Thank you, Kevin (Negandhi), for that very kind introduction. We appreciate your great work at ESPN and your interest in our conference. As a Temple alum, we know there is a special bond.
I want to take a moment this morning to remember former SEC Commissioner Mike Slive, who passed away in May. Much has been written about Mike and his many significant accomplishments on behalf of the SEC and college sports, and although they are legion, the Mike Slive whom I and his family and many friends will always remember was a warm and gracious human being, a giant of a man who remained humble. Many in this room treasure our memories of him. His wife Liz, daughter Anna, son-in-law Judd and granddaughter Abigail are in our thoughts and prayers, and if Mike is looking down at us this morning, I hope he is enjoying a great cigar. Mike’s passing leaves a void in college athletics, and as has been said, some voids never get filled.
I want to recognize two of our presidents who are leaving their positions. John Hitt, of UCF, has retired as of July 1 and Susan Herbst, of UConn, will transition to the UConn faculty in July of 2019. Both have served as our conference’s NCAA Board members. Both have had distinguished presidencies. Both are great leaders. Both took their universities to new heights. John managed the phenomenal growth of UCF for 25 years, and his contributions to that university cannot be overstated. John’s vision and executive skill transformed UCF in all areas, and his contributions to our conference and his steadfast support have been critical, especially in our early years. We wish John and his lovely wife Martha a wonderful retirement. His successor, Dale Whitaker, will continue and build upon John’s great work, and we welcome him to our conference’s Board of Directors.
Susan has been instrumental in making UConn a top-20 public university, #19 in the latest US News and World Report rankings. She has also managed tremendous growth in all areas at UConn and has also taught a course in political science annually in addition to her executive duties, which reflects her love of teaching and a connection to her students. She has been a huge asset to the conference and to me during some very trying times. She and retiring Board Chair Larry McHugh have been steadfast in their support of the conference. We owe them a great debt of gratitude and we wish Susan and her husband Doug the best as Susan eventually makes this transition.
John and Susan are among the five presidents who remain from the turmoil of five years ago when the conference was reinvented. Their efforts were critical, and without them, the remarkable progress we have made would not have been possible. We wish them good luck and thank them for their service.
I would also like to recognize Renu Khator, president of the University of Houston, who is our conference’s Board chair, and David Rudd, our vice chair who is the president of the University of Memphis. Renu is one of the original five to whom I alluded and has done a remarkable job for the conference and in elevating the University of Houston. Her ten years there have witnessed tremendous growth in all areas, and David Rudd’s tenure at Memphis has seen an unprecedented level of growth in all areas as well. Tom Bowen, who ably serves as our AD chair, has provided counsel and friendship that has been invaluable to the conference and to me. We are fortunate to have such distinguished individuals, and I salute the efforts of our great group of presidents and athletic directors for whom I am privileged to serve.
I would like to welcome two of our newest athletic directors who are joining us in Newport for the first time in that capacity – Chris Pezman of Houston and Michael Kelly of USF. Michael was scheduled to join us this year as part of his former role as COO of the College Football Playoff – but we are excited to have him under our banner.
I would like to congratulate David Bassity and his staff at the University of Houston on their recognition by the Football Writers as one of the Super 11 media relations staffs nationally.
I salute my outstanding conference staff who make service to our schools their highest priority. Scott Draper and his team do an excellent job overseeing our football, Bernie Cafarelli, and Chuck Sullivan do the same handling our communications, everyone involved deserves kudos for organizing our media day events – especially Lisa Zanecchia, who makes this event a great success every year. A shout out to Donna DeMarco, our COO, who sees to it that our conference office runs seamlessly.
I want to extend a warm welcome to all of our guests, including our TV partners ESPN and CBS Sports, who do so much to build our brand nationally, and the many bowl representatives who are here and who have supported us over the years. We also welcome Tim Henning from the Heisman Trophy Trust and thank him for bringing the most iconic individual award in sports to our event. I have a feeling that some of the players in this room today will have a chance to meet with Tim again and be reacquainted with the Heisman in December in New York City. And as a side note, I am also happy to report that we set another unofficial record for lobsters consumed last night at the clambake. We appreciate the media’s attendance and interest in us and their support for the great game of college football, and my mention of them at this point is not to suggest that they ate all the lobsters!
In mentioning our great game, I would be remiss in not pointing out the challenges it faces, issues of health and safety among the most important. We take these extremely seriously. Yes, there is danger in playing football, but the game is safer than ever before, the protective equipment more sophisticated than ever before. No human undertaking can be made completely safe, but we will never stop striving to reach that goal. However, I am reminded of what ECU coach Scottie Montgomery said a while back, that football has benefitted countless young men over the years. Steve Hatchell, the president and CEO of the National Football Foundation and Hall of Fame, again has honored us with his presence and has shared his concerns regarding the health of the game and the steps that the NFF is taking to address them. We applaud his and his staff’s efforts. Everyone who loves college football is in his debt.
