Tulane Athletic Director Troy Dannen’s reaction to recent expansion talk from the Big 12 is exactly the same as it was when he was hired in December.
He will stay on top of it, but it does not change his approach as he tries to rebuild the program.
“Conference expansion is something you track every day,” Dannen said Friday. “I read the articles, but I’m really not privy to what’s truly going on in the minds and what the desires and wishes are of the presidents in the Big 12 institutions. I’m trying to advise the (Tulane) President (Michael Fitts) as to everything I know along the way and make sure Tulane is in the best position to capitalize on whatever opportunities we have, and the opportunity we have right now is to elevate our standing in the American Athletic Conference.”
The latest round of conference-realignment chatter started last week when Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby said data from a research firm indicated his league would have a better chance to land spots in the college football playoff if it moved to two divisions and 12 teams with an eight-game conference schedule and a championship game.
The Big 12 went to 10 teams from 14 in 2012, playing a round-robin schedule with no championship game. The league was shut out of the first four-team playoff in 2014, but Oklahoma landed a spot in the 2015 playoff.
Bowlsby spoke at the Big 12 athletic directors’ meetings in Phoenix. The conference’s next meetings, which include the school presidents who make expansion decisions, start May 31 in Dallas.
Tulane is one of numerous American Athletic Conference schools that have been mentioned in speculation about potential Big 12 expansion. Cincinnati, Connecticut, Houston, South Florida, Central Florida and Memphis all have been linked at one time or another.
The Cincinnati Enquirer reported in February that Cincinnati President Santa Ono had led serious overtures to the Big 12. Jake Trotter of ESPN.com reported that Houston officials gave West Virginia President Gordon Gee a tour of their facilities in November and Memphis President David Rudd wrote a letter to Gee and other prominent Big 12 decision-makers pledging a $500 million commitment to academic and athletic infrastructure improvements backed by FedEx chairman Fred Smith, whose headquarters are in Memphis.
Although an Associated Press story last week about the potential effects of Big 12 expansion on the AAC left out Tulane, others have pointed out the school’s high academic reputation and coveted the New Orleans market as attractive features to league presidents.
The obvious drawback is past performance. Tulane finished near the bottom of Conference USA in football and basketball for most of this century, and the results have been similar in its first two years with the AAC. The Green Wave went 3-9 in football in 2014 and 2015, winning three conference games in that span. The Wave went 9-27 in league play the past two seasons in basketball.
Dannen already has hired new football coach Willie Fritz and fired basketball coach Ed Conroy, replacing him with former NBA coach and general manager Mike Dunleavy.
“You need to own the house on the street you live in before you start looking at a different street,” Dannen said in January. “If the opportunity (for a conference change) comes, my job is to have us in position to capitalize on whatever the opportunity is.”
If the Big 12 proceeds with expansion, the AAC could have a different look in the near future. The league has won two major college football bowls in the past three years, with UCF beating Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl after the 2013 season and Houston beating Florida State in the Peach Bowl this past New Year’s Eve.
“We’ll keep an eye on things and monitor it,” AAC Commissioner Mike Aresco said Wednesday. “I have no idea what’s going to happen, but if there is some realignment, our conference is still going to remain strong because we have a good core group of schools. Whatever happens, we’re going to be fine. I’m convinced of that.”
Aresco added it was a compliment that almost every discussion about power-conference expansion centered on AAC teams.
“This proves the point I’ve been trying to make that we are in the conversation as a so-called (power six) conference,” Aresco said. “When you focus that much on our schools, it shows the achievement we’ve had and the potential of our schools.”