If a rising tide lifts all boats, then Wichita State fans found the right surrogate football team to root for in the American Athletic Conference.
Go Navy. Beat Tulsa.
College football starts this weekend and, in a tradition since 1987, Shocker fans have no team to cheer for, no homecoming game, no torn ligaments to monitor and no Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl as a goal.
However, if you want to take a long-range, trickle-down view of college athletics, what’s good for the American Athletic Conference is good for Wichita State, even if it involves Memphis playing UCLA on Sept. 16.
A commemorative Navy football sits on the window sill in the office of Wichita State athletics director Darron Boatright. Navy is a football-only member of the American. Wichita State, which dropped football after the 1986 season, joined July 1 as a member in all sports, which started a “You complete me” flirtation between the schools.
Anchors Aweigh, as the fight song says, and sink the Army grey. Come aboard, Shockers.
“We welcome Wichita State fans,” Navy senior associate athletic director Scott Strasemeier said. “We’ve been to a bowl game every year but one since 2003. People like to follow a winning program, and we’ve certainly been that.”
Wichita State’s alumni association is organizing a bus trip to Navy’s Sept. 30 game at Tulsa. Tickets are in the Navy fan section to see the what the alumni association calls an opportunity to see its “adopted” team play.
“If our fans are going to adopt a team, I hope they consider adopting Navy,” Boatright said.
Navy is 8-1 against Army under coach Ken Niumatalolo and that is always an important stat. Following Navy, which won the AAC’s West Division last season, means watching the triple option. Its emphasis on speed, deception and execution works at a school that doesn’t recruit from the same talent pool as the competition.
“It’s an equalizer for us,” Strasemeier said. “We feel like that our coaches have been doing it for so long that they’ve seen every defense. If the quarterback is in tune, it’s a pretty tough offense to stop.”
While Navy’s success helps, the big benefit comes if and when an AAC school hits bigger college football paydays. Wichita State fans should care about this, as well.
Central Florida beat Baylor in the 2013 season’s Fiesta Bowl. In 2015, Houston handled Florida State in the Peach Bowl. Football is where the American must make its money, and wins over Power 5 opponents are necessary if the conference is to improve its reputation and secure bigger paydays from future media rights.
“Football drives TV deals,” American commissioner Mike Aresco said in June.
Wichita State doesn’t get any current AAC TV money since it joined July 1. Any future slice will be considerably smaller than the 12 football schools share. Media rights in the Missouri Valley Conference were esssentially a break-even proposition, in the best case, so progress made by the American is helpful for Wichita State if it adds any amount to the bottom line.
“There’s a lot of optimism in this conference,” said Matt Murschel, who covers college football for the Orlando Sentinel. “They want to be included in all this discussion with the big boys. They’ve got at least a semi-good case as it is.”
The American’s TV deals end in 2020 and Aresco knows it is crucial to bump up per-school annual paydays (now $2-3 million) as much as possible to compete with the $30-$40 million checks earned by the SEC and others.
“I know they would love to get a bigger, better deal,” Murschel said. “I’m not sure in today’s landscape if that’s going to happen.”
In a broader sense, football can help elevate the American’s brand in a way that basketball can’t and that can also help the Shockers. When Houston beats Oklahoma in football — as it did last season — it helps make the case to the public the American belong in a certain neighborhood. The goal of Aresco’s “Power 6” campaign is to move his conference closer to the Big 12, SEC and ACC and separate itself from the likes of the Sun Belt and Mid-American conferences.
That factor is why Boatright knows the American’s football coaches and knows Notre Dame plays AAC members Temple and Navy and Michigan plays Cincinnati. He said several schools invited him to watch a game and tour their campus. He will likely go to the American’s conference championship game on Dec. 2 and if there’s a significant meeting of conference officials at football game, he will attend. He is invited, as all conference athletic directors are, to attend a seminar on the college football playoffs in Dallas.
“The more attention that is given to our conference and the ‘Power 6,’ the better it is all for all of us,” Boatright said. “Any time our conference competes on the national stage, it’s relevant to every one of us.”
Preseason favorite: South Florida, coached by Charlie Strong, is ranked No. 19 in the Associated Press poll. The Bulls return star quarterback Quinton Flowers from a team that went 11-2 last season and defeated South Carolina in the Birmingham Bowl.
Memphis is the favorite in the West Division.
Temple, last season’s AAC champion, plays at Notre Dame on Sept. 2.
Cincinnati plays at No. 11 Michigan on Sept. 9.
No. 21 Virginia Tech plays at East Carolina on Sept. 16, the same day UCLA visits Memphis and Georgia Tech plays at Central Florida.
Memphis plays at Houston on Oct. 19, one of the Thursday ESPN games the American uses to grab the spotlight away from crowded Saturdays.
South Florida plays at Central Florida on Nov. 24 in what is perhaps the AAC’s biggest rivalry.
Known names: Former Nebraska quarterback Scott Frost coaches Central Florida … Former Texas coach Charlie Strong takes over at South Florida … Former Texas quarterback Major Applewhite is coach at Houston.
Players to watch: Central Florida LB Shaquem Griffin was the conference Defensive Player of the Year in 2016 … Connecticut CB Jamar Summers set an AAC record with eight interceptions … Houston DE Ed Oliver earned All-American honors as a freshman … Cincinnati QB Hayden Moore threw for 1,744 yards and 11 touchdowns.