
I want to congratulate Bill on his superb job in working with all of the commissioners to develop the College Football Playoff. We have a terrific and accomplished selection committee and Bill and his staff have no peers when it comes to organization and operations. The playoff and the host bowls will captivate the country and will be a resounding success. The CEO of my former employer, CBS, said that the CBS Thursday night NFL package will be a sure thing. I am sure he is right. And the College Football Playoff will also be a sure thing.
Our own bowl partnerships assure our schools of terrific destinations and the ability to compete against the best possible opponents. This year alone, our teams will face postseason representatives from the SEC, ACC and Big 12, along with BYU, if BYU qualifies, which is already contracted to face one of our teams in the Miami Beach Bowl. We will have bowl games based in Washington, D.C., Miami Beach, Fort Worth, Birmingham and St. Petersburg, playing against other high-level conferences. You have to beat the best to be the best. If our schools didn’t have that as a goal, they wouldn’t be in this conference.
You have all heard a lot about the NCAA governance redesign process, the restructuring of the NCAA, the move by five conferences to gain a measure of autonomy in passing legislation. A lot of it is inside baseball and I will not bore you with it. But you have also heard that this new governance structure will leave us behind, that we will not be able to compete at a high level. I don’t buy that, period. I first want to commend the NCAA steering committee on their outstanding work in the governance redesign process. Dr. Nathan Hatch and his colleagues have had a tough job and I think they have balanced everyone’s interests very well. No one will be completely happy. But no one will be completely unhappy either and that is the nature of a good compromise. I believe the model will be approved and embraced.
That said, although we would prefer to be in the autonomy group, we should not feel threatened by a certain level of autonomy for those conferences with significant resources who want to do more for their student-athletes. This system would not be necessary if those conferences did not worry that lesser-resource conferences would frustrate their efforts to do more for their student-athletes. But, we, too, have resources and visibility. We are not a have-not. We share the same goals and eventually we want to be in that same autonomous group, in that room. I have said that I believe it is only a matter of time if we do what we are capable of doing.
In the meantime, we have had clear goals as we participated and helped shape this governance redesign process. We wanted to retain our conference’s NCAA board seat and we have. We have excellent representation on the NCAA Board and on the new NCAA Council. We wanted to maintain our ability to compete, that is the key, and in the critical areas of scholarship limits and transfer rules, those are going to be subject to what we call shared governance. They are not in the autonomy category. We have a say in those. They cannot be done unilaterally by the other five. Our ability to recruit and to compete is thereby preserved. We will not be left behind. I will admit that we do not care for this Power 5 designation, and we do not accept the notion that we are not a power conference or this “have not” tag that some people use. We have resources and enormous potential. Make no mistake, we will remain an integral part of the FBS college football fabric. We will always have naysayers. We have far fewer now than before. It is our job to prove them wrong, as we did last year, as UCF did in the Fiesta Bowl, as we did in the basketball championships with UConn.
Our television ratings, already strong, will grow. We will continue to pursue innovation. We play on Thursdays and Fridays. We have carved out Fridays as a good niche for our conference. We own and operate our own bowl game – the first conference to do that. We have big ambitions and none of us would have it any other way. Michelangelo once said, “The greater danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it.”
We embrace the notion of doing more for our student-athletes. We support NCAA health and safety initiatives and guidelines. As a conference, I am here to reiterate and reaffirm, on behalf of our presidents and athletic directors, our conference-wide commitment to funding student-athlete scholarships up to the full cost of attendance. We issued a press release stating that in November of 2013. We were one of the first conferences to do so. Scholarships have not kept pace with the costs incurred by student-athletes in various areas, and we need to remedy this. It is the right thing to do.
But we are opposed to paying players, to professionalizing the model. That concept, not as widely supported as the litigators would have you believe, will destroy the raison d’être of college sports. It is critical to remember that our sports programs are an important aspect of higher education, of our overall mission of educating our young people. The latter is our primary mission, not our ancillary mission. The vast majority of our student-athletes are going pro, as the PSAs that you have all seen say, in something other than sports. Our capable student-athletes receive the most valuable benefit – a scholarship that opens the door to a superb education. Being at the highest level of college athletics competition poses issues, no question, but this competition is important to the country, to our communities, to the schools and to their alumni. But above all, it is important to the student-athletes who compete, who have the history of these great schools and programs behind them. These programs have always been part of the cultural fabric of the country.
