NEWPORT, R.I. — The weight of modern athletic history, one made all the heavier by the bottomless moneybags of network television, is against him and his league. Deep down, Mike Aresco must know this.
Yet it didn't stop the American Athletic Conference commissioner from conjuring four historical heavyweights in his defiance of conventional wisdom that the five power conferences will use their impending autonomy to leave the rest of college athletics, including the AAC, in the dust.
"I scoff at the term 'non power conference' applied to us," Aresco said Tuesday at AAC football media day.
He proceeded to quote a 13th century friar blessed by the stigmata.
"As I look at our journey, I'm reminded of something St. Francis of Assisi said, 'You should start by doing what is necessary, then doing what is possible, then suddenly you are doing the impossible.'"
He quoted Abe Lincoln, Winston Churchill and the Renaissance Man.
"Michelangelo once said, 'The greater danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it.'"
At his introductory press conference, UConn coach Bob Diaco channeled St. Augustine, Garth Brooks, Pavlov and Knute Rockne. Told that Aresco gave him a run for his historical money, Diaco laughed in agreement.
"Yeah, but Mike didn't speak Latin like Bob," UConn athletic director Warde Manuel said.
True enough. And as Aresco spoke in a most defiant tone, you couldn't help but wonder in Latin numbers — Roman numerals — how many years the American can hold off the power surge of the Power 5? V? X? XX?
On Aug. 7, the NCAA Division I Board of Directors will vote on legislation that will give the Power 5 more autonomy. It is expected to pass. From more money to cover the total cost of attendance on down, that autonomy and billions in television revenue eventually will cause a greater and greater gap. Only a fool would argue otherwise.
The real question is one of erosion. How long can the AAC hold off the great tide of Alabama and its mighty brethren. V? X? XX?
"We're not going to take a back seat to anyone," Aresco said. "We see the landscape as five plus one and we're knocking on the door and we eventually will knock it down. Our goal is to be in the conversation as the sixth power conference. I believe by virtue of our performance we already are."
Eighteen months ago, there was nothing except the darkest and most ominous of predictions. The AAC response? Central Florida wiped out Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl and finished ranked 10th in the nation. UConn won the men's and women's' basketball national titles. In all, Aresco counted 34 NCAA postseason bids. He pointed to Top 10 finishes in football, basketball, soccer, baseball, and golf. He said AAC football teams have beaten 37 of 64 Power 5 schools and Notre Dame the past five years and he proceeded to name all of them. Aresco mentioned UCF's success last season so many times it's stunning that Blake Bortles wasn't named patron saint of the AAC.
"We pretty much did the impossible," Aresco said. "The exception, of course, is the UConn women. They do the impossible routinely.
"We hear that the new NCAA governance system, which allows autonomy in limited areas, will cause us somehow to be left behind, that resources of those conferences are simply too great. I don't buy that for a minute and what we did this year proves it."
Further autonomy, of course, lies in the future. So it's not that easy to prove.
"We should not feel threatened by a certain level of autonomy for those conferences with significant resources who want to do more for their student athletes," Aresco said. "We, too, have resources and visibility. We share the same goals and eventually we want to be in that same autonomous group.
"In the critical areas of scholarship limits and transfer rules, those are going to be subject to shared governance. That can't be done unilaterally by the other five. Our ability to recruit and compete is thereby preserved … That's huge."
Recently, SMU coach June Jones suggested the non-Power 5 play football in the spring. And while that was universally shouted down — "ridiculous," Manuel said Tuesday — Jones can at least be commended on pushing the envelope. Who knows what football schools might have to do to get TV money a decade down the road?
As of Tuesday, Aresco, Manuel, UCF coach George O'Leary, Cincinnati coach Tommy Tuberville and others were universal in their theme. The American must schedule top nonconference opponents and then win those games.
"You have to beat the best to be the best," Aresco said. Or as another historical figure, the incomparable Ric Flair said, "To be the man, you gotta beat the man."
"If power is defined by championships, we're already pretty good," Manuel said. "We need to have continued success against nonconference schools. Then you look to strengthen resources [read TV contracts] from that success."
UConn plays BYU and Boise State this season. UCF plays Penn State, Missouri and BYU. East Carolina plays South Carolina, Virginia Tech and North Carolina. Cincinnati plays Ohio State and Miami. USF plays N.C. State, Wisconsin and Maryland. Houston plays BYU. SMU plays Baylor, Texas A&M and TCU. If the AAC is to be held to its argument, those games are vital.
"Although none of us likes the sense of separation, autonomy for those five conferences is not the threat," Aresco said. "Deregulation of scholarships and professionalizing the collegiate model are among the real threats to us and to college sports. If you deregulate scholarships and pay players, eventually only the richest schools will prevail.
"Why play Russian roulette with something that has worked for a century?"
The NCAA, of course, has played Russian roulette so long that it already has shot itself in the foot innumerable times. College power brokers are clearly trying to ease their way to a new definition of amateurism, simultaneously appeasing Power 5 schools and big-time football and basketball players, while keeping their control.
Big Ten schools will each get a reported $44.5 million in all distributions in 2017-2018. The AAC signed a reported seven-year $126 million deal with ESPN, about $2 million per school. Granted, that's not an absolute apples to apples comparison, AAC members get some other distributions, but it does gives a glance at how wide the gap is.
"As Winston Churchill said, 'It is not the beginning of the end, but it is the end of the beginning," Aresco said.
It's a great game of erosion and one the American has no other choice to play. Maybe a sixth power conference, joining top AAC and Mountain West schools, can eventually be cobbled. Maybe UConn gets into the Big Ten and we leave this argument behind. Or maybe we watch the erosion. In the meantime, Mike Aresco is certain of one thing.
"I don't want others defining us. The power thing rankles me. You say non-power, it makes you sound weak and it will hurt our prospects long term. You did what we did last year, I can't let that take hold.
"If I sounded defiant at times, it is because I was and I am."