Do you see it as a realistic possibility that East Carolina could be one of the premiere football teams in the AAC?
"I absolutely do. I think this year, for instance, if you had to handicap our league—and again, it's early—it's Houston, Cincinnati, UCF and East Carolina will clearly be among our top teams. We also have some teams that are rebuilding. We also have some teams that are on the cusp.
Our league was tough from top to bottom. People probably last year didn't give UCF the credit it deserved because they had seven or eight really hard games in our conference. They had to come from behind to win against teams like Temple and SMU. I was at some of those games and, the truth is, we're pretty good from top to bottom.
Our bottom teams didn't win a lot of games, but they were competitive. USF went up to Michigan State and almost won. They played a really good game and didn't even have a quarterback. We had some good nonconference games. Temple went up to Notre Dame and played tough, moved the ball.
There were some tough teams that, frankly, were overlooked. I think ECU can absolutely make that kind of impact. I see no reason why they can't. You have Shane Carden—a wonderful quarterback, a veteran who has already graduated and he's a leader. You have a receiver who's a candidate for All American honors. I don't want to jinx anyone, but these are terrific young men. You have Ruffin McNeill, who's a great coach.
You have everything in place. It will be very competitive, but it will be very competitive in our conference, also. This is a good league and top to bottom, it's a good league.
What do you think is the biggest challenge faced by the conference?
Perception and perception if we don't achieve everything we achieved last year on the field and on the court. We're going to have to make sure that people see there's continued progress. We want some of our weaker teams to get stronger.
We want attendance to improve. We've got some schools where attendance is incredible. We've got others where they struggle a bit. We think that will change. We think that getting in a new conference and having different teams come in is a plus in football and basketball and Olympic sports.
I think they key is going to be that we're going to need to compete for that New Year's Day or New Year's Eve game. We have an avenue. It's not quite as clear cut as it was when we had an automatic BCS qualifier, but we do have an avenue for the highest ranked teams in those five conferences.
Perception creates reality sometimes and perception is going to be our biggest challenge as autonomy gets into place. It's not as though officially five BCS and the others. We are one of five FBS conferences. You're still going to have that group of five that's going to get a lot of attention. What we do is we fight hard to make sure the blogs cover us and the reporters cover us and make sure our network partners cover us.
ESPN is going to use, for instance, a joint logo that wipes when you go from play to play. That's something that they don't do for every conference. There are only a few other conferences that have a joint logo with ESPN.
We're going to have to be vigilant. We're going to have to be vigilant about the autonomy and legislation that's being passed. We're going to have to make sure that our schools step up and do the things other schools are doing for student athletes. That's really important. We don't want to be perceived as lagging behind in that area.
We also want to make sure that our APR, our academic profile, is really good. I think it will be. I think these are good schools. We've got a lot of challenges. This is not going to be easy. I'm not suggesting that this is going to be, in any way, a walk in the park. This is tough competition.
You're dealing with well-funded schools that have a long history, but if you're smart and you're smart about what you're doing and you recruit well and you spend money wisely, I think you can do it. I really do. You can have a lot of money and be broke. Or you can be a program that spends a fortune and finishes 6-6 in football or at .500 in basketball. It depends on the kind of student athletes you're recruiting and how you view yourselves.
The one thing I do is prod everyone to do everything that's possible. The conference will help, but there's only so much. As I said, I didn't play these games. It was wonderful to watch UConn do what it did. It was a magical run. But, as commissioner, all you do is set the stage and make sure they have the ability to compete, you keep the conference in the forefront, your office is well-run and that you're helping your schools.
It's a media-driven world. It just is and the collegiate world is no different. We have to make sure that our media message is on point. We have to be relentless about it. It takes time. We made remarkable progress in one year, but we're not going to be at all flawed into thinking that it's going to be easy from here on in."
What are the main things that ECU brings to the AAC?
"First of all, they bring a great football program. They bring a university that is widely respected. A terrific university. They bring a sports department hat is extremely well-run. They bring energy, enthusiasm, the kind of fan interest you want in your conference that people are going to see. I think they're going to bring a great deal to the conference.
Nationally, that's what's most exciting about this. I know from the early 90s that ECU was making a mark and has always made a mark in football with Earnest Byner, Jeff Blake and others. Right now, you've got great players, but you've always had great players.
The country is going to discover ECU in a way it hasn't. UCF did a lot of great things under the radar. They won a Liberty Bowl and people didn't pay much attention. They had a lot of great teams. George was building a great program.
The same thing here. Everything's in place. Ruffin McNeill's a terrific coach. Last year, you lose to Virginia Tech by five points, beat North Carolina, beat N.C. State. If you do those things like that this year, it's going to generate a lot more interest. It just is, and ask any of our schools last year who got that kind of attention. UConn played Michigan and we saved ABC that night. I think they would have had to put on a game that wasn't the game they thought it would be early on, a game from another conference. They decided to put it in roughly in 70 percent of the country. You saw that.
