It’s a great move for Rice. It also means they will need to step it up in men’s athletics.
On the job a few months in early 2014, Rice athletic director Joe Karlgaard met with alumni at a fundraiser in Boston.
On the trip, Karlgaard made the 50-mile drive to Providence, R.I., to meet with Mike Aresco, commissioner of the American Athletic Conference, the newest league in college athletics that debuted a few months earlier. The informal meeting included lunch at The Capital Grille and a brief tour of the AAC offices.
Over the next eight years, Karlgaard forged relationships everywhere he could, all part of a strategic plan to position Rice for the next round of conference realignment.
“Throughout the time, I’ve tried to build the right relationships, tried to listen very well to what it is that may better position us,” Karlgaard said. “The opportunity hasn’t always presented itself like it did the last several weeks.”
Calling it a “historic new direction” for the school’s athletic department, Rice accepted an invitation to join the American Athletic Conference on Thursday.
With the addition of six schools, all from Conference USA, the AAC will become a 14-team football league as early as 2023. Two other Texas schools — UTSA and North Texas — will join Rice, along with Alabama-Birmingham, Charlotte and Florida Atlantic to comprise a new-look AAC that will have a 10-state footprint.
The move will provide an increase in revenue for Rice, which received a $500,000 annual payout in C-USA. This past year, AAC schools received about $7 million.
Karlgaard pointed to ticket sales, sponsorships and fundraising as areas Rice should receive a financial bump from the change in conference. Rice will also receive increased visibility with the AAC’s deal with ESPN.
“I think it will have a significant economic impact,” he added. “I believe our distribution will be significantly better from the American Athletic Conference than they have been – ever, no matter what conference we’ve been affiliated with.”
Rice has made campus-wide facility upgrades in recent years, most notably the $31.5 million Brian Patterson Sports Performance Center in 2016.
Rice president David Leebron, who will retire in 2022 after 18 years, vowed to “invest more in the athletic program’s success.” At the top of the list on needed upgrades: 71-year-old Rice Stadium.
“We know our stadium needs some investment,” Leebron said. “But virtually everywhere else we have invested in major facilities and renovations. We’re in really good shape.” He added the move to the AAC “reflects stability in what our future looks like.”
See here for the background. Rice football hasn’t been a factor since the early David Bailiff years, the men’s basketball team last played in an NCAA tournament game in 1970, and the baseball team is trying to rebuild after a long decline (from an admittedly high peak). The women’s teams have been much more successful in recent years, so it’s up to the men to prove that they can be competitive in a tougher conference. More exposure and more money can help, but they’re not enough on their own. I speak for a lot of long-suffering Rice fans when I say we’ve been waiting a long long time for something good to happen. I sure hope this is a step in that direction.
That said, the alternative of being left behind as this was happening would have been a death knell. I have a lot of sympathy for our soon-to-be-former conference mates.
That future does not look as bright for C-USA, which is now left with eight schools: UTEP, Old Dominion, Southern Mississippi, Marshall, Louisiana Tech, Middle Tennessee, Western Kentucky and Florida International. Earlier this month, C-USA commissioner Judy MacLeod sent a letter to Aresco proposing an alliance of sorts between the two leagues. Instead, the AAC raided C-USA and the league reportedly could lose some of the remaining members to other conferences.
I feel especially bad for UTEP, who was an original WAC member when we joined that (now basically dead) conference in 1996, and for LaTech, which joined the smaller WAC after a bunch of the other schools split off to form the Mountain West Conference. At this point, I have a lot more affinity for them than for most of our former SWC rivals. Whatever happens with C-USA, I hope they land on their feet, and I hope we schedule them for some non-conference action going forward.
UPDATE: Also, too:
lol somebody on Reddit pointed out that the AAC has all the FBS owl schools now: Temple, Rice, FAU
have no idea what this signifies other than multiple owls >> multiple tigers
— hiss dracula (@hiss_driver) 9:54 PM – 21 October 2021
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