Friday, February 7, 2014

The Surprising Power of the American Athletic Conference

Mike Bohn needs to shut up.

Within hours of becoming Cincinnati’s new athletic director, Bohn made his intentions clear. The headlines splashed across the Internet Thursday night should have been focused on a Top 25 basketball clash between UConn and Cincinnati.

uconn cincy 2014

In one fell swoop, all the momentum that the struggling conference had clawed to achieve in a troubling first six months was wiped away.

It was a classic public relations blunder that the university’s former AD, Whit Babcock, would never have made. You don’t publicly announcing you’re going to divorce your wife at the first possible opportunity. That’s rude.

To be fair, I know where Bohn is coming from as a UConn fan. But you don’t say that. You grit your teeth and say that you’re happy – there’s no guarantee Cincinnati, or UConn, or Memphis, are doing anything but playing in the AAC for the next 20 years. I could go on about Bohn’s hire in the first place, but I’ll move on*.

When the AAC officially launched on July 1, it was a bad day – ESPN immediately took down the blog devoted to the conference. It took six long months but it appeared the conference was finally starting to turn the corner. Not that it was easy or noticed.

While there is much the conference can do off the playing field to succeed, it truly comes down to wins. That is really the only way the conference can gain respect and reclaim its place as a major conference. It will be long and arduous journey but that has to be the end goal for Mike Aresco and company.

They have the duration of the current shitty ESPN contract to build the conference back up. The first six months of this process went surprisingly well.

*Dammit, I can’t resist. Under Bohn for a decade, Colorado had zero bowl wins, one NCAA Tournament win and in 2012 fielded by far the worst BCS conference football team in the BCS era. Colorado was the only team to lose money during realignment, necessitating a loan from the Pac-12 and an inability to improve outdated facilities. His time ended when he botched the firing of Jon Embree and then botched the hiring of Butch Jones. The only thing more perplexing than the hire is that Cincinnati fans are happy about it! But I digress.

When football season started, it was Louisville and Louisville and Louisville – that was the entirety of ESPN’s coverage of the conference. Even when UCF beat Penn State on the road. Even when UCF lost to South Carolina – a team that would finish #4 in the polls – by 3. Even when Houston started off undefeated through September.

Then UCF beat Louisville on the road and you would think that ESPN would pick up the case of the Knights. Instead, they ignored them. UCF’s close games against inferior competition were to be mocked. The admittedly pathetic performance of the conference’s bottom dwellers – Temple, UConn and USF – were further cause for laughs.

During UCF’s close call over Temple, Brian Williams – the NBC Nightly News anchor – described a late-game catch by JJ Worton as “This is the way we catch a pass in our dreams.” The highlight accompanied the Auburn/Georgia highlight. NBC News gave the conference equal billing with the SEC. The conference’s TV partner did not.

You know by the title of this post that we’re barreling toward a happy ending. After Louisville delivered an all-time bowl blowout over Miami, you would think the only team to beat them would get respect. Instead, ESPN carried through with the same nauseating, ill-informed narrative – UCF wasn’t in the same league as Baylor.

A 16-point underdog, UCF smashed Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl and was my easiest “upset special” win of the year. The conference had emerged from its first football season victorious.

Yes, Louisville is leaving, but without Charlie Strong, the long-term viability of that program immediately comes into question. Rutgers took routine beatings on its way out, from Houston, from UCF and, hell, even from UConn.

The AAC welcomes Tulsa, Tulane and East Carolina into the fold next year, the latter of which appears to be a strong candidate to win the conference and win 10 games again.

The first step in the AAC’s journey to legitimacy was establishing itself as the best football conference of the “other” five. There was concern that the Mountain West may eclipse them. Instead, Fresno State limped home, Boise State lost its architect and the conference collectively dipped.

The AAC is #6! And that’s a good thing.

For basketball, the script is likewise playing to perfection. As expected, the conference has 4 Top 25 teams that have the potential to make it to weekend two of the NCAA Tournament. Louisville is only one of the four departing next year and that basketball program is one of the game’s true powers. The loss will hurt. But in Memphis, UConn and Cincinnati, the league has three legitimate Top 25 programs – note I said programs, not teams.

As Herm Edwards would say, “We can build on this!”

But the most important thing happening in AAC basketball is taking place under the cover of football country. In Dallas, Hall of Famer Larry Brown has SMU on the verge of its first NCAA Tournament berth in 21 years and has the top high school point guard in the country lined up to play next year.

It’s hard to quantify the impact of that decision. Yes, Emmanuel Mudiay is from Dallas. And yes, Larry Brown is Larry Brown. But the player still chose SMU over Kentucky and Kansas, the AAC over the Big 12 and SEC.

There was the hope in the offices of the American Athletic Conference that these programs in big cities and no basketball pedigree would rise up due to playing better competition, similar to the thought that Memphis will improve its football program.

We saw that in football, when UCF took the leap at the most opportune time.

We are now seeing that in basketball, where SMU can claim wins over UConn and Memphis and currently resides on the right side of the bubble.

The football side struggled until New Year’s Day, when it finally achieved legitimacy. It will be another struggle in 2015, but the strides have been made.

The basketball side is in better shape but the results in March ultimately decide everything after another ultimately meaningless regular season. The conference will have five tournament teams. Another successful run on the national stage – is that 3 Sweet 16 teams I hear? – the conference will stake another claim to being a major conference.

The AAC has been surprisingly strong in its infancy. For fans of AAC teams, this fact should be celebrated and promoted loudly and publicly – the flirting with other conferences can be done quietly and privately.

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5 comments:

  1. I'm sorry you feel that way. Cincinnati fans couldn't be happier that Bohn's first priority is getting UC into a new conference, and we are glad he made it public. However, I skim sports news nearly all day everyday, and saw nothing on ESPN, Yahoo, or CBS about what Bohn said about the AAC, so it apparently didn;t get as much media attention as you are making it out to be. Having a decent basketball conference, does not mean it is a good conference. When schools are getting <2 million per year in the AAC for media compared to 26 million in the Big 12, its a problem. Bohn did many successful things while at Colorado, and its sad to see that your focus was only to highlight the negatives to put down the school that just beat you.

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    1. I can understand where you're coming from with the grit your teeth and say you're happy view, but I appreciate that Bohn doesn't care about being "politically correct" and just wants to get UC into a better conference.

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    2. He didn't need to say anything, though. Everyone knows Cincy wants in on a better conference, so does UConn. The league is having a good year - why badmouth the conference you're in? That's all, thought it was unnecessary.

      And it detracted from a big night for the league, having its two anchors, both in the Top 25, playing on ESPN.

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    3. I'm sure I'm alone in this. But I'm a Cincinnati fan and I actually want them to stay in the American. I like Mike Aresco more than the other sleaze ball commissioners, and I appreciate parity. And Mike Bohn was an absolute moron for making those statements publicly.

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