RamNation.com talked with Joe Parker as part of our monthly podcast with the CSU athletic director, and he opened up about what drove his interest in the AAC, why CSU decided to stay put, what’s next for the Mountain West, and much more. This feature is a transcription of the podcast on this topic. To hear the full interview and all topics discussed, listen to the episode on Anchor.fm or your favorite podcast platform.
On how the courtship by the American Athletic Conference (AAC) developed and evolved
JP: It’s always interesting, as these things develop, the one thing that I’ve consistently said and I’ll continue to say is we’ll try and make sure we’re well positioned. I want to ensure that Colorado State is always playing at the highest level of competition as possible, and really that aligns with the highest level of FBS football and certainly with the news earlier this summer that destabilized the Big 12. The landscape in college athletics is on shifting ground right now and so I thought it was important for us as an institution to just be involved in every conversation we can be involved with, and that is something what we will continue to do. A little bit of history and flavor, I guess, Oklahoma and Texas when their news was revealed back in July, my mind immediately went to that there’s going be an emergence of possibly 16-team-member leagues at the (Autonomous 5) level and I thought one of the scenarios could be that the Big 12 schools — the 8 remaining — would somehow get pulled into one of the remaining a A5/Power 5 conferences and I just wanted to make sure that we were able to be at the highest level play and so I actually proactively reached out to the American because I just wanted to make sure if that was the direction, that we would have opportunities if the American was intact at 11 (members) and if they were trying to grow to 16. I just wanted make sure that we were a part of that conversation and could make an informed decision if that was an opportunity for us, and that would have been the American with Cincinnati, Houston, and UCF so I just didn’t want to have us caught flat-footed in anyway.
So, I reached out, (AAC Associate Commissioner) Scott Draper is a good friend, he and I worked together at Michigan when he was a part of Lloyd Carr’s staff, and I just said, ‘Scott, I want to make sure that we’re always part of any conversation related to possible changes and the landscape as it relates to FBS football. When it moved in a different direction and those eight remaining schools had to kind of rebuild within the Big 12, we were part of those conversations too.
Ultimately, they made a decision that was focused on really two key metrics and that was how the broadcasts of our football games were consumed by the viewing audience. So they looked really carefully at programs that were delivering TV audiences at the highest level possible, and then also football programs that that have demonstrated over particularly the last decade that they, even with coaching changes, were able to maintain sustained success. That ultimately led the Big 12 to look at the three schools in the American and then BYU, which as you know is a unique program in itself.
So, we didn’t make that round of the Big 12, but that put the American in position where they were looking for opportunities. I’m going to have, as I have said before, as many conversations as I can to understand where the shifting landscape of college sports maybe going. And, for a while it looked like there might be interest from four Mountain West schools to make a transition. That would have made sense, I think, if four schools were looking east, we’re on the western edge of that. As it relates to the geography we’re on a footprint that was closest and there’s some intrigue for me about the Central time zone and connections to Texas. As a state we’re almost contiguous — just separated by that little panhandle of Oklahoma, and I think in many ways we’ve got to strive for a future that associates with the Central time zone and kind of push the envelope east.
I think we have that chance now with the Mountain West. We’re looking at possibilities to see if there’s opportunities for us to expand as a league and I think going in the Central time zone, and particularly Texas, presents some really unique opportunities. I would view it not necessarily as a move that strengthens the league for the next one to three years, but I think it’s more of an investment in the next 3 to 10 years. Just understanding the growth of Texas as a state, and the level of talent across all interscholastic athletics that’s in that state could bode well for us as an institution. CSU, I think our top four states as far as out-of-state students is California, Illinois, Washington, and Texas, so any push that we can make into Texas helps not only athletics but has a potential help the institution as well.
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On what the perceived benefits were of possibly making a move to the AAC
JP: The economics of the American with their TV deal is more than what we’re receiving in the Mountain West. I think awareness pushing east to build the awareness for CSU. I love the Mountain West. I’ve talked a lot about us being proud members, founding members of the Mountain West. In my mind any of these conversations are not about trying to escape something that we don’t feel good about, it’s more about positioning this institution for the next 10 to 25 years of what we want to see for growth, not only for athletics but from a university perspective.
