Michael Aresco, the American Athletic Conference Commissioner since its inception in 2013, spoke to the media prior to Saturday’s game between East Carolina University (3-5, 0-4 AAC) and the University of South Florida (4-4, 2-2 AAC).
“I’m just thrilled to be here,” Aresco said. “I love the renovation.”
It was Aresco’s first visit to the university since the Southside Renovation that included the five-story TowneBank Tower.
The project, which totaled $60 million, includes club and suite levels as well as an expanded press box that rivals some of the top programs in the country.
“I always felt this was like an SEC program,” Aresco said. “I’ve said it over the years, huge support, tremendous fan base. It’s our biggest stadium outside of our pro stadiums. We have some teams like USF and Temple that play in pro stadiums. But this, I think, is our biggest stadium, 50,000. This university always had a great football program.”
In more recent years, however, ECU football has struggled, posting 3-9 seasons in each of the past three campaigns. With a 45-20 homecoming loss against USF on Saturday, the Pirates fell to 3-5 on the season and remain winless in the conference at 0-4.
Nevertheless, first-year Pirate head coach Mike Houston and his staff are working to turn the program around and return it to its former glory.
“This program is on the rise, the trajectory is clear already,” Aresco said. “Everybody that’s played ECU has said that and people who are observing the program feel pretty confident, but the league is so much better too.”
Indeed, ECU has shown flashes of improvement this season. Against Old Dominion University (1-7, 0-4 C-USA), the Pirates pulled out a tight road win. Despite getting in an early hole against the University of Central Florida (6-2, 3-1 AAC), the Pirates outscored the Knights 22-6 in the second half, but could not do the same last Saturday at home.
Still to come, however, ECU has on its schedule two nationally ranked teams in No. 17 ranked University of Cincinnati (6-1, 3-0 AAC) and No. 15 ranked Southern Methodist University (8-0, 4-0 AAC), showcasing the strength that now exists within the conference slate.
With the departure of the University of Connecticut (2-6, 0-4 AAC) after this season, competition will only continue to increase for the Pirates in the American. Despite the loss of Connecticut, however, Aresco is in little hurry to find a replacement.
That sentiment centers around a waiver that was granted to the AAC allowing them to maintain their conference championship game without adding a 12th team to the mix.
“The waiver was very important, it was a relief to get it,” Aresco said. “You never take anything for granted -- we were hopeful but we got it for ‘20 and ‘21. Having the waiver for ‘20 and ‘21 gives us some breathing space. We didn’t want to be forced to add a team in order to play a championship game or to play a championship game with uneven divisions. This allows us to play with 11 teams, to match our two top teams.”
Aresco also said he did not want the AAC to play a round-robin schedule and specifically mentioned the Big 12. Instead, he shared that he would much rather the schedule construction remain the same with each team playing eight conference and four non-conference games.
That will remain possible until after the 2021 season when the conference can either apply to extend the waiver, make it permanent through legislation or add a 12th team.
With the waiver, as Aresco said, the conference does not have to rush into adding a team to replace UConn, a welcomed sight considering the league’s bid to improve its brand.
“There are only a handful of schools out there that would enhance the brand of this league,” Aresco said. “I think you would all agree that the league’s quality, the league’s brand is really rising and has been for the last several years. I think our “P6” campaign has gotten some traction. We think that we’ve really done a lot of things to achieve that level and the last thing we need to do is water down the brand, take a school that doesn’t fit what we’re trying to do.”