By Howie Lindsey
Commissioner Mike Aresco presented the American Athletic Conference trophy to Luke Hancock, Russ Smith and Montrezl Harrell. (photo- USA Today Sports)
As the University of Louisville embarks on the final few weeks as members of the American Athletic Conference, it’s worth looking back to what the last year has meant for the Cardinals and the AAC.
When the Cardinals were accepted into the ACC and started prepping for membership there and the former Big East basketball teams split away and took the name of the league with them, the future of nearly a dozen schools, including Louisville, was very uncertain for the 2013-14 season.
The American Athletic Conference helped Louisville by providing a home for 21 of Louisville’s 23 sports teams for the 2013-14 season.
And beyond a layover point for the Cardinals, the AAC brought competition and some surprisingly great results in the one year Louisville was a part of the league.
In football, the league was significantly more challenging than most analysts predicted and Louisville, instead of marching to a title, was upset by UCF.
That same UCF team went on to slice and dice No.6 Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl. UCF, the American Athletic Champion, amassed 556 total yards, 52 points and beat the Bears on a national stage.
“I want to congratulate (coach) George O’Leary and the UCF team for their resounding Fiesta Bowl win,” American Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco said. “I can’t overstate how much that meant to our conference. As many of you know, UCF will be playing Penn State in Dublin, Ireland, on Aug. 30 to kick off the season. We’re really excited about that game.”
Louisville, the AAC’s second-place team, crushed Miami 36-9 in the Russell Athletic Bowl.
While Houston and Cincinnati didn’t fare too well in their games, Rutgers stayed right with Notre Dame until th e fourth quarter of the Pinstripe Bowl in New York City before falling 29-16.
So, football, the bell cow of any major sports league, notched a huge BCS win in 2013-14.
In basketball, the league was better than expected and boasted the men’s and women’s NCAA Champion in the Connecticut Huskies.
“I gave my wife the longest hug probably in the history of the NCAA basketball,” Aresco said in an interview with the Orlando Sentinel. “She knows what we all went through. How tough it was during that six month period from the time that Rutgers announced they were going to the Big Ten and Louisville eventually to the ACC … that was a tough period. It was a period of transition and turmoil.”
For a league to win a BCS bowl and the men’s and women’s basketball national championships in its first year in existence is amazing.
For Aresco and the other members of the league that Louisville is leaving behind, the 2013-14 went about as well as it possibly could have.
While Louisville was a top 10 team for much of the season, the American provided competition at the top with Louisville, Connecticut, Cincinnati and Memphis among the top 25 for much of the season, and a talented, young SMU team turning heads as well.
The AAC got four teams into the NCAA Tournament, two teams in teh Sweet 16 and Connecticut beat Kentucky in the national title game.
The Connecticut women were the most dominant team in the nation from start to finish, and Louisville provided the AAC with two top 10 teams for much of the year.
“You can never really expect this level of success,” Aresco said. “We thought we would be good and have a fighting chance. I don’t think anybody can take any swipes at us after what we’ve done.”
Instead of being a sports purgatory, the partnership between Louisville and the AAC went splendidly.
For the American, Louisville provided a program that was competitive in nearly every sport and a Top 25 team in most sports.
The Cardinals brought home 11 league titles this season (see chart on page 17), and the rest of the league had 15. Instead of pining for their next home, the Cardinals were gracious to the league, worked with league brass on many issues (including recruiting new members), and set about the compete in every sport, every contest.
And for Louisville, the AAC was tremendously good. They provided a home for this season. Instead of what could have been a messy divorce with all the Louisville sports scrambling to full vacant schedules, the American stepped in and welcomed Louisville’s programs.
Louisville Vice President for Athletics Tom Jurich has had nothing but praise for the American Athletic Conference and Aresco, in particular.
And Louisville’s coaches have talked about how competitive the league has been in many sports.
Just last week, when asked about his team’s future in the ACC, Louisville baseball coach Dan McDonnell said the American helped his team prep for the NCAA Tournament and for the future.
The American Athletic Conference landed two teams in Super Regionals, Louisville and Houston.
“We made it our goal last season to win the national championships as a Big East team and it is our goal this season to win the national championship as an AAC team,” McDonnell said.
“I have a lot of respect for the AAC and I’m very appreciative that they let us play in that conference. I knew it was a good transition year for us. It was a step up. No disrespect for the Big East, but the AAC added southern schools. You add Central Florida, Houston and Memphis, good baseball programs in great climates. We knew it was going to be a great challenge for us, and I thought it was a really nice transition, going from the Big East to the AAC and now that gets you ready for the ACC which is going to be a great challenge.”