AAC Gets the Last Laugh
The American Athletic Conference (AAC) has been the butt of jokes since its formation, what followed the separation of the non-Catholic schools from the Big East Conference and the addition of several new schools from Conference USA. For years, the Big East found itself under pressure as key programs left the conference for the ACC, Big 12, and Big Ten conferences. When the separation was complete, the newly-named AAC was cobbled together in time for the 2013-2014 season.
With an assembly of new and left over schools to compose a new conference, few expected the AAC to have much to offer, assigning the league mid-major status, dropping it down one notch from the power conference status the original Big East Conference once enjoyed. Two programs, Louisville and Rutgers, would also play in its inaugural season before heading out to greener pastures — to the ACC and Big Ten conferences respectively.
Well, the AAC appears to have gotten the last laugh following the completion of the basketball season. Of the three major sports that matter most in college sports, an AAC team won the national championship. That would be UConn winning both the men’s and women’s national championships, something both teams also did in 2004 when the Huskies were Big East members.
In football, the national championship went to Florida, but AAC conference champion Central Florida punctuated its surprising season by knocking off favored Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl. For its part, Louisville also shined, clobbering Miami in the Russell Athletic Bowl. Both teams finished at 12-1 for the year.
Redemption is sweet and although the AAC isn’t about to be elevated to power conference status, the success of several programs this academic year should remind everyone that champions or at least top programs aren’t necessarily the product of the top conferences. Rather, they come as the result of the skill, pluck, and determination of their respective schools. Boise State (football), Wichita State (men’s basketball), and Dayton (women’s basketball) are among the programs that have succeeded just outside of the big time program spotlight.
For UConn, winning both basketball tournaments took the edge off of a terrible season for its football team. The gridiron Huskies started the season with nine losses before winning their last three games, for its third consecutive losing season. Its football weakness has been cited by some as the reason why UConn isn’t receiving invitations to either the Big Ten or ACC conferences, despite its land-grant status and strong visibility in several academic ranking reports. UConn yearns for the ACC, but would be satisfied if it became the 15th school in the prestigious Big Ten Conference.
The academic year is winding down with baseball and lacrosse seasons still awaiting completion. In the grand scheme of things both are minor sports with the AAC already having enough success to show that it can take on the competition.