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Bulls get to know their new conference partners

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Published:   |   Updated: July 30, 2013 at 07:09 AM

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Officially, it was called a clambake, a good-times gathering for head football coaches and some players to mingle with bowl-game executives and media members on Monday night in Newport, R.I. Sometimes, the preseason social events can seem forced and cumbersome.

Not this time.

For the fledgling American Athletic Conference - the University of South Florida is joined by remnants of the old Big East with a sprinkling of newcomers from here, there and everywhere - the get-togethers are necessary. Everything seems strange and new. Who knows what to expect?

But this much is certain heading into today's round of media interviews: Everyone is in it together.

Well, at least for now.

Louisville and Rutgers are playing out the string. The American Athletic Conference is delighted to have Louisville, a preseason top 10 pick in football and the defending national champion in men's basketball, before it flees for the ACC next year.

Rutgers? Different situation. Rutgers, jumping to the Big Ten next season, sued the conference and sought an early exit.

Otherwise, USF will begin a conference rivalry with Central Florida. It will continue with Cincinnati, Connecticut and Temple. It will get to know Houston, Memphis and SMU.

USF first-year coach Willie Taggart had a concise reaction to being part of the American Athletic Conference's first football league.

"Let's go win it," Taggart said.

For one season, the American's champion will have an automatic bid to a Bowl Championship Series game before the new playoff format begins in 2014. Then the American becomes part of the so-called "Group of Five," the remaining conferences that will vie for a spot at the big-boy table. American commissioner Mike Aresco, a former TV executive who was hired last Aug. 14, said he believes his league will always be a factor in big-time bowl games.

"We need to prove it on the field and, eventually, the (basketball) court," Aresco said. "We have the BCS this year and that will help, but eventually we know we're going to have to stand on our own. People will be watching us to see if we're viable."

Under Aresco, the league has seen the defection of Louisville and Rutgers, along with Notre Dame jumping to the ACC (in non-football sports). Boise State and San Diego State, part of the Big East's plan to establish a coast-to-coast league, decided to stay in the Mountain West Conference.

The biggest blow was the departure of the "Catholic Seven," the basketball-first schools that also took with them the Big East name.

"We had to take the high road because there has been so much bitterness in the past over all these changes," Aresco said. "My own feeling was it's not personal. People do things for various reasons and sometimes you just have to accept it.

"We had a lot of things happening at once. Some of it looked a lot worse than it actually was. We tried to solve each problem as it came. We wanted to settle the Catholic Seven and do it in a way that didn't involve litigation. We got through it amicably and I think the members of this conference now are all on the same page."

And that wasn't always the case.

"You can already sense the unity and togetherness that's in the room now," USF athletic director Doug Woolard said. "Before, it was the football schools and the basketball schools and maybe the agendas weren't always the same.

"Now we're pulling together and I believe we have a good future."

The American will add East Carolina, Tulane and Tulsa in 2014. The following season, Navy will join for football only. Aresco acknowledged it will take some time for fans to identify with the new league.

"Having the right name and logo is important," Aresco said. "It's your visual identification on the field and court. It's on the uniform. It's on TV. I think people are starting to recognize it and the feeling is good."

Now the American Athletic Conference must prove itself on the field.

jjohnston@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7353

Twitter: JJohnstonTrib

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