American Athletic Conference willing to let departing teams go before 2024 for higher exit fee

The American Athletic Conference will be willing to negotiate a higher exit fee to accommodate earlier departures of UCF, Cincinnati and Houston to the Big 12, commissioner Mike Aresco told ESPN on Friday.

AAC bylaws require schools to give a 27-month notice before they leave and pay a $10 million buyout fee. If those three schools abided by the bylaws, Aresco said, their exit date would be July 1, 2024. While the conversations haven't happened yet, Aresco said he expects them to enter negotiations to adjust the exit fee.

"We typically do, because it's not a great situation when you know somebody's leaving," he said. "Often you can mitigate some of that by just again getting a larger exit fee and having them leave earlier so we'll certainly be willing to negotiate that as we've done in the past and as other conferences have done in the past, but I can't tell you precisely yet at this point, nobody's indicated what year."

UCF athletic director Terry Mohajir said his school is "open to any options."

"We're going to look at where we are with our contract with the American," Mohajir said, "and all options are open right now."

Meanwhile, Aresco said his conference plans to move "deliberately and expeditiously" to add two to four teams and beef up the league to 10 or 12 following the three departures. Aresco declined to name specific schools the AAC is interested in, but said it would only "entertain institutions that have shown an interest in us."

"We're not trying to poach, we're not trying to persuade," he said. "There have been schools that have shown interest in us. I'm trying not to create any instability in the system. ... We're just trying right now to regroup. We know we need to get bigger. That's just a fact of life based on what's happened, but I'm trying not to rile things up."

Aresco said the AAC would likely look for members in all sports, not just football, but that's also a possibility.

"Ultimately we want to be stronger than we were," he said. "We think there are schools interested in us who would help us do that.

"We just would like to find schools that think alike, have that DNA of achievement, have a cultural fit, academic as well as social, cultural fit," he added. "Geography does matter to some degree, but it matters less and less because the travel is a lot better than it once was."

Aresco has long been an advocate of elevating the AAC to the same autonomous status the Power 5 conferences enjoy, and he has pushed for his conference to make it the "Power 6." He reiterated on Friday that he will continue that effort with the new membership while also working to change a system that makes it difficult for conferences to move in -- and out -- of that autonomous status.

"I think we'll have a stronger case because the Big 12 has almost half of its membership came from non-power ranks, if you include TCU and BYU," he said. "The prevailing feeling is that we were a P6 and the system couldn't accommodate that or wouldn't accommodate that."

"The decision has to come again from the legislative process within the NCAA," added Houston president Renu Khator, who holds a seat on the NCAA's Board of Governors, the NCAA's highest governing body.

Aresco said he hopes UCF, Cincinnati and Houston succeed in the Big 12, and that several people from those schools reached out -- including an "absolutely lovely" message from Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell.

"You just cannot take this personally," Aresco said. "It's not fun to go through, and no one's going to argue that you don't put on a happy face, but on the other hand, you have to. There's a human aspect to it. And these are all people who really did a nice job in the conference and were loyal members and obviously they feel it's in their interest to do what they're doing, and you have to respect that and move on."

ESPN's Andrea Adelson contributed to this report