Summer Journal: Pirates Find Home in American

After several years of aspiring to join the conference previously called the Big East, ECU will become member of American Athletic Conference Tuesday.

It's been a long time coming, but East Carolina's full-time membership into the American Athletic Conference will become official Tuesday. Thus, it closes a nineteen-month period since previous Director of Athletics Terry Holland agreed that the school would join only as a football-exclusive member.

Seated next to ECU Chancellor Steve Ballard, Holland announced the move to the world, but also made it clear to the media in attendance and the league's commissioner Mike Aresco, who was present on a conference call, that this was not a football-exclusive decision.

"It is our intention for today's announcement to be a strong first step toward finding the best competitive environment possible for ECU's nineteen varsity sports," Holland said.

ECU's addition to the league had an immediate ripple effect that eventually led to the Big East's seven catholic schools breaking away from the conference to pursue a league with a new identity that excluded football.

Soon after the "Catholic Seven" departed and took the Big East name with them, Louisville and Rutgers also left for greener pastures in the ACC and the Big 10 respectively.

With the state of the soon-to-be named American Athletic Conference hanging in the balance, Aresco turned to ECU, who already had its foot in the door, to become a full-time member, along with fellow C-USA schools Tulane and Tulsa.

"We looked at East Carolina and said 'we want them in the league. We want them in football'," Aresco told reporters in a news conference last week. "It would have been a hard sell at that point to have them in basketball as well.

"That changed then when the 'Catholic Seven' decided to leave. To me, it was a no brainer to have East Carolina in all sports."

And just as it did seventeen years prior — ECU initially competed in Conference USA as football members before joining full-time in 2001 — patience paid off for the Pirates.

Since the two sides agreed to join forces in all sports last March, both ECU and the American have enjoyed an eventful fifteen months.

ECU won its first ever postseason basketball tournament in the Tournament and captured 10 wins in football for just the second time in school history. Also, Jeff Compher was ushered in as the school's new athletics director in May and just last week, he named former Pirate captain Cliff Godwin as ECU's new head baseball coach.

Meanwhile, in the American's inaugural year, UCF surprised Baylor in a resounding Fiesta Bowl victory and both of UConn's basketball teams won the national championship.

"It's been a storybook year for us. It was a remarkable inaugural season," Aresco said.

Now with a new collection of schools in the mix, the next challenge for Aresco and the American will be getting a new television deal. However, despite Greenville's TV market being a popular critique of ECU whenever conference realignment was discussed, Aresco thinks having the ESPN platform makes it a non-issue.

"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, " he said.

In order to captivate a national audience over time, it will likely take several more years of on-field success and since football has proven to be king — at least from a ratings standpoint — the American must be competitive in the new playoff format.

With so much attention being paid towards the "Power Five" conferences and the idea that they might break apart from the NCAA, Aresco is out to prove the American belongs amongst the elite collegiate conferences.

Its resume in year one is at least a good enough starting point to justify the league's credibility for the time being. But the question now is whether or not it can be sustained.

"We're knocking on that door. We look at it as five plus one," said Aresco, who envisions the ‘Group of Five' system that guarantees the champion of the top conferences a berth in a top-tier bowl game eventually being expanded to six. "We have six teams in our league that once played in a BCS conference or the old Southwest Conference, which was the equivalent."

Even today, the future is still uncertain with ongoing discussions about the "Power Five," "pay for play" and conference realignment threatening the very fabric of college athletics as we know it.

And although the American is not the league the Pirates originally desired joining — it doesn't even own the same name — and is comprised of many of the same teams they were previously grouped with, the Pirates are finally in a place they can happily call home.

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