As you all know, we just celebrated our fifth anniversary as the American Athletic Conference, and in that five years, we have accomplished a great deal. The phenomenal success we have enjoyed is in direct proportion to the valiant efforts of our student-athletes, coaches, administrators, institutional support staff and our conference office staff. Our presidents and athletic directors have had a vision for this conference, a Power 6 vision, and we are fulfilling the promise that was evident in our early years. They have made the commitment necessary for us to approach Power 6 status, they have provided the vision and resources in a tough environment that have enabled our student-athletes to compete at the highest level.
I want to mention a few things that have transpired over the past year that reflect the cohesion of this conference. One is the outstanding cooperation of our schools in rearranging our football schedules in the wake of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. Many schools were disadvantaged as a result, but our 8-game conference schedule was preserved, and this commitment to the integrity of our schedule brought honor to our schools. I also salute Scott Draper and Tom Odjakjian and our conference staff for the countless hours of hard work it took to develop alternate schedules that worked.
The second item, although a non-football one, also reflects the values of this conference, and that is the seamless nature of Wichita State’s entry into the conference this past year. Wichita State has been a great addition, and our membership was welcoming and enthusiastic. Kudos to Wichita State President John Bardo and Athletic Director Darron Boatright for their success and the immediate camaraderie they fostered.
It is hard to put into words the admiration I have for what our football teams have accomplished over the past five years. We are now a nationally respected brand, and we could not have made that claim five years ago, although our potential even then was apparent. The work it took to reach this point has been enormous, the challenges great. We have taken on the best teams, the best of the best in the other P6 conferences, and we have won our share. We have had many signature victories, all the more remarkable because we play so many of those games on the road. We have a 3-0 record in New Year’s Day games, all wins against top 10 P6 teams. None of this has been easy, and it has taken a fearlessness and grit that has captured the imagination of the country.
I salute the UCF Knights on their great undefeated season, and on the national championship that they have a right to claim. They finished #1 in the Colley Computer Index, and many schools over the years, including Alabama, have claimed national championships based on such metrics. We congratulate the Alabama Crimson Tide and Nick Saban on their CFP title and we respect the CFP process, we are part of it. But that does not mean that we cannot celebrate our UCF Knights. They have become a national brand and have helped our conference become a national brand.
And in congratulating UCF, I am reminded that Scott Frost showed great class in coaching the team in its Peach Bowl win over Auburn. He brought honor to the coaching profession and helped make the 2017 UCF season one his players and UCF fans will never forget.
Let’s also not forget, as I have said before, that this is not an issue of war and peace. UCF and its fans and followers around the country can enjoy this. But a larger point can also be made, that this UCF team deserved a shot at the national championship and could have won it. Our best teams, which were New Year’s Bowl winners, UCF in 2014 and 2017, and Houston in 2015, could have beaten anyone in the country. The same can be said of some of our other strong teams.
I fervently hope that UCF’s 2017 performance, and the performances of so many of our teams over our five-year history, convinces the CFP Selection Committee to take a closer look and to evaluate us differently. Our league is very good, very underrated despite our success, and there is no question that the G5 tag has had a lot to do with it.
Houston’s ranking in 2015, UCF’s ranking in 2017: neither made sense nor each team proved that in their respective New Year’s Day Bowl wins. We do not want a glass, or grass if you will, ceiling in college football, as it is terribly unfair to our terrific players and coaches.
I have been saying for a long time that the world has changed and it behooves all of us to recognize that. College football is far more democratized than it once was. Yes, the so-called blueblood programs still tend to dominate from year to year, and the autonomous conferences have advantages in money, tradition, facilities, name recognition, television exposure and fan bases, but other schools can now emerge and are emerging. Our conference is the prime example of this. UCF, Houston, USF, Memphis, Navy, Temple and others in our league have reached new heights. We have depth, we have had multiple 9, and 10 and 11 and 12 win teams. Cincinnati and ECU have had outstanding success in our league and will return to prominence. SMU, Tulsa, and UConn have been to bowl games, and Tulane is on the cusp.
With scholarship limits, online and TV exposure, population growth, social media, sophisticated recruiting, with all these things now in place, we can compete as never before. If you are committed to hiring good coaches and improving your facilities, if you care, – you can compete.
Yet, I still see our teams getting slighted. I see television shows where the focus is on Alabama, Clemson, Miami, Auburn, Ohio State, Georgia, etc., when in fact USF or UCF or Memphis are major challenges and are not mentioned. The game between Oklahoma and Houston in 2016 is an example, Baker Mayfield got all the attention but Greg Ward and Houston won decisively. We will keep fighting for the attention and recognition that we deserve and that we have earned, and we will put to rest the “strength of schedule” argument used against us.
I ask you to look at the talented players assembled in the room here today. We have All-Americans, Heisman Trophy candidates, national award winners and high-achieving scholars. Look at Ed Oliver – whom Sports Illustrated calls the best player in the country. Look at McKenzie Milton, who might well be the best quarterback in the nation. Look at Tony Pollard, who is unquestionably the most dangerous return man in the country.