We get a lot of people complaining about kick times and a whole host of things that are really resident to the fact that we sit in the Mountain time zone. We’re in the Western United States, we’re west of the Mississippi. The majority of population in the United States is not sitting in the Mountain time zone, so there’s just things that inherently you can’t change when you live in Colorado, on the Front Range. And, if you’re ever able to associate east as it relates to play for sports in college athletics I think there’s opportunities there to broaden and expand awareness. I think, for me, it was maybe to enhance financials and then also the ability to tell the story to places where there’s more people.
On whether the media’s reporting that Boise State and San Diego State were not interested impacted CSU’s decision
JP: The media, God bless them, they’ve got a job to do – they need to take information from various sources and put a report together that a lot of times is as nuanced with speculation. The move being “imminent”, I never saw it that way. I don’t think anyone else in the Mountain West that may have been in conversations, or who were trying to gather information rather, (felt) a decision was “imminent.” I have a lot of respect for the people (who) work both at the conference office here in the Mountain West and the people that are leading the American, but I really think that we were always in “information gathering mode” and trying to make the best judgments as to what would be in our institutional best interest and the conversations never got quite as far as what was reported in the media.
Campus decision making has to be caught up. Most of the conversations were localized in athletics and I was moving information back into other leadership areas of the institution. But there was never ultimately a final moment where we were thinking one way or the other and I think it just evolved into “best for us” and probably best for the other schools who may have been doing their valuations to “anchor in place.” I feel good about that decision and now it’s incumbent on us to be the best versions of who we can be.
It is nice to be in conversations, and every time that there’s been any dialogue about conference realignment CSU has been a part of that equation. But there are things that we need to do to enhance the story that we can tell, and obviously one of those most importantly is making sure our football program reaches a higher level of play and sustained success, and in turn, we need people that care about CSU on any level to engage around our programs. We need people to show up and support the teams in venue, we need people to engage with us on social media platforms, and just as importantly we need people to tune in when our games are being played on any television platform that we’re part of. I carry a lot of responsibility for that, but ultimately each of us makes decisions on how we spend our time and what we do with our time, and we need people to feel compelled to rally around our programs, even we’re not performing because we’re being measured every day.
On whether there was concern with leaving regional opponents and long-time rivals
JP: It’s funny, as we were within athletics gathering information, going through our process, and as that was being reported either accurately or inaccurately within the media, suddenly the Mountain West became the greatest conference we’ve ever been associated with, the rivalries meant something to people. All I ever heard leading up to it is a lot of criticism of the Mountain West and ‘Are these teams really are part of our peer group?’ Fans are fans, and I get it, they react to the information that they see in front of them, but what it what it’s taught me, what it has hopefully taught others is let’s be the best version of who we can be right in our own conference and if anything else comes forward that allows us to consider what another opportunity might look like let’s be the best prepared for whatever that might be to have those conversations. We’ve got a great institution, we live in a remarkable community, we’ve had high performance from a lot of our programs – we’ve got to get football to higher level. And, that’s the one thing too that people have to recognize is that they play a role in that, being involved, being present, buying season tickets, buying individual game tickets, engaging with the program through social media platforms. As I’ve said before, all those things are tangible measurements that can help us differentiate ourselves from others.
On how he ultimately arrived at the decision to stay put in the Mountain West
JP: I think it just sort of developed over the two or three weeks that we were kind of making our quiet assessment. The financials, if we made such a move, could have been enhanced, but there would have been additional travel costs associated with that. There’s also still some unknown that’s going to probably develop within the next 18 to 36 months, and I think a lot of that is just have a desire for greater clarity and understanding what ultimately may be the shifts of college football. It’s not only conference realignment, there’s a lot of stuff going on at the NCAA level with the reworking the constitution, the governance model for the NCAA – will there be more separation between FBS and others in the college athletics space, and how does NIL factor in to all of this? There was a statement made by the general counsel for the National Labor Relations Board that is talking about clearing a path and a migration towards “pay for play” in the college space.
