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The American Athletic Conference Isn’t Elite, But It’s Competetive

Ari Russell

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A lot has been talked about this week regarding the power conferences in college football with the college football playoff standing causing it’s annual November stir. Earlier in the season there was a chance that the American Athletic Conference could have had a representative in the playoff as Houston was picked to maybe go unscathed. After the impressive win over Oklahoma a lot of folks thought it was a possibility. That’s not going to happen obviously, but that doesn’t mean that the conference is full of pushovers. In fact, as the Cougars demonstrated with their Thursday night decisive win over Louisville,  it’s quite the opposite.

The American Athletic Conference is tough and competitive. Not quite elite, but there’s some good football going down in the AAC.

Let’s begin with one of our resident teams in South Florida or USF. Right now they are 8-2 overall and 5-1 in conference. Their sole loss was against Temple in conference and if they win out the regular season, they will win 10 regular season games for the first time in school history. Impressive! They will need a Temple loss to reach the conference title game however. Head Coach Willie Taggart may not be in the zip code much longer as he’s certainly becoming a hot commodity.

Temple is in the pole position to win the AAC East. They should at least on paper as they take on Tulane and ECU who would be bowl eligible if you added up their win totals.

The other resident team UCF is having a solid season so far. They sit at 6-4 overall and 4-2 in conference. They do have a nice showdown with USF, in the battle of I-4 to close out the regular season. The Knights are having such a nice season, that head coach Scott Frost has been mentioned as a possible replacement in Oregon if they make a coaching move.  

On the other side of the conference the AAC West. The Navy Midshipmen are having a heck of a year 7-2 overall and 5-1 in conference. Their only loss in conference was against USF. They just need to beat either ECU or SMU to ride to the conference title game.

Houston was supposed to be the crown jewel of the conference (see above). However that was upended when Navy knocked them down and SMU put the nail in coffin for their national intentions. They still will go to a decent bowl game, because Thursday night and their opening weekend win vs. an Oklahoma team that may still win the Big XII was huge.

Tulsa has quietly had a nice season. They had a chance to possibly win the division, but fell just short of beating Navy last week 42-40.

Memphis has been a thorn in the side of everyone in the conference. Their win over Temple earlier in the year kept things interesting. They almost beat USF too. The Tigers are bowl eligible again, for a school.

Sure the conference isn’t setting the world ablaze, but it sure is competitive and it seems at least for the top teams anyone could beat each other. Look out during bowl season too, expect a better record than the critics will predict.   

Born in the Nation’s Capital, Washington D.C., Ari Russell watched the rise of the 1980’s Miami Hurricanes and knew that he had to be part of the “U” someday. After graduating from Coral Gables, Ari rose through the ranks of the former XM Satellite Radio and then Sirius/XM as college football executive producer. He later spent 2 seasons as the publisher of the website “Beyond U Sports” focusing on major college football/basketball. Ari brings a great perspective on everything Miami, including the Dolphins to F.F.I.

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USF Bulls

USF introduced new AD Michael Kelly Friday

Florida Football Insiders

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Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

In a return to a previous stop in his distinguished college athletics career, Michael Kelly was formally introduced as USF’s new Vice President of Athletics Friday.

Kelly, who has been the Chief Operating Officer of the College Football Playoff since 2012, was brought in to replace Mark Harlan, who departed on June 1st to be the new athletic director at Utah.

Kelly, who was previously an assistant AD at the school in 2001-02, takes over a program that has some pluses, not the least of which is a strong football program under coach Charlie Strong. It also has a women’s basketball program that is a perennial NCAA tournament team. The same with USF softball, and the last two years, the baseball team has also been in the NCAA postseason.

Men’s Basketball has largely been a mess for the last 20 plus years of play, including the firing of former coach Orlando Antigua during an NCAA investigation two years ago.

The bigger struggle is that USF is not a “Power Five” conference and suffers from the lack of significant revenue, because of it.

Kelly, who will be paid $625,000 annually plus incentives, did not shy away from USF having to battle that hurdle to compete:

“Obviously we’ve always had very aspirational goals at the University of South Florida. We’ve built a huge athletic department…Frankly, right now, we want to focus on being the very best that we can be. We are in a great league right now (the American Conference). How do we dominate that league? …That’s our goal right now. When we build the tradition, one champion at a time…we’ll be the best positioned school in the country if anything else happens (conference expansion).”

As we wrote previously, Kelly has previous experience as assistant commissioner of the ACC, handling football, broadcasting and communications. That means he understands how those leagues operate and succeed, intimately.

One of the first challenges will be to try to keep Strong from bolting, like Harlan did, for one of those bigger jobs in the short term. Strong is due to make over $5 million this season, but most of that money is still being paid by the University of Texas.

This has lead to widespread speculation that Strong might jump, especially, if USF has a successful year, in December to another school.

But, that’s in the future, in the present, Kelly’s task is to stabilize the entire department in Tampa, and through fundraising, specifically, do the best job he can in increasing revenue outside of what the American has in television, etc.

