Kevin Duffy: AAC dreams big, but can it keep up with Power Five?

NEWPORT, R.I. -- It was a day to tout Central Florida's triumph and UConn dual dominance and the undoubtedly successful inaugural AAC campaign because, well, why the hell not?

It was a day for commissioner Mike Aresco to puff his chest, a day to admit "I do not care for the Power Five designation." It was a day to quote Michelangelo and Abraham Lincoln and St. Francis of Assisi and Winston Churchill.

"It is not the beginning of the end," Aresco said, "but it is the end of the beginning."

In truth, it's one of those. We're just not sure which.

At the backdrop of AAC football media day and Aresco's half-hour sermon is the haze that settled over college athletics a decade ago and is still yet to clear.

Power Five autonomy will almost certainly be granted when the NCAA Division I Board of Directors votes on Aug. 7. These big money leagues will finally take action to provide more for their athletes who, we can all conclude, have long been given less than what they deserve. These lower-revenue leagues, most notably the AAC, will attempt to keep up. For now. They can't forever. The high-end athletic programs in these leagues, most notably UConn, will fight for what they deserve before it's too late.

This isn't a matter of what's fair or what's been earned. UConn has magnificent athletic facilities. It's a top-20 public university. It has the nation's most successful men's basketball program of the past decade-and-a-half, the most successful women's program ever and a football program that is no more or less accomplished than a whole bunch of clingers-on -- Vanderbilt, Indiana, Northwestern, Kansas, Rutgers -- raking in eight figures from TV contracts. If all was fair, UConn would be fine.

If all was fair, generations of college athletes would have benefited more from an outdated system that isn't quite broken, but clearly needs tweaking.

If all was fair for UConn, these issues wouldn't be so entangled.

Aresco began Tuesday's soliloquy with, "What a difference a year makes ¦ although I felt strongly we had great schools that could do well, it was all promise and surmise at that point.

"Not anymore."

"I scoff at the term `non-power conference' applied to us," Aresco continued.

"Power," he later added, "is right here in this room."

He detailed the undeniable success of the league's first season and declared: "We see the landscape as five plus one and we're knocking on the door. Our goal is to be in the conversation as the sixth power conference. I believe by virtue of our performance that we already are.

As I said, we're knocking on the door and we will eventually knock it down."

Then he dived into what's important, and what could dead-bolt the door shut before it unhinges. A student-athlete stipend will be instituted someday soon and Aresco is adamant that the entire AAC can support it. That's good news. As is the decision that scholarship limits and transfer legislation will be subject to shared NCAA governance, not Power Five autonomy.

But there has been speculation that Power Five schools will push for additional benefits like flights for parents and improved medical coverage. Surely, there will be many more down the road, too.

So how much can the AAC match? And for how long?

According to Aresco, the league may allow individual schools to choose, which complicates the in-conference playing field.

"My sense is that might be what the membership would like to do," Aresco said.

If UConn wants to fund parents' flights, it's essential because UConn, in many sports, competes for recruits against schools that can pay for family visits. The Huskies are among the first in line when that Power Five door falls. If Tulane weighs funding parents' flights, it could be a colossal waste of money; the Green Wave isn't anywhere near cracking the upper echelon.

Right now, UConn can't afford to give big conference schools a recruiting advantage. The Huskies are on a mission to join them. But soon, when the Big East exit fees have been exhausted and a TV contract that pays $2 million annually to AAC teams -- for reference, the B1G projects it will distribute $25 million in total revenue (not just TV money) to its members this year and $44.5 million by 2017-18 -- has taken its toll, UConn quite literally will not be able to afford to keep up.

Soon, big conferences will consider guaranteed four-year scholarships, or possible lifetime scholarships, the most sensible alteration to the current model.

It's what's fair: So many athletes come to college with visions of playing pro football. So many put so much into football, because that's how they got to college in the first place, but they fall just short as they're knocking on the NFL door. So many graduate with random degrees and zero work experience or they don't graduate at all. So many come from impoverished backgrounds with poor school systems that cannot prepare them for college.

For all these athletes give to their universities, they deserve lifetime scholarships. If the NFL dream eludes them, they deserve to return so they can devote everything to school.

They just might have to go outside the AAC to make that happen.

Mike Aresco raved about the now in the AAC because the now is impressive. But the impact of the Power Five autonomy wasn't felt last year, nor will it be felt this upcoming season. It'll happen soon.

In a defiant speech, Mike Aresco borrowed quotes from many great Americans, like Abraham Lincoln. And Ric Flair.

"You have to beat the best to be the best," Aresco said.

Then the commish went deeper.

"This is America," he said. "We believe in upward mobility. The success will translate into greater success."

That would be fair, wouldn't it?; @KevinRDuffy