Tim Pernetti has big shoes to fill AAC

Tim Pernetti has big shoes to fill AAC

Tim Pernetti has big shoes to fill AAC

Tim Pernetti has big Oxfords to fill.

Hell, I don’t know what kind of shoes Mike Aresco wore as commissioner of the American Athletic Conference. But I know that no commission has ever fought so hard for their league as Aresco.

Pernetti, who has quite a varied background in sports administration, succeeded Aresco on June 1 and now leads the University of Tulsa conference. Aresco had been the sole commissioner of the American Conference, which was formed in 2013 after a split from legacy Big East schools.

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The New York Times called Aresco “perhaps the most optimistic man in sports.” Aresco has been a tireless supporter of the AAC, whether in television negotiations or access to postseason play or fighting the wills encroaching on college athletics’ biggest brands.

“Arguably, no other college athletic director has worked as relentlessly as Aresco to bridge the widening chasm between college sports’ power conferences and the leagues bearing the Group of Five label,” he wrote Sportico last December, upon news of Aresco’s withdrawal.

People read and…

Aresco provides quite the template for Pernetti.

“The one thing I feel really strongly about, Mike Aresco did a tremendous job,” Pernetti told the Tulsa World. “He really fought and advocated on behalf of the conference.”

Pernetti faces an even tougher task. The Southeastern Conference and Big Ten have attracted power plays that threaten the mid-major leagues’ attempt to navigate the NCAA landscape. Meanwhile, the AAC, which for a full decade has been the strongest mid-major conference, faces constant challenges in maintaining that status, primarily from the Sun Belt and Mountain West conferences.

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But Pernetti recognizes the power of the American.

“This conference is the toughest conference in America,” Pernetti said. “We kept coming back every time.”

The most recent setback for the AAC was the loss to Southern Methodist, who last football season should have been in the Fiesta Bowl. Instead, the selection committee chose Liberty, in a clear case of just trying to postpone a meeting.

SMU joins the Atlantic Coast Conference next week, a year after American lost Central Florida, Houston and Cincinnati to the Big 12.

But the AAC is back, adding Army as an exclusive football member, and Tulane, Memphis and Texas-San Antonio return as powerhouse programs.

American now has both Army and Navy.

“College football is national brands,” Pernetti said. “They have an affinity and a luster and a power unlike any other. Bringing in the military gives us that commander-in-chief feel. Those atmospheres are remarkable. Of all the places I’ve been, Michie (Stadium) and Navy-Marine Corps Stadium are two of my favorites. The atmosphere, the tradition.”

Seven times in the last 10 years, the American has occupied the major-bowl seat allocated to leagues outside the power conferences. 2022 Tulane, which stunned Southern Cal in the Cotton Bowl, and 2019 Memphis, which lost a wild Cotton Bowl to Penn State, were among those AAC teams.

“I think the conference is very well positioned,” Pernetti told the Tulsa World. “In terms of the challenges, financial, this and that, they are industry-wide. These are not unique to AAC.”

Pernetti was a tight end at Rutgers, and his alma mater eventually hired him as its athletic director. Pernetti lost his job when he was caught up in the on-court player abuse scandal by basketball coach Mike Rice.

But Pernetti’s resume remains strong. He has worked for both ABC Sports and the CBS College Sports Network, primarily in college football relations. Pernetti also served as the business director of Major League Soccer’s New York franchise and president of the IMG Academy.

Pernetti’s ties to Tulsa don’t run deep. But TU was in both Conference USA and the Mountain West when Pernetti made television deals with those leagues. And Pernetti said he has a long-standing relationship with Golden Hurricane athletic director Rick Dickson that goes back to Dickson’s days as AD at Washington State and that Dickson has been invaluable as an AAC sounding board.

Justin Moore has been hired as the new Tulsa athletics director and takes over on July 1.

What advice does Pernetti have for YOU?

“I think the answer … is to do everything you can to provide the best product possible,” Pernetti said. “You have to create a great experience for the student-athletes.”

Pernetti praised TU’s soccer program; The Golden Hurricane hosted OU last season and played at Washington. This season, Tulsa hosts OSU.

“We should compete not only with each other, but also outside of the conference,” Pernetti said. “Tulsa in particular was one that challenged. That’s really important.”

Pernetti said he didn’t meet Moore until they spoke after his Tulsa hire, but Pernetti said Moore’s experience at both Texas A&M and the University of Houston should be a big plus for the AAC.

Pernetti joins the American at an interesting time. The advent of the 12-team football playoff turns that major-bowl avenue into a playoff path for the AAC, Mountain West, Sun Belt, Mid-American Conference and Conference USA. The American this season could be on a stage that would surpass even the Final Four berths for Connecticut and Houston as members of the AAC.

So while the challenges for schools outside of the power conference structure are vast, the opportunities are greater than ever.

“Honestly, over time, college football has evolved as an enterprise,” Pernetti said. “That created more value for everyone.”

He said nothing is more important than reaching the football playoffs.

“It’s significant,” Pernetti said. “I know from talking to our football coaches that it’s something they socialize and sell as part of their recruiting processes.

“Historically, the American Athletic Conference has brought in more attendance than some of our peers, and we continue to keep it that way.”

Pernetti said he wants the AAC to be intentional about everything from programming to brand building to recruiting so individual schools aren’t on an island, fending for themselves.

“The CFP is of critical importance,” Pernetti said. “We’re excited to have this access.”

Of course, there are costs. The SEC and the Big Ten, in particular, have pulled no punches in their lust for bigger pieces of the financial playoff pie, and their power moves to put more litigation costs on the less resourced conferences are practically immoral.

More coy has been the super league’s stance on March Madness expansion. It sounds like they’re advocating for more NCAA tournament teams, but they’re actually looking for more SEC and Big Ten teams.

“I always vote for these opportunities to be more inclusive,” Pernetti said. “The addition and expansion would provide that opportunity.”

He remembered Cinderella stories from schools like St. Peter’s and Fairleigh Dickinson in recent NCAA tournaments.

But some suspect that increasing the field from 68 to 72 or 76 teams is a means of getting more Big Ten and SEC schools into the field.

“If the idea is to create more space for certain conferences over others, I don’t think I would support” the expansion, Pernetti said.

Welcome to the world of conference commissioners. Their leagues have to scratch and claw for everything they have.

That’s what Mike Aresco did for AAC. That’s what Tim Pernetti is tasked with doing.

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