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USF Bulls

USF scores big AD hire with Michael Kelly of College Football Playoff

Florida Football Insiders

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Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

The USF Bulls and their search firm vowed that they would not take long to replace departed athletic director Mark Harlan.

And on Tuesday, less than a month after Harlan left for the University of Utah, USF announced that they hired College Football playoff senior executive Michael Kelly, to return to Tampa to run the athletic department that he used to be part of.

The school announced the move here:

Kelly who’s been the COO of the College Football Playoff since it’s inception in 2012, was previously in Tampa as USF’s, associate athletic director for external affairs for two years (2001-02).

Previously to working for the CFP, Kelly had spent six years with the Atlantic Coast Conference, as a senior associate commissioner overseeing football, broadcasting and communications.

USF included these comments from him in the release:

“I am truly honored to return to the University of South Florida and Tampa Bay. This is a dream opportunity for me, and I couldn’t be more grateful to President Genshaft and the USF Board of Trustees,” Kelly said. “It’s a very exciting time with the university and the entire region on such strong upward trajectories. I can’t wait to get started with our student-athletes, coaches, staff, Bulls fans, donors and alumni everywhere.”

Kelly also, has an extensive background and history with Tampa Bay and big events, as he was the executive director of the 1999 Men’s Final Four organizing committee for the event that was held at Tropicana Field in St Petersburg.

His excellent work with that led him to be the president of the Super Bowl host Committee in Tampa Bay for Super Bowl 35 (2001) and later have that same role in Jacksonville for Super Bowl 39 and in Miami for Super Bowl 41.

The Bulls currently reside in the American Athletic Conference, which is a compilation of leftover teams from the old Big East and some added teams from Conference USA. However, that League has nowhere near the revenue as the “Power 5” conferences, and it will be a challenge for Kelly, just like it is for the other schools, to raise money and try to level the playing field.

USF has to consider this a “home run hire” to replace Harlan, as Kelly brings tremendous credibility from college football’s most important post-season brand. And, because of Kelly’s relationship at the network TV level from his days with the CFP and also with the ACC, it will benefit the American Athletic Conference to have him now in the fold as well.

The Bulls will introduce Kelly at a news conference later this week.

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USF Bulls

Former Bucs Hall of Famer Derrick Brooks won’t be new USF AD

Florida Football Insiders

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Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

USF search for a new athletic director continues, another prominent name that had been speculating about has decided that he won’t be in it. Tampa Bay Buccaneers Hall of Fame linebacker Derrick Brooks released a statement on Friday to officially rule himself out for replacing former AD Mark Harlan. Harlan left three weeks ago Friday to take the same position with the University of Utah.

Brook’s statement came Friday through the high school that he co-founded in Tampa with former 49ers owner Eddie Debartolo.

“As flattered as I am to be publicly mentioned for the Director of Athletics position at the
University of South Florida, I do not believe the timing is right for me to pursue any new
opportunities. Commitments with Brooks DeBartolo Collegiate High School, Derrick
Brooks Charities and, most importantly, my family, would not enable me to fully devote
the time that would be required to successfully engage in this role at USF.

Brooks continued,

“I see nothing but a great future for USF Athletics and I know that the advisory
committee and President Genshaft will have excellent candidates to choose from in
selecting the new leader.

Because of Brooks’s previous experience on the Florida State University board of directors and having been the president and general manager of the now-defunct Tampa Bay Storm Arena Football team, many think Brooks would have been an ideal choice for the Bulls.

However, his work not only with his charitable foundation and the Brooks-Debartolo Collegiate High School has been very successful for over a decade in the Tampa area.

We wrote previously that Brooks should be one of the names that USF president Dr. Judy Genshaft, Dr. Bob Sutton from the University, who is heading up to search, and the search firm, Eastman & Beaudine should take a strong look at.

One source told F.F.I. that it was a very tough obstacle for a lot of USF alumni and donors that Brooks was so heavily associated with Florida State. However, he is a tremendous figure over the last 23 years in the Tampa Bay area.

Brooks, who’s now 45, was a former All-American linebacker national champion with the Seminoles from the early 1990s. He later became a first-round pick with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1995 and helped lead them to a Super Bowl championship in 2002

Earlier, Tampa Sports executive Rob Higgins, who heads up the Tampa Bay Sports Commission, had also announced that he was going to assist the search but was not a candidate for the job. His organization has been responsible for Super Bowls, the College Football Playoff Championship Game, the recent NHL All-Star Game and other prominent sports events coming to the Tampa Bay Area.

USF is in need of an impressive hire to help not only with fundraising but another last-ditch opportunity to get them into a bigger conference than the current American Athletic Conference, where they currently reside.

The Bulls make a fraction of what the other “Power Five” conferences make in terms of revenue, including from television rights. It’s one of the big reasons Harlan took the Utah job in the pac-12 where their revenue is more than five times that of the Bulls.

USF will likely interview at least two-three out of market candidates during the search.

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