In fact, with those three young men, we once again are the only conference in the country that has its offensive, defensive and special teams players of the year back from last year. This conference has always had great players. For example, what is there to say about Shaquem Griffin that has not already been said? A great young man. In a larger sense, Shaquem reflected and epitomized our league, underappreciated until we do something remarkable, underrated until we shock the world as we did in this year’s Peach Bowl, in the 2015 Peach Bowl, in the 2014 Fiesta Bowl, in all the P6 victories. And doing it with class on the field and in the classroom and in the community. Shaquem represents the best of the best and inspires those who struggle to overcome adversity. And I would be remiss in not mentioning the midshipmen of Navy, those outstanding young men who will eventually be in harm’s way to preserve our freedoms and our way of life.
That said, I am proud of all of our outstanding student-athletes. I love being commissioner of this conference because I take pride and enormous pleasure in all the successes of our student-athletes and coaches from each of our great institutions. They overcome great odds with talent, grit, and determination. We have accomplished far more in five years than virtually anyone thought we would, and the best is yet to come.
You’ve heard a lot about the Power 6, or P6 as we refer to it in shorthand, and I have said that it is no longer a media or promotional campaign, it is a reality. This conference has proven time and again that it belongs in the so-called power group. Tremendous energy has been invested in the P6 campaign. 2017 was another major step forward as UCF went undefeated and defeated #7 Auburn in the Peach Bowl.
And I have said many times over the years that to belong in this group, one does not have to be the Big Ten or the SEC, neither are some of the other autonomy five conferences the equivalent of the Big Ten or the SEC. We simply have to show that, although we are somewhat different, we are also very much alike and belong in that company. We can be JetBlue, which is a major carrier but clearly different than a United or a Delta or an American. I think this comparison is apt because we are a major conference but we do things a bit differently, we recruit differently, we hire coaches differently, we schedule differently, witness our Thursday and Friday football schedules on ESPN. But in many key ways that matter, we are alike – we have a clear commonality with the autonomy conferences. The issues our schools face are similar to or the same as those that they face. We play football and basketball at the highest levels, we have large and important schools.
We pay the cost of attendance for our student-athletes and we sign on to all of the autonomous legislation. We have television exposure as good or better than some of the autonomous conferences, and we are on par with them competitively. Our revenue differential has perhaps been the biggest obstacle to being viewed and accepted as a P6 conference, and we intend to remedy that in our upcoming TV/media rights negotiation. We have been and will continue to be an innovative conference, and this innovation will be valuable as we approach our media rights negotiation.
I take great pride in what this conference has accomplished over its five-year history, what our schools have accomplished. We know where we were in 2013 when we launched this reinvented and rebranded conference, and how we are perceived now. It is night and day, and the potential we had in the wake of realignment is being realized, much faster and on a much greater scale than anyone could have imagined. Brick after brick has been laid and now the foundation has been built. For our conference this is, paraphrasing something Churchill once said, not the end or even the beginning of the end, but it is clearly the end of the beginning. We have much work to do, but we are confident and established and we have opportunities not many thought we would have.
If I said back in 2013 that in five years we would clearly be knocking on the door of the autonomy group, you would have, to put it politely, doubted me.
But, mark my words, we will eventually get there. We will never settle for second-class status, we will never accept a silly non-power designation, we will continue to fight, we will never surrender to the naysayers, who will always be with us.
However, the skeptics are fewer in number, I am happy to report, although some still tell us that P6 is an impossible dream. I do not believe that for a moment, as it is not an impossible dream. These same skeptics likely would not have given George Washington and his colonial army much chance against the mighty British either, and we know how that one turned out. The only failure on our part that would ever concern me would be the failure to strive, to set lofty goals, to fight the good fight, to fight on and to prevail against heavy odds. We are happy warriors taking the fight to a group that we would rather join than fight, and I believe we can see the latter outcome not far down the road.
When we stand on the New Year’s Day bowl game platforms (we are undefeated in 3 New Year’s Day games since 2014), we represent power, when the UConn men stood on the NCAA basketball national championship platform, they represented power, when the UConn women did so multiple times, they represented power, when our student-athletes won individual and team NCAA Olympic sport championships, they represented power. And when they received their degrees and played with sportsmanship and served their communities, they represented power and a powerful vision.
When you win 26 P6 games in the past three years, including high-profile wins against Oklahoma, Florida State, Auburn, Ole Miss, UNC, NC State, Pittsburgh, Louisville (twice), among others, it is no fluke. When you have 90+ games each with 1m or more television viewers, it is no fluke. When you have 15 NFL draft picks to the Big 12’s 14 in 2017, it is no fluke. When you have set NCAA all-time receiving records, when you have an Outland Trophy winner, a Nagurski Award winner and two Sullivan Award winners, and a host of other individual awards, it is no fluke. If this is not power, then power loses its definition. There is asymmetry in the tagline “P6 in Year 6”, but never has it been more on point.
Our student-athletes compete successfully at the highest level, in a climate of compliance, and they contribute in many ways to their schools and their communities. I applaud the student-athletes in this room, their coaches, and their colleagues across all of our campuses. I look forward with great anticipation to another outstanding football season, and may we win our share.