NEW YORK -- Mike Aresco, a youthful 62 years old, had a big decision to make.
"I'm at a great point in my life," said Aresco. "I have a wonderful job that I love and an incredible family. I'm a very lucky guy."
After 16 years at CBS successfully negotiating some of the biggest television deals in the history of college sports, Aresco could have easily finished his career from his cozy office on 52nd Street. He had gotten the big deals done with SEC Football (15 years) and the NCAA basketball tournament (14 years). He could have played out the string by simply doing the yearly maintenance work on those agreements.
Instead, Aresco was contemplating stepping outside his comfort zone at a time when most men his age want to do anything but.
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"Yeah," Aresco said over dinner at 21, just a few paces from the CBS network offices. "I had to decide if I had one more big push left in me."
The answer was yes, and because of it, Aresco is taking on one of the toughest jobs in sports as the new commissioner of the Big East Conference. The acclaim for the hire has been nothing short of universal.
"I'm beyond thrilled," said former Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese, who guided the conference to its greatest success after taking over from Dave Gavitt in 1990. "I can't imagine another candidate who is more respected, more liked, and has exactly the skill set the Big East has to have at this period in its history. After what has been a very difficult period, this has truly energized the Big East. We've finally gotten some good news."
Tranghese retired as Big East commissioner in 2009 and was replaced by John Marinatto. Since then most of the headlines for the conference have been bad:
• The Big East presidents, thinking they could get a better deal, turned down a nine-year, $1.4 billion offer for football from ESPN last year.
• West Virginia, the closest thing to a football national power the Big East had, left for the Big 12.
• TCU, which had agreed to join the Big East, left without ever playing a game to join the Big 12.
Since then, the media narrative about the Big East has been set: With all those defections, the league's days as a major player in the sport of college football were numbered. That narrative only grew stronger when plans for a new four-team playoff, beginning with the 2014 season, were announced. The other five original BCS conferences all have major bowl deals for their respective champions in the new system. The Big East is still looking for a home.
In the 72 hours after Aresco's hiring on Aug. 14, there was more good press about the Big East than the conference had received over the past two years.
"The response has been incredible and very, very humbling," said Aresco, who will never be able to return the hundreds of emails, texts, and phone calls he has received since getting the job. "There were so many people who were excited for me, but who were excited for the conference. It really energizes you."
That is exactly why this hire has been so well-received. Marinatto was a nice man and a capable administrator. But with the issues it faces moving forward, the Big East needs somebody to stand up and fight for its survival. Right now the Big East needs somebody who will not accept the notion that it is destined for second-tier status in football.
"This conference is a major brand in the history of college athletics and we have a great product to sell," said Aresco. "I'm not kidding myself. I know we have a lot of work to do. But I also know we've got a lot of great institutions in this conference."
The challenges are enormous for Aresco, but his background puts him in the best position to be successful:
• The Big East must get a good television contract. The one the presidents turned down last year would have paid about $11 million per school and was significantly less than what the ACC and Pac-12 got in their new deals. Conventional wisdom says the Big East will be fortunate to get back to that figure with the losses of West Virginia, Pittsburgh, and Syracuse. But Aresco has been on the TV side of the negotiating table a long time. He knows how to get one of these deals done. The conference has also hired media consultant Chris Bevilacqua, who helped the Pac-12 crafted its 12-year deal worth $3 billion.
"Mike is one of those guys who can go through a very tough negotiation and when it's over the people on the other side of the table still like him and think they were treated fairly," said Tranghese. "I've seen him do it."
• He has to hold the remaining Big East schools together. If the Big 12 expands any time in the near future, it is all but a given that Louisville will be on its radar. Louisville lost out to West Virginia for a spot in the Big 12 last time around. The rumors of Connecticut to the ACC are not going to stop. From his time at ESPN (12 years) and CBS (16 years) Aresco has strong relationships throughout the Big East. That can only help.
• Starting next year Big East football will truly be a national conference. Temple came on board this year to replace West Virginia. The conference will counter the loss of Pittsburgh and Syracuse by adding six teams: Boise State (football only), San Diego State (football only), Houston, Southern Methodist, Memphis and UCF. Navy has committed to join in 2015. Molding all of those institutions spread so far and wide into a cohesive unit will not be easy.
• At that point the Big East will have 13 football playing schools. It will need to add a 14th.
• Aresco needs to find a spot in the bowl system for the Big East champion. The SEC (Champions), ACC (Orange), Big 12 (Champions), Big Ten (Rose), and Pac-12 (Rose) are locked in.
But "job one" as Aresco calls it is to get the TV deal done. It will literally define the future of the Big East Conference.
ESPN has an exclusive 60-day negotiating window with the Big East that begins on Sept. 1. If no agreement can be reached, then the Big East can test the open market. Because all of the other major conferences have deals, this will be the last chance for other organizations, like NBC, to jump into the exploding market that is college football. ESPN will have to decide how much it is willing to pay to keep Big East football from going to a competitor.
It doesn't hurt the Big East at all to have someone on its side of the table who negotiated these kinds of deals for ESPN for 12 years.
"It's not going to be easy for Mike, but the minute he walks into that room he has instant respect," said Tranghese. "He understands the culture and how these things work."
The Tony Barnhart Show begins Aug. 28 at 9 p.m. on The CBS Sports Television Network.