A Conversation with FAU Athletic Director Brian White
Here we go again.
Just eight years after Florida Atlantic University athletics jumped from the Sun Belt Conference to join Conference USA, talk of another possible leap has taken Owl Nation by storm.
This time around, rumors hold that the Owls may soon join the American Athletic Conference, also just eight years old.
As the AAC's most successful programs -UCF, Houston, and Cincinnati- bolt for the Big XII, the conference that peddled the tagline "Power 6" to group the conference's might to that of the "Power 5 conferences" is scrambling to keep their self-perceived title as Kings of the G5.
FAU's name is constantly listed as a potential pick for the AAC as it looks to expand. And that is a testament to the university's and athletic department's growth.
What was once that little university just 1.8 miles from Boca Raton's famous beaches is now competing with established mid-major powers with large followings like Colorado State and the Air Force Academy, and other up-and-coming institutions and athletic brands in major markets like UAB and UTSA.
This was not the case just a decade ago when FAU was in lambasting in the Sun Belt Conference, struggling for wins and attention. While FAU Stadium opened in 2011, it was not the catapult that FAU fans hoped it would be. In fact, the Owls were skipped over the initial C-USA expansion for rival Florida International University.
It was not until C-USA saw the departures of East Carolina, Tulane, and Tulsa to the AAC did FAU receive an invitation to join the league. Plus, a little help from FIU Athletic Director Pete Garcia insisting C-USA leaders in Dallas that FIU could use a travel partner to help offset costs in joining a conference that stretches from El Paso, Texas to Huntington, West Virginia.
It did not happen overnight, but the vision set forth by University President Dr. John Kelly, and later the hire of Athletic Director Brian White in 2018, is what catapulted FAU towards becoming an up-and-coming brand.
I had the pleasure of talking to Brian White, Thursday, September 30th on a myriad of topics involving FAU.
And although he did not mention conference realignment, nor answer my direct questions regarding FAU's position on the anxiety-inducing subject, Owl Nation should take a collective deep breath for two reasons:
1. The last four years have shown that the university's leaders have earned our trust.
2. The universities that are best suited for advancement make the less noise.
First, the growth that FAU Athletics has seen in the last several years is something the university has never seen before. Between championships, academic successes, and new facilities, the athletic department has raised the profile of FAU.
Second, a university that quietly goes about its business, allowing the the facts around them to reflect their potential, media market, and success on both the playing field in in the classroom, are the ones that know a move is on the table. Programs that make a lot of noise in hopes of garnering attention towards a conference invitation, lack the metrics and stature to be included as a serious candidate.
Therefore, all FAU's leaders can do at this point is to continue to make FAU the best version it can be. And that begins with President Kelly's vision. Brian White begins our conversation talking about Dr. Kelly's leadership:
"He is incredible! Dr. Kelly's strategic plan "A Race to Excellence' mentions athletics several times. That includes creating a brand relevant to a national audience and speaks to success in Conference USA and beyond. His whole unbridled ambition moniker is no joke, he lives it every single day as we strive to be the fastest improving university in the country. And we back that up across academics and athletics as well."
Jack: How important is academics to raising an athletic department's brand?
Brian: "It's a pivotal role. The academic profile of a university is critical for what we do and recruiting student-athletes. We as an athletic department serve as a marking arm for the university. We are FAU's front porch. The reason we are here is to help out and grow the university's brand. That's creating exposure through our student-athletes having success, which ideally helps create a national brand and a national audience that sees us as this great university 1.8 miles to the beach."
Editorial Note: It is worth noting that academics plays a larger role in conference realignment than others may believe. This is because voting for conference membership is the decision of the university's president or chancellor.
Jack: Does the current state of facilities help increase FAU's brand awareness?
Brian: "I think we have incredible facilities. Our new Schmidt Family Complex for Academic and Athletic Excellence is competitive from a football operation standpoint with any in the country. But I also think the Academic Center and the usage all 19 sports get out of that is incredible. I'm thrilled for our student-athletes as it is a game-changer for us. We have great facilities across the board, but we are always looking to improve."
Jack: Speaking of improving facilities, what new construction can Owl fans look forward to?
Brian: "We had a very generous donor step up and with a million-dollar anonymous gift. That gift is going to go a long way to improve our baseball facility including an indoor batting and pitching facility, amongst other improvements to FAU Baseball Stadium."
Jack: The greatest venue in all of college basketball, The Burrow, is seen as a detriment to the athletic program. Do you see it that way?
