Power tools clanged and churned in the background of Yulman Stadium as American Athletic Conference Commissioner Mike Aresco was introduced to the New Orleans media for the first time.
Despite three of the most important people at Tulane — Aresco, President Mike Fitts and Athletic Director Rick Dickson — standing at the podium, the push to complete Tulane’s new football stadium took no breaks.
It was fitting symbolism for the grunt work Aresco is being called upon to perform from his position. Dickson referred to Aresco as the MVP of college athletics for the past two years because of his performance in re-branding the former Big East conference and re-shaping it after the departure of its signature basketball-only schools.
It’s a moniker that will be put to the test soon.
Last week, the NCAA Division I board of Directors voted 16-2 to allow schools in the five “power” conferences to write many of their own rules, making Aresco’s aggressive stewardship over The American more necessary than ever.
On Monday, he tried to calm any fears that Tulane or its conference peers would get left behind in a world of college athletics, where separation almost always leads to inequality. Among the first topics likely to be approached is the full-cost-of-attendance stipends that could be worth between $2,000 and $5,000 per student-athlete.
Considering the existing financial gap, because of guaranteed spots in the College Football Playoff, the additional cost burden will force schools like Tulane and leagues like The American to make a decision of how much they can afford to compete.
“If we understand it properly and deal with it properly, we don’t have anything to fear,” Aresco said. “We feel aligned with the so-called autonomous conferences. We want to embrace cost-of-attendance scholarships, since what we have has not kept pace with the cost of attending school. We are going to do that as a conference, but we are going to leave it up to the schools with some of the other things that have been talked about.
“We wanted to make sure we remained competitive in this new model. I can assure Tulane fans and alumni, we are going to be extremely competitive in this. Scholarship limits have not changed and won’t change without our consent, and we have shared governance.”
Just six weeks into his position as university president, Fitts stood behind Aresco’s statements and said Tulane is dedicated to excellence in athletics.
“In terms of Tulane, we are absolutely committed to the American Athletic Conference,” Fitts said. “We will follow their lead in all of these matters.”
The most widespread fear among coaches at schools outside of the autonomous five leagues is a potential recruiting pay gap. Beyond the facilities arms race that has been luring prospects for the past three decades, the difference between schools offering a direct player stipend and those that don’t could radically change a prospect’s priorities.
But Tulane coach Curtis Johnson said he isn’t panicking and isn’t changing his recruiting focus based on potential changes. Instead, he’s waiting for the “dust to settle.”
“All you have to do is continue to play ball,” Johnson said. “You recruit well, and you win. Winning solves everything. You just continue to win, and we’ll see where it all ends up.”
Aresco spent most of his time talking about the league’s ability to showcase premier teams and the challenging football schedules many of its members have lined up for this year. He lashed out at a recent poll of coaches in the automatic-qualifying conferences that showed 46 percent of coaches (a plurality, with 18.5 percent claiming to be undecided) favoring a schedule with only opponents from the five autonomous conferences.
Without hesitation, Aresco recounted the various wins his schools produced over those from the Southeastern Conference, Big 10, Pac-12, Big XII and ACC in the past few years, highlighted by Central Florida’s victory over Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl. But he recognized there’s a gap that still exists with revenue, and now autonomy.
“I just hate the term ‘power conference,’ because you can’t tell me with what we have done that we are not a power conference,” Aresco said. “If you look at this conference, it’s going to make everyone more competitive. And Tulane is absolutely included in that.”
Just as he projects potential for the league as a whole, Aresco said the possibilities for Tulane are endless. He was effusive in his praise for Dickson, Yulman Stadium and the $100 million in the Green Wave’s athletic facilities.
He also showed no concern regarding Tulane’s dismal attendance in football and men’s basketball over the past decade, claiming the various changes in facilities and conference affiliation can shift the paradigm entirely.
“In this conference, I’m convinced the exposure Tulane will get is going to galvanize this fan base and bring a lot of them back,” Aresco said. “I think it will lead to attendance increases, and it’s already done so for a lot of our other schools.
“Their potential has already been born out a little bit with getting close to selling out this stadium for the season. I always felt that if you looked back to 1998 and you look at the fertile recruiting area and paired with our conference, why couldn’t Tulane blossom?”