People said to me after, ‘You guys play some big-boy football, don't ya?' UConn should have won that game and it was a terrific game. They had Michigan coming to Connecticut and they had 45 or 50 thousand and the place was packed. You saw it, it was a national game on ABC. South Carolina played UCF nationally. That was on ABC and they lost by three points.
That's the kind of thing we think we can do and, again, I think ECU brings an awful lot to this conference."
In this media-driven world, like you said, is there any concern about this market?
"I don't think it's as important as it is developing your competitiveness and making your mark nationally. We have national television exposure. The key for us, we're a little different than other conferences. We need to perform on the field and on the court to get the attention we deserve. We know that. Eventually, it will come.
But remember, in college football, look at some of the markets. Knoxville, Birmingham, Blacksburg…college sports is different. College sports is regional, but it's also national. And remember, because of the focus on the college football playoff—by the way, we're going to compete for that. It's not going to be easy for anybody to get into those four slots. It's going to be very hard.
If one of our teams—if UCF or ECU were 12-0 this year and had won the nonconference games they're going to be playing, whether it's at South Carolina or Penn State in Ireland for UCF or at Missouri. I would argue with the media or with the selection committee, how are you going to keep them out of the four? Why would you keep them out after what UCF did with Baylor at the Fiesta Bowl? This is a good conference.
It's going to be a struggle. As you know, a lot of teams are going to get a lot of attention. Some commissioners from the Big 5 have told me that it's remarkable the amount of media attention we got before we even played. We dominated the news cycle last July when we brought those four teams in. We did it because we were relentless in talking about the conference and promoting the conference.
I didn't know we'd win the Fiesta Bowl the way we did in a convincing fashion. I didn't know we'd win national championships. We thought we had a shot and we thought it would come from Louisville, to be honest. And we were happy to have Louisville for that one year, even though they were leaving.
Again, it's up to us. We have to win, but I think if we do win, this is a national situation now. People are going to be wondering who's going to be in that host bowl, who's going to be the highest ranked team is going to be in these five conferences, who's going to be in those four.
So, it doesn't matter so much the size of the market. Now, we happen in this conference to have some big markets, which doesn't hurt. It doesn't hurt to get the highest rating in Orlando, I think, of any game ever when they won the bowl game against Baylor. Higher than Florida State had ever gotten there.
We also, obviously have Houston and then SMU in Dallas and Connecticut in the northeast and Cincinnati and we have Memphis. We have good size markets, but it's not that critical anymore because this conference is going to get enough TV exposure nationally to be judged on how it does."
Talk about the status of UConn. In five years, do you think they'll be a part of the conference?
"I think so and I hope so. Realignment, I'm not going to make any predictions because two years ago, you might have made a prediction that was wrong. Yet, the situation was unsettled then and it's a lot more settled now. As you know, not much happened this past fall.
We think that, ultimately, these conferences seem stable now. You look at the Big 12 and they only have 10 teams, but they're very happy with the round robin and they like it very much. They seem to want to stay the same. Right now, there just doesn't seem to be anything going on. Now, that could change.
Conferences have gotten bigger. They have to consolidate. I'm not quite sure you're going to see any move towards 16-team conferences. Some people honestly believe—and who knows, you could be wrong tomorrow—that this could be five or 10 years before there's really any further shifts because you've got long-term TV deals in place. It's now sort of settled out in what the conferences did in realignment.
I think, in our conference, our goal is to build it and to make sure we become one of the others and that people perceive us the same year. We have that opportunity...because out (TV deal) only goes out six years.
We knew that a year and a half ago no one knew what we were. No one knew what we had. No one knew how the new schools would relate to each other. They didn't know how cohesive we'd be. They didn't know if we'd be able to get the kinds of deals in place that we needed.
Consequently, we decided a short-term deal would be better. We went to the networks to do a four or five or six-year deal. We ended up doing a six-year deal. That gives us a chance to renegotiate and say, ‘Look, let's go out and do something longer and rewrite some of the initial years now that we've obviously proven our value.
There are other things we can do as a conference to enhance our TV value. We're working on them now. There are other things we're doing online. That's a new world. We're not ignoring that. We've got a digital network and we're providing a lot of value to ESPN 3, but we prefer most of our games to be on regular TV and they will be now.
Again, as you look at conference realignment and the landscape, it's quieted down. We fully expect the schools in the conference to remain in the conference and, by the way, they've bought in very well. We've had some schools, as you know, talk a lot about possible going to other conferences. They have really bought in. Jeff can tell you. They've been partners. UConn has been terrific and we've got a group of schools coming in and they're thrilled to be here.
