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How the AAC became a launching pad for Power 5 coaches

PHOENIX -- As successful Power 5 coordinators, Mike Norvell and Geoff Collins turned down head-coaching opportunities before they decided to lead Memphis and Temple, respectively.

Both programs offered urban locations in fruitful recruiting areas, enhanced commitment to football and recent runs of success. They also offered something else: the chance to follow coaches Justin Fuente and Matt Rhule, who had vaulted to bigger jobs at Virginia Tech and Baylor.

American Athletic Conference schools such as Memphis and Temple have been able to dangle a unique career development opportunity at prospective coaches. Come to our league, have success, and Power 5 programs -- not the bottom rung, mind you -- will come calling.

After last season, the AAC saw coaches leave for Texas (Houston's Tom Herman), Oregon (South Florida's Willie Taggart) and Baylor (Temple's Rhule). The year before, Fuente parlayed two strong seasons at Memphis into the Virginia Tech job. Three of the past four Houston coaches went to Baylor, Texas A&M and Texas. Three of Cincinnati's past four coaches advanced to Michigan State, Notre Dame and Tennessee. The past three Temple coaches moved to Power 5 jobs.

"The American Athletic Conference has become a breeding ground for great coaches," Houston athletic director Hunter Yurachek said this week at the AAC spring meetings.

AAC commissioner Mike Aresco is perfectly fine with the Power 5 targeting AAC coaches. He had the same feeling about Power 5 leagues considering AAC members as expansion candidates.

"We're proud of these guys going to the P5, and the other coaches see that," Aresco said. "We're an attractive league. Whether they view us as a stepping stone, I could care less. They want to come to us because they see all these guys getting hired."

Aresco pushes the term "Power 6," which groups the American with the traditional big-boy leagues. Whether it will stick is debatable, but the AAC's place in the coaching industry is clear.

An agent who represents head coaches in multiple Group of 5 leagues, including the American, recently demonstrated. He held his hand at eye level, indicating the Power 5, and then at waist level to represent most of the schools in the Mountain West, Mid-American, Conference USA and Sun Belt.

"The American is right here," he said, holding his hand near his neck, closer to the top than the bottom.

The coaching salaries back that up. Houston bumped Herman to $3 million after a 2015 season that ended with a Peach Bowl championship. Cincinnati's Luke Fickell, a first-time head coach, signed a six-year deal that will pay him an average of $2.23 million annually, slightly more than what predecessor Tommy Tuberville received ($2.2 million). In December, SMU coach Chad Morris, who earns about $2 million annually, agreed to a contract extension through 2023. Last week, UCF raised coach Scott Frost's salary to $2 million as part of a short extension.

AAC programs also have increased their investment in facilities and other resources. They're doing that despite a television contract that distributes only about $2 million per school annually.

In the past four seasons, the league has earned two New Year's Six bowl wins and victories over prominent Power 5 opponents such as Oklahoma, Ole Miss, Notre Dame, Louisville and Penn State, a collection that caught Collins' attention. In last month's NFL draft, the American produced more selections (15) than the Big 12 (14), though the AAC does have two more members.

"There had been other places, other conferences that I had discussed or looked at," said Norvell, who earned $900,000 in his final year as Arizona State's offensive coordinator. "This was one I knew I wanted to be a part of. You see growth. You see innovation. You see programs that are really looking to elevate with the building and the things we're trying to do.

"You want to be with something that's moving up. When this opportunity presented itself, it was a no-brainer."

Aresco wants others in Norvell's position to think that way as they assess their next career steps. He views Power 5 coordinators as the key candidate pool to sustain the league and points to high-profile coordinator hires such as Norvell, Morris (Clemson), Collins (Florida), Frost (Oregon), Fickell (Ohio State) and Philip Montgomery, who coordinated Baylor's offense before taking the head-coaching job at Tulsa, where he went 10-3 last season.

The AAC has some veterans, such as Randy Edsall and Charlie Strong, who coached in the league when it was the Big East at Connecticut and Louisville, respectively. But Aresco sees them as unique cases.

"We love it when we get somebody like that," he said. "Three or four years ago, Tuberville gave us a lot of credibility coming from a P5, but that was an exception. The rule was Justin Fuente had been at TCU, Tom Herman had been at Ohio State, Chad Morris had been at Clemson, Philip Montgomery at Baylor. We're talking top programs, top coordinators."

Aresco thinks AAC schools have invested enough to survive somewhat frequent coaching turnover. Still, the upcoming season will be telling. Five AAC teams have new coaches. Of those, three are first-time head coaches. Navy's Ken Niumatalolo, entering his 10th season, is the only AAC coach who held the same job in 2014.

"This is a significant transition year, no doubt about it," Houston's Yurachek said. "For 11 of the 12 coaches, you could say they're all building their programs."

Yurachek could have followed the familiar AAC hiring pattern when Herman left for Texas. Top offensive coordinators such as Oklahoma's Lincoln Riley and Alabama's Lane Kiffin were options.

But Yurachek had prepared for Herman's likely departure by studying Boise State. The premier Group of 5 program of this era, Boise State has won 10 or more games in 14 of the past 18 seasons despite having four different coaches. The school twice promoted assistants, Dan Hawkins and Chris Petersen. When Petersen left for Washington, it hired Arkansas State coach Bryan Harsin, a former Boise State quarterback who had spent 10 years as a Broncos assistant.

Like any successful Group of 5 program, Boise State had to be realistic about losing head coaches. By hiring coaches with ties, it limited the turbulence of transition. Yurachek ended up promoting Major Applewhite, Houston's offensive coordinator under Herman. Applewhite retained several of Herman's assistants and support staffers.

"He's putting his own touch, for sure, on the football program," Yurachek said, "but for the student-athletes, there's not the significant learning curve you have if you hire somebody new. That's very important for schools at our level. If we're going to have sustained success as a conference, we have to look at who our head coaches are hiring as coordinators. Can you breed one of those two coordinators, or both of them, to be potentially the next head coach so you can keep your momentum?"

Yurachek's approach could become an alternative strategy for AAC programs, which, despite their appeal, aren't viewed as destination jobs. That label comes only with true power conference classification -- and the television revenue that comes with it -- or for individual members who join Power 5 leagues.

For now, the AAC remains college football's launchpad league. Rhule said the AAC's parity and schematic variety -- from Navy's triple-option to Tulsa's spread offense -- provided him the perfect environment to grow.

"You better know how to coach and adapt," Rhule said. "I thought it was as good a league as any. Every team, every year, can win. I still feel that way. So if you can win consistently in that league, you can probably move forward."

The most successful coaches consume themselves with the jobs they have -- not the ones they could have. But recent years show that success in the American equals bigger opportunities elsewhere.

"Everybody in our league is pushing," Norvell said. "That's where you want to be."