Minium: AAC unlikely to replace UConn with ODU, but as the University grows, expect that to change in a few years
By ODU Athletics
By Harry Minium
When word broke over the weekend the University of Connecticut, widely known as UConn, was leaving the American Athletic Conference for the Big East, fans at most Conference USA schools began dreaming of moving on up.
Conference USA is in many ways an outstanding league. Certainly, C-USA football is vastly underrated. But the AAC plays on a higher level. Central Florida claimed a mythical national football title after an unbeaten season in 2017 and Memphis may be considered Final Four material in the near future.
Many in the media quickly settled on Old Dominion and UAB as the favorites, with most giving the Monarchs a slight edge.
Besides bringing nationally prominent football and basketball to Norfolk, the league would provide ODU with three regional rivalries – East Carolina, Navy and Temple.
Imagine the media hype when the Naval Academy brought the Midshipmen to Norfolk, home of the nation’s largest naval base.
But sources tell me that the AAC may not add a 12th school. It might decide to be aspirational and go after Rutgers, a Big Ten team geographically distant from the B10. Or it could go after Brigham Young or Army, which have national followings.
For now, at least, it appears the league won't make a C-USA team a 12th member.
And, yes, I’m as disappointed as the rest of you. ODU has made strategic investments to improve football and basketball, and clearly, the Monarchs should be the best candidate from C-USA.
ODU's Kornblau Field at S.B. Ballard Stadium opens Aug. 31 with a game against Norfolk State
ESPN, CBSSports and others predicted that ODU and UAB from Conference USA would be the two major candidates if the AAC decides to replace the Huskies.
Chuck Landon, the columnist from Huntington, W.Va., wrote that if the AAC decides to replace UConn, ODU is the only likely choice, even ahead of Brigham Young and Army.
I agree with Chuck on the gist of his column -- ODU is the only Conference USA school that makes sense.
ODU and UAB are both in large media markets that draw astoundingly good TV ratings for just about any kind of football. Both are building new football stadiums and have good basketball facilities – deemed a must for the AAC.
UAB has also had remarkable success on the field after a 2-year hiatus from football.
But in almost every other category, ODU is a better fit for the AAC.
ODU usually leads C-USA in basketball attendance and won the league title in March. And with all due respect to the rest of the C-USA, Chartway Arena is the finest facility in C-USA and is attached to a state-of-the-art training facility.
ODU’s football team upended No. 13 Virginia Tech, 49-35 last season in what was generally called the biggest college football upset in more than a decade. ODU has been playing football just 10 years, but had two teams ranked among the FCS top 10 and won a recent bowl game.
And ODU is already spending what it takes to be successful in the AAC. ODU’s budget in 2016-17 was $46 million, and according to USA Today was by far the largest in C-USA.
Add the $7 million in TV revenue the AAC will receive under its new deal with ESPN and that budget expands to $53 million, which is about mid-range for the AAC.
And that doesn’t include a huge jolt in football and basketball attendance, and fund raising, that would surely occur when AAC members began playing in Norfolk.
ODU has invested substantially in new athletic facilities in recent years, including a renovated S.B. Ballard Stadium, the home for ODU football which is undergoing a $67.5 million overhaul.
Chartway Arena is the best in Conference USA and compares well to most AAC schools.
The new stadium won't be the biggest in FBS, but will be among the finest in the country.
An aside here: ODU is also spending much on academic projects. A new chemistry building and a residential hall that will house 470 students are under construction at a combined cost of more than $135 million. Both are being built to help ODU continue its goal of moving up as a national leader in high-tech fields, such as cybersecurity, engineering and sciences. A new, $86 million health sciences building is working through the approval process.
ODU’s campus is far more impressive than I imagine AAC officials think it is. They should come and visit ODU, if for no other reason than to really get to know the school as they consider expansion.
ODU is located in one of the nation’s hottest high school recruiting areas, especially in Virginia Beach, Chesapeake and the Peninsula and AAC schools already recruit in Hampton Roads. Being able to tell recruits that you will play numerous games back home would enhance AAC recruiting.
ODU can also fundraise with the big boys. The Old Dominion Athletic Foundation raised $16 million in private funds in 2018. In just 2 ½ years, ODU has raised $35 million of a $40 million goal for athletics.
And ODU has an athletic endowment that exceeds $33 million.
The east side of Kornblau Field at S.B. Ballard Stadium is nearing completion.
And did I mention that ODU is the only real game in town in a metropolitan area of 1.7 million people? There is no major sports or FBS competition nearby. The closest FBS school is East Carolina, 2 ½ hours from Norfolk, and the University of Virginia, an ACC school. which is three hours away.
ODU would also add value to the AAC’s TV contract. ODU has future home games with Virginia, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest. A 10-year home-and-home contract with Virginia Tech begins in 2022. Wake and U.Va. both come to ODU next season.
Those games would become the AAC’s to feature on ESPN.
Alas, the Cincinnati Enquirer and other media outlets report that the AAC is unlikely to add a 12th member. Sources tell me the report is accurate.
Both C-USA and the Sun Belt emerged from the last round of conference realignment with leagues that span from the East Coast to West Texas. Travel costs in Conference USA and the Sun Belt are huge. Far too much class time is missed by ODU students as they travel to UTEP, or FIU students when they fly to North Texas.
The simplest solution would be for the two leagues to divide themselves along geographic lines, but so far, that sensible solution has garnered little support.
UConn might force some needed change by leading the charge for a football-only league. Army, UMass, UConn and Liberty are all eastern independents. Others might be enticed to take the same route. Perhaps they all might remain independent, but from a scheduling consortium that would guarantee everyone games.
UConn’s decision to join the Big East had to happen. UConn is a men’s and women’s basketball power and has found it difficult to establish rivalries with schools in North Carolina, Texas and Florida.
It was the talk among the media three months ago at the NCAA regional in Hartford.
UConn officials were also known to be dissatisfied with travel in the far-flung AAC. Now the Huskies will be reunited with long-time rivals Georgetown, Providence, Villanova, St. John’s and Seton Hall. And many will be just bus rides away.
UConn will also be returning to Madison Square Garden for the Big East basketball tournament. Clearly, UConn makes the Big East a more valuable TV commodity.
As an independent, UConn can control who it plays. The Huskies can schedule themselves back into competitiveness, something far more difficult to do when you’re playing UCF and Houston every season.
If they get six or seven wins, their name and close connections with ESPN will get them a bowl bid.
Another round of realignment likely will occur when the Power 5 TV contracts begin to expire in 2025. There's a ton of speculation that the Big 12 might take Central and South Florida, two programs with a great football fan base and Power 5 facilities.
The Mitchum Performance Center includes a practice court, offices, training and workout facilities, players lounges and meeting rooms for the men's and women's basketball programs
ODU athletic director Wood Selig has worked tirelessly behind the scenes to improve ODU's conference lot. So has every other C-USA school. Striving to best position your institution isn’t disloyal. It’s what many athletic programs strive to achieve.
ODU can’t control what the AAC does. But it can control what it does to prepare for the future. ODU is attempting to stand out nationally, exactly what Monarch basketball did last season,
That is exactly what is taking place at ODU as the Monarchs are rising to national prominence.
Contact Minium: email@example.com