We've got a lot of schools that would like to join us. We really do. We like 12 when Navy joins next year. We don't have any reason to think about expanding at this point unless there are some schools that approach us and bring great value. There are a few out there, but not many."
Can you talk about inviting ECU to be a full member since the plan was originally only for football? Was it as simple as Louisville and Rutgers leaving and one school already had its foot in the door?
"What it was was we had all those basketball schools that played just basketball and they didn't want us to take too many schools that play both sports because then we'd end up with more basketball members than we had. We had a lot, maybe as many as 16 or 17.
We took Tulane in all sports, then we looked at East Carolina and said that we want them in the league. We want them in football. It would have been a hard sell at that point to have them in basketball, as well. That changed then when the Catholic 7 decided to leave. To me, it was a no brainer to have East Carolina in all sports.
I think it's because of the determination of this athletic department and this university to be good in all sports. You look at the facilities. I've gotten tours of the facilities. These are as good as anybody has. Because of that determination, basketball is going to be very good quickly. It's going to be a tough conference to compete in. You're looking at UConn, Temple, Cincinnati, SMU, Houston and Tulsa and the two Florida schools have a lot of potential.
There's no reason with Jeff (Lebo) here. Jeff's a good coach. You're going to have a real opportunity because your attendance is going to go up because people are going to watch the national champions come in here. They're going to come to watch Cincinnati and Temple, who will be right back.
You've got a bunch of schools coming that will elevate the program. When you have to compete against schools like that, it elevates your program. It's that simple. You have the opportunity to recruit better and have a great basketball program. I think it's absolutely going to happen."
Do you think Southern Cal going with four-year scholarships is going to be the trend?
"Yes, it's something everyone's going to be looking at. This is a complicated issue. You want to make sure student athletes are given what they need. Our watch word is they deserve certain things and we're going to provide those things.
The cost of attendance is something we've committed to as a conference. The longer-term scholarships are something that could potentially protect players. We're look at the ability to continue your education later on, maybe get graduate degrees. In terms of recruiting, bring families to campuses. Things of that nature.
You might argue that if you pay for those things, it gives certain schools a recruiting advantage. It's really designed to help families and to do more for them. The full cost of attendance is critical.
Health and welfare benefits, some of that has already been deregulated by the NCAA and you can do that. But, there are certain things you can't do. Also, we're looking at things that aren't financial in nature that might help student athletes such as certain athletic dead periods where you're not recruiting because the kids are taking final exams in high schools or student athletes may want to go abroad and do some things that other students do that they haven't been able to do.
I think you're going to see our athletic directors recommend to our presidents a lot of different things because the student athlete has to come first.
I want to spend a moment talking about the litigation we're facing. It's been our feeling all along. First of all, this isn't done in response to that litigation. This has been in the works a few years now. You know, a stipend was rejected a few years ago because some schools said they couldn't afford it.
That probably led to the autonomy debate and led to the redesign process in the NCAA because the bigger schools said ‘We need to be able to do these things because we have the resources that others don't have.' That's really the motivation.
The other thing I like to talk about is that we worked hard over the last century to have a level playing field. There's never a level playing field. Everybody knows that. This university has resources that schools in other conferences don't have and that schools in even our own conference don't have.
No one's argued that it's ever been a truly level playing field, but that's always been the goal. That allowed UCF to do what it did…it allowed other people to do things that they couldn't have done otherwise…all these things happen because you try to develop a level playing field.
The other thing we've been attacked about is we've been named in a few lawsuits that say your scholarship limits are anticompetitive. I say you have to have a competitive landscape in college sports or why bother doing? What's the point?
The point is, you can have certain uniformity if, in fact, it promotes an important good. This does. To have scholarship limits promotes the ability of everyone to compete. What we don't want to see if the courts or anyone else, in my view, play Russian roulette with a system, a collegiate model that has worked for over a century and that has been important to the country, been important to the schools, been important to the community.
I think our student athletes have a good situation that needs to get better. We need to do more for them, but you also don't want them to be separate from the student body. You don't want them to feel so different from their fellow students, who are so often incurring loans of $100,000. Our student athletes get full scholarships. Other students are working. You want them to have that relationship to the university.
We don't want to pay players. We don't want to go with that model. We think that would absolutely destroy college athletics as we know it.
What we're trying to do now is that we worry, as we should about the welfare of student athletes and make sure things keep up. I've talked to people who have played big time college football years ago and they say the scholarships haven't kept pace…that's one of the things we're going to try to remedy.I think long-term, we just need to keep in mind that we're working for the student athletes, but we want this thing to be balanced and we want this thing to make sense."