All of this uncertainty just makes it really hard, I think, to make an informed decision about anything in the near term, so I’m really confident that the Mountain West is going to continue to invest in our programs and seek the highest level of play, and performance on the field as something that I think has been demonstrated by the league. We need to do our part, and we will. We’ve got the conference schedule ahead of us and I think our football team has improved over the last four weeks of non-conference play with the bye week coming at a very opportune time. For me, it’s just ‘let’s get focused on what’s ahead in the next 18 months and then let’s see where things may be shifting beyond that and be as prepared as possible to make whatever informed decisions that are our best interests.’
On whether he’s happy with the leadership in the Mountain West Conference
JP: I’ve always been a pretty strong proponent of (Commissioner Craig Thompson). I think he can sell what we give to him as campuses. But I think we’re also at a point in time where we need some vision, and I think Craig is at a point where he can provide that and I think he’s understanding that that there’s a lot of desire from the campus leadership, both at the A.D. level and the president’s level that we’ve got an opportunity to get really focused on what’s ahead for us. As I said, I really believe that part of our future can be worth more in direct alignment with the state of Texas and then pushing our broadcasting envelope into the Central time zone and preparing for a lot of things — preparing for our conference’s future, preparing for what might be future departure of Mountain West league members and then making some direct investments and expanding the conference. Hopefully, maybe, possibly all those things have to be thoroughly assessed and then there’s 12 members involved with football and 11 with all the other sports, so we’ve got to build a consensus as to what we think is as best as we as we soldier forward in in whatever endeavors we’re focused on.
On whether the idea of expanding is widely accepted among Mountain West A.D.s and presidents
JP: We’re going to intensify our meetings within the A.D. peer group to see if we can formulate a consensus and see what a plan might look like to do that. The biggest thing is the financials for anyone and everyone and making that assessment, but I think there also might be opportunities to recruit some expansion partners that would be involved for a lesser share with the idea that when we do our next round of negotiations with our TV partners that everyone would then be at a full-share scenario. So, there’s some steps that can be made and I think it’s just we’re a point where we need to be as creative as possible and really think through things and try and build a strategy that helps us leverage our future.
On whether current AAC members would be a possible target, along with re-exploring basketball-only members (like Gonzaga)
JP: I’d say everything’s kind of on the table, but I think there’s some more likely things that could transpire. But Central time zone, I think, is important in my mind. If we could find a basketball-only member or two, that would be helpful for building the Mountain West brand on that side of the house. But we’ve got be thoughtful in whatever we’re doing and we’re going to work hard to gather the appropriate information and have the right levels of conversation to make a full assessment of what would be in the best interest of the Mountain West.
On whether he believes the Big 12 is done expanding and if he believes CSU would be a part of that conversation again
JP: There’s not any real direct dialogue happening now, but I think Big 12 leadership — both their conference office and on some of the respective campuses — have said that they’re anticipating that they may do another valuation for expansion partners down the road. I believe they’re capped at 14 by their current broadcasting agreement, so with Oklahoma and Texas still within the league and then they’re looking to integrate play of the four schools possibly by the 2023 season, that’ll put them at 14 so I think until they see Texas and Oklahoma cycle into the SEC there’s probably no plan on their part to try and grow the league. But once Texas and Oklahoma make their transition to the SEC, I think there’s there is again an opportunity for them to make those considerations and evaluate their partners or potential expansion partners. Like I’ve always said, I want to make sure that we’re well positioned to be a part of those conversations if they’re going to happen.
On whether President McConnell has a stated goal of getting athletics into an A5 conference and whether she perceives athletics as a front porch to the university, much like former president Dr. Tony Frank
JP: I think so. For Joyce, she’s really focused on building the brand for CSU and making sure that athletics assisting with that. I think she views the mission of intercollegiate athletics very consistent and aligned with the overall mission of the institution. I think the land grant heritage of CSU with access to education dovetails directly into what we do in athletics. A lot of our rosters are filled with first-generation students and certainly students from underrepresented groups, so I think Joyce is really committed to intercollegiate athletics being played at the highest level possible. Everything that I’ve said about what might be ahead in our future is exactly what Joyce sees as her vision for intercollegiate athletics here at CSU.