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Have a lobster and go to war. The AAC's quest to forge a college football 'Power 6'

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Nobody does media days like the overlooked American Athletic Conference, where the annual clam bake is the White House Correspondents' Dinner of college football.

Steven Godfrey

NEWPORT, R.I. - The man who gave a football conference a fighting chance at public relations is neither a progressive nor much of an optimist. Neither is he a man concerned with fashion.

"I actually sold ‘em right after the game," UCF head coach George O'Leary says to an Orlando reporter asking about his team's alternate black helmets. "We got players who spend all their time looking at themselves in the mirror with their helmets on. Drives me nuts."

Across the room, Houston head coach Tony Levine measures the follower-efficiency of his tweets.

"Let's see ... in two-and-a-half years ... 473 times and 5,295 followers," he says. "I'm way up. That's not thin at all. Quality over quantity."

"And we've got some good Throwback Thursdays coming up," Houston AD for communications David Bassity says.

Nearby, SMU's June Jones and USF's Willie Taggart are shuffled to specific spots by conference officials for "live TV segments," which look suspiciously like recorded interviews for ESPN3.com, but no one parses the specifics.

Near the ballroom door stands the veteran, wearing a full suit and expressionless gaze. Cincinnati's Tommy Tuberville sips from a glass tumbler filled with Mountain Dew. He shrugs a lot.

"At Texas Tech, I'd wear jeans and boots to these things. If the governor wears ‘em, why can't you?"

"Yeah, yeah. Media days ... seen a few," he says between sips.

Next to O'Leary, a throng of Connecticut reporters gush at new head coach Bob Diaco. There's not much of the old Big East DNA left in the AAC, other than geography creating grossly disproportionate interest in UConn football and save for this resort town on the New England coast. The league annually holds an informal clam bake on Newport's Goat Island and mingles media, coaches, players, and executives together night before their half-day-long, informal press event.

"Everything OK last night?" commissioner Mike Aresco asks for the second time.

There's very little Northeastern tradition left, especially among the Southern-born players from new additions East Carolina, Tulsa, and Tulane. When a team of chefs lifts the tarp over a bed of lobster and clams sitting on seaweed and rocks, the Pirates players cheer. For many, it's their first-ever lobster dinner.

Your lobster analysis, provided by Cincinnati quarterback and New Orleans native Munchie Legaux:

It's much bigger than a crawfish. We normally eat crawfish. I guess it's the same, it's just the bigger version of a crawfish. I didn't know how break one up when I came here the first time. I just did it like a crawfish: pinched the tail off. They said you have do such things with the fork and all, but I don't know. It was good, but we should have a crawfish boil. Meat's spicier. Get some corn. It's more Southern style. We need some little kids running around like at a barbecue.

But the AAC is glad you're here. Have as much time with any coach you'd like. Have a free portable iOS charger. Have a free USB cord. Have a lobster and hit the open bar. Have two lobsters. Houston center Bryce Redman ate five on Monday night, but legend has it the record is 12.

★★★

There are no lobbies filled with Alabama and Auburn fans in Rhode Island, like at the SEC's media event (and nearly the Big Ten's). This isn't the backlot of a film studio in Los Angeles, like the Pac-12 used. No one uses the word "innovation." There isn't a radio row. And for all the front desk at the hotel knows, these ballrooms could be booked for any anonymous regional sales meeting.

Not a single school in attendance would hesitate to leave for a better conference, thereby adding to a pile of exit fee money Aresco believes will cover any future cost increases.

"I've heard [SEC commissioner] Mike Slive, [ACC commissioner John] Swofford, [Big Ten commissioner Jim] Delany, I've heard what every conference commissioner has said this year," Tuberville says. "There's always been a lot of different problems in college football we've been able to work out, as long as we focus on the student-athlete. Let's do the right thing for them, because this thing could get out of hand quickly."

In contrast to other commissioners' valedictions this media season, Aresco's platform is completely transparent. He wants to shock critics by endorsing full-cost scholarships, thus proving the AAC's schools have the funds to keep up with player benefits and hold steady in recruiting against major conferences.

"We can provide, too," he says. "We don't have to do every little thing they do, but we can do the big things like cost of attendance. We're big, important schools with resources. We know you can't talk about being in a power conversation unless you can do that, and we can. Some of our schools might have more resources than some of the lower-tier members of each one of those conferences, for all I know."

★★★

Matt Kartozian, USA Today

O'Leary doesn't recall exactly what Aresco said on the field after UCF beat Big 12 champion Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl, but Aresco does.

"I said, ‘Congratulations coach, I know you're not the hugging type, but I'm hugging you anyway,'" Aresco says Tuesday.

"Obviously he was ecstatic though, because he brought it up a bunch of times today in his speech," O'Leary says.

And yes, UConn won the men's and women's basketball championships, but ignore that accomplishment, because it's football or nothing when power is brokered in modern college athletics. The Knights' BCS success gave Aresco the silver bullet he needed to launch an offensive against the concept of a power-conference alliance.

Hey, we finally joined Facebook!

"Make no mistake, we'll remain an integral part of the FBS college football fabric," he says in his address. "We do not accept the notion that we're not a power conference, or this ‘have-not' tag that some people use. We have resources and enormous potential."

"I guess it did come off as tough, but we've really got schools with enormous potential," Aresco says after.