Our schools and conferences bestow upon our student-athletes the fruits of a century of competition and branding. When I visit our schools and see the outstanding – and costly – facilities, many of them new, others on the drawing board, I know our student-athletes are receiving the best training in the most modern venues and facilities. They enjoy state-of-the-art weight rooms, equipment, training tables, medical care. They play in outstanding stadiums and arenas. They have the best coaches and support staff and dedicated academic counseling. Coaches are often well-paid, but as a result, they are involved in college athletics rather than all gravitating toward pro sports leagues.
We face a series of lawsuits which seek to destroy the collegiate model. Make no mistake, whether it is unionization or antitrust or pay-for-play, these lawsuits seek to dismantle what we have built and to professionalize the model. Such a result might be a bonanza for lawyers, but it will not work well for our student-athletes or our universities or our fans. However, I remain optimistic about the long-term future of college sports. The message of our critics is simple and ours is nuanced. But I believe theirs is wrong and ours is right and that in the end, we will prevail in this litigation and that public opinion will be on our side.
We have also heard that the notion of the level playing field should be abandoned, that it is antiquated. I do not buy that and this attitude plays into the hands of those who litigate against us. None of us believes that there can ever be a truly level playing field. We know life doesn’t work that way. Schools have profoundly different levels of resources, branding and fan support.
But we have strived to make the playing field more level and we have done so. This has been a decades-long effort. It enhances competition for countless schools. Our efforts in this area over many years have had an impact. We have seen programs emerge. We have seen stunning upsets. It is all part of the wonderful tapestry of college athletics. You have to compete. You don’t win simply by showing up, by being favored. Remember UCF in the Fiesta Bowl. And the impact and glow and memories of those upsets endure, often for lifetimes, and extend well beyond the fields and courts.
I ask you, do we want to go back 50 or 60 years to what many would consider the Wild West days, when a few select schools tended to dominate, could stockpile players? Was that system really good for anyone but, perhaps, those select schools? I am not even sure it was so great for them in the long term. It certainly wasn’t good for the stockpiled players. Was it good for schools that simply could not compete, but now can? Was it as good for the players, the students, the fans, the country? I suspect that it was not. The system today is fairer and it is better.
Although none of us likes the sense of separation, autonomy for those five conferences is not the threat. Deregulation of scholarships and outright paying of players are among the real threats to us and to college sports. If you deregulate scholarships and pay players, eventually only the richest schools will prevail. There is a fragile balance now. But that is not the key point. More important, what does paying players do to the educational mission?
Although our football and basketball programs are prominent, college sports are different than pro sports - anyone watching a big college game and a pro game the next day can see that. Why tamper with this? Why play Russian Roulette with something that has worked, that benefits countless student-athletes in all sports who are part of an educational mission and who take advantage of the opportunities offered to them to absorb values and skills that last a lifetime? You can criticize the amateur model all you want, but at heart, our sports have an amateur aspect that we cannot lose.
Enforcement is another area that demands our attention. We have to develop a thoughtful approach to it. I myself do not think federal or state legislation is the answer, as that could lead to all sorts of unintended consequences and inconsistencies in enforcement across the United States. Injecting politics into this sensitive area does not seem wise.
However, a focus on the big violations and a more streamlined way to deal with lesser ones is definitely warranted. And the opprobrium should fall on the individuals involved – not on schools that are cooperating and trying hard to root out and remedy any suspected wrongdoing. I myself serve on the CCA (College Commissioners Association) enforcement subcommittee chaired by Jim Delany, who has been a thoughtful advocate of change in this area. I believe we will develop some good ideas over the next year.
In concluding today, I want to thank and applaud everyone in our conference for the commitment, dedication, hard work and good will they have shown. We are now a strong and nationally-admired conference. I won’t be using the term “reinvented” anymore. And although we are now established and have had significant early triumphs, our work is just beginning. As Winston Churchill said about a key early British victory in World War II, “It is not the beginning of the end, but it is the end of the beginning.”
The resolve of our presidents and athletic directors, our other administrators and our conference staff was the glue and foundation of all we have achieved. If I sounded defiant at times today, it is because I was and am. I scoff at the term “non-power conference” applied to us. Our student-athletes are powerful, they have proven it. They have competed and they have won. They will continue to do so. We take nothing for granted - we face challenges. We have shoals still to navigate. But we move forward with optimism and energy. We do so knowing that our student-athletes come first, that providing them a platform for growth and the highest level of competition is paramount. We celebrate their power and success. We look forward to a great football season, and may we win our share.
FastScripts Transcript by ASAP Sports