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Matt Fortuna, ESPN Staff Writer 420d

American commissioner Mike Aresco: Potential Big 12 expansion a 'colossal distraction'

College Football, UCF Knights, Cincinnati Bearcats, Connecticut Huskies, Houston Cougars, South Florida Bulls, SMU Mustangs, Tulane Green Wave

There were no high-fives or major celebrations Monday out of the Providence, Rhode Island, offices of the American Athletic Conference.

But commissioner Mike Aresco can admit to exhaling after the Big 12 announced that it would not expand, calling the months-long decision-making process a "colossal distraction."

"There were so many rumors that I sort of stopped reading a lot of the things," Aresco told ESPN on Tuesday. "I would glance at them and I would note it and I would realize that in the end, nobody really knew what was going to happen. None of us did. And so you just basically make sure day to day that you try to stay focused on conference business. The other thing was communication -- I tried to communicate pretty regularly with our schools. Somebody said, 'Has it been awkward communicating with your schools about this process?' And even today we had a conference call, and I said, 'No, not all. It hasn't been awkward at all, and I'm not saying that disingenuously.'

"They understood that I was going to try to be sensitive to their situation. They were going through a lot. This has been really tough and so it was up to me as a leader here at the conference to make sure I was sensitive to what they were doing."

The Big 12 announced Monday that it would not expand, after three months of exploring the option. The conference had video interviews with nearly 20 candidates, in addition to September in-person interviews with 11 different schools, including seven from the American: UCF, Cincinnati, UConn, Houston, South Florida, SMU and Tulane.

Aresco has been the American's commissioner since 2012, back when it was still the Big East. Since then, the league has renamed itself and seen the non-football schools break off and create a new Big East.

Aresco has also overseen a number of defections and expansions, from Notre Dame moving its non-football sports to the ACC, Rutgers moving to the Big Ten and Louisville to the ACC; to adding Houston, Memphis, SMU, UCF, East Carolina, Tulane and Tulsa from Conference-USA.

Navy began playing in the American last year as a football-only addition, too.

"You just had to try to control your emotions and realize it wasn't personal; it was the business of college sports as we know it," Aresco said of the Big 12 drama. "You try to empathize with everyone because this is a tough deal for everyone: for our schools, through people in the Big 12, for (Big 12 commissioner) Bob (Bowlsby). It's been tough on everyone. I'm not going to comment on the Big 12 process, but it was a long process and we had to basically try to tune out the distractions as best we could."

As the Big 12 news made its rounds Monday, a number of rejected targets issued statements reiterating what their schools have to offer.

Aresco says he views all of the American's schools as Power 5 programs in that sense, and he sees no reason the league cannot be elevated to "Power 6" status eventually, calling the recent attention placed on the league's elite schools through this process a "silver lining."

"We've probably gotten more attention in this process than we got in the couple of years prior," Aresco said. "I think our brand is national now. I think the AAC, the American, the fact the light was shining on our schools, they were the targets for the most part. We had a certain status. I think that's really important and I think it's important to capitalize on that."

From here, Aresco hopes to launch a Power 6 campaign for his league that includes benchmarks, goals and guideposts, as the plan had been on hold amid the uncertainty of Big 12 expansion. He is hoping that the recent success of many of its marquee football and basketball programs will play a vital role, especially as the American aims to draw more revenue from a new television deal.

The American is currently in Year 4 of a seven-year deal with ESPN that runs through the 2019-20 season.

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