An August 7 vote by the NCAA will determine a potential governance restructuring that could allow the SEC, ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, and Pac-12 to enact policies to deliver benefits to their players independent of other Division I conferences. It's a move that could potentially push those conferences further from smaller FBS neighbors like the Sun Belt and MAC, plus strand the AAC in college football's middle tier.

And he hates the term "Power 5." Aresco appropriates the common title for the biggest five conferences during his speech, saying the AAC "wouldn't take a backseat to anyone." He uses "Power 5 plus one" repeatedly.

"It rankles us," he says. "They like to use it, the writers like to use it, but it's unfair to our student-athletes. If you're on a podium and you've won a national championship or you've beaten the Big 12 champion in football, that you're not ‘power,' not from a ‘power conference?' Well, what does ‘power' mean?"

★★★

Aresco has spent three years weathering the slow death of the Big East and the defection of schools to the ACC, Big 12, and Big Ten while trying to secure a TV deal that could keep the AAC on the same footing as the financial giants.

That didn't happen. The league's new deal with ESPN will pay schools about $2 million annually, compared to the estimated $20 million per school the ACC's recent deal secured. But the quality of play hasn't yet waned to a level critics predicted. Fortified by five schools in talent-rich Ohio, Florida, and Texas and further by poaching Tulane, Tulsa, Memphis, and ECU from Conference USA, Aresco has 11 football schools, with Navy on the way in 2015. Now he wants to fight for notoriety and respect any way possible.

The plan to do so feels at times a little kitchen sink. As part of a deal with CBS and ESPN, the AAC will move a number of games to Thursday and Friday nights, such as an Oct. 2 game between UCF and Houston, which could have major conference title implications.

"We've already seen the response in recruiting around Texas, partly because of the fact we're on TV so much now," Levine says.

It's a MACtion move that shows evidence of Aresco's longtime tenure as a CBS TV executive. It isn't popular leaguewide, but no one doubts the exposure strategy.

"College football is meant to be played on Saturday," Tuberville says. "But I can understand it. We played on a Wednesday night last year. First time I've done that. What happens is, you start losing your fans. College football is about the pageantry of fans, enabling them to come out and spend three or four hours before and a couple hours after."

Aresco acknowledged a perceived lack of tradition at schools historically known as commuter colleges. While they're large, they've lacked the tradition Tuberville talked about. But UCF and Tulane have moved back to on-campus stadiums. At Houston, a brand new facility will open on national television Aug. 29 vs. UTSA.

"We're giving a city of 6 million people a chance to come on campus and see what the University of Houston is all about," Levine says. "We've got somewhere around 14,000 beds in dorms on campus. We're the second highest in on-campus housing in the state of Texas. There may be reputations out there, but I think we're changing the perception of our school."

UCF boasts the largest undergraduate enrollment in the United States at just under 60,000 students on campus in Orlando, yet their football program is only 35 years old and entered Division I in 1996.

"You can make tradition," O'Leary says. "All that is formed by your student body. You can give ‘em some ideas, but probably the best tradition you can set for a school is winning. That handles the problems."

Aresco and O'Leary are learning that success is not power. In fact, for AAC teams on-field success might even be a hindrance toward gaining national prominence. Under new self-created guidelines, the "Power 5's" ACC and SEC will begin requiring their teams to play at least one non-conference game a year against another "Power 5" opponent, for strength of schedule purposes.

That means the SEC won't consider a game like BCS-winner UCF traveling to Missouri challenging enough for the Tigers. If playing a dangerous team in a non-conference game doesn't "count," then why do it? The Big Ten is beefing up conference schedules to nine games, matching the Big 12 and Pac-12, likewise making the proposition of a home-and-home series with a quality AAC team less appealing.

"We've struggled getting games with teams now [since the Fiesta Bowl]," O'Leary says.

The Knights will play Penn State, Missouri, BYU, and Bethune-Cookman this season, but still have open spots on both their 2015 and '16 schedules.

"I've always believed you get better by playing better. I think if they only let those 'Power 5' play each other, they can't survive. They don't wan't that. Look, I've asked those people for games, and they don't want to play. Don't let them tell you different," O'Leary says.

Without as many premiere non-conference games to boost a team's resume come December, there's a real threat no AAC team will ever garner serious attention for the field of four Playoff teams, and in some years not even enough poll votes to earn the new selection committee's at-large spot for the highest non-alliance team. Whereas UCF automatically qualified for the Fiesta under the Big East's old agreement as part of the BCS' "Power 6," the new AAC receives no guarantees.

"It's a concern, no question," Aresco says. "We're going to monitor it closely and we're going to call people out on it if need be. We need those games and we're powerful teams, so we should have those games."

"We're at North Texas this year. And I wouldn't be surprised if North Texas wins their first game at Texas."

June Jones says the league directive to member teams has been to "schedule as tough as possible" in non-conference play, to try create a UCF situations for consideration in either the Playoff or the partner bowls.

"I haven't felt [the scheduling discrepancy] yet, but I can see it happening," Jones says. "But this year we've got TCU, Texas A&M, we're at Baylor, and we're at North Texas this year. And I wouldn't be surprised if North Texas wins their first game at Texas. They're a talented team. So it hasn't hit us yet, but it could."

O'Leary is less measured when assessing the new political landscape, an attitude afforded by age and success.

"I'll play anybody anywhere, but I gotta get a home-and-home. I've got a stream of revenue I've got to feed. And don't tell me playing I-AA schools is helping you. If you want to call yourself a power conference, start playing people.

"And I think in every conference of those five, you take out three of four top teams out of each and the rest of them are just members getting a paycheck. They know that."