Brian: "We have great work going into our basketball facility with new locker-rooms coming in before this season tips off. It will be state of the art, impressive looking locker-rooms for both men's and women's basketball. We have had a really generous gift from the Abessinio family, so we have plans to really redo the entire arena. We are going to make it look like a brand new remolded home from the inside."
Jack: So, all the big three sports are seeing or have seen upgrades?
Brian: "It's so much more than those three. The Tom Oxley Center is going to be a hub for 18 out of our 19 sports. We are going to redo the weight room, the training room, the main lobby. We are really going to redo that whole area. In fact, our coaches have already moved in. It's a bit bare bones as it's been cleaned out. But we have a couple of gifts so far and we are seeking a few bigger gifts to finish the Oxley and make it look brand new again. That will take us to a higher-level facility wise."
Editorial Note: The fact of the matter is, a majestic basketball arena is not why a program will move to better conferences, nor is the opposite it a major detriment. UCF's move to the Big XII is not because of their basketball program. Troy built a new basketball arena in the early 2010's, but still remain in the Sun Belt. Marshall has a decent venue, success on the court, and strong support throughout all sports, but there is little to no mention from an industry leader that sees the Herd as an attractive candidate to join the AAC. While basketball venues are looked at, they will never be weighed over a program's media market size. It is media markets that keep the conference realignment wheel turning.
Jack: How do these facility upgrades and improvement in academics help FAU navigate the changing landscapes of conference realignment?
Brian: "We feel like with four million people in Broward and Palm Beach County and more wealth here than here anywhere in the world really, we have incredible potential as we continue to solidify as the hometown team. We are proud members of Conference USA. The only thing we are focused on is improving our facilities and the student-athlete experience so we can create more exposure for the university we represent. Those are the things we can control, that's our focus. Being the best FAU we can be."
Editorial Note: All conferences use an algorithm when it comes to potential membership. There is data that shows how much more money, or at least who can minimize the blow, during a conference's television negation. A conference is given X amount of dollars for their television rights. The television networks then turn sell advertising slots in order to make some money. It is a simple equation: the larger the media market, the more set of eyes interested in watching games and commercials. The dollar amount that the conference receives is then split amongst the member institutions. Therefore, adding new programs to an already full conference might not be beneficial, especially as college athletics continues to flirt with cable cord cutting and streaming services.
Jack: How has FAU positioned itself for the future?
Brian: "We talk about it all the time; it is really how we see ourselves inside FAU Athletics. We see ourselves as a startup stock that has a really bright future. We are aware that we don't have a century of history and tradition like a lot of other schools have, but we see that as a big positive. We are not a Coca-Cola brand, your mature stock. In that instance, you are what you are going to be because you have been around for a hundred plus years. We see ourselves as having unlimited potential. And nobody knows what we can be in time."
It is funny how much can change in a short period of time. It was not long ago when FIU was considered "a sleeping giant" in collegiate athletics. While they have an enrollment and location to turn heads, a lack of commitment to raising the bar athletically continues to hold FIU back.
Meanwhile in Paradise, FAU displays a constant determination to achieve athletic success at the highest level it can. The administration's commitment inspires the community's donations, which enhances the success of the athletics department and the university as a whole.
This commitment has allowed the Owls to be named as potential candidate for an AAC invitation. At the time of this posting, the AAC was reportedly after several programs that call the Mountain West Conference home. Over the weekend, a source with knowledge of the situation inside the AAC decision making confirmed that Boise State, San Diego State, Colorado State, and the Air Force Academy were all considered "tier one" choices by the conference.
It was widely thought that Boise State and San Diego State would turn down an invitation to the AAC as they hold out hope for a Big XII invite. A report this morning confirmed that both programs have notified the MWC that they intend to stay in the west-coast based league, for now.
Meanwhile, Brett McMurphy has reported that negations between the AAC and Colorado State and the Air Force Academy are in the advanced stages. An FAU Owl's Nest source has confirmed that the AAC wants to find new members as soon as they can.
UAB is the C-USA program that is most likely to join CSU and AFA in a move to the AAC. Reports from industry leaders argue that FAU is with UTSA and Charlotte as the most likely candidates behind the Blazers.
To counter a potential raid, FAU Owl's Nest broke the news that C-USA has officially hired Jim Delany to consult the league through this recent uncertainty. Delany has met with the conference earlier this week to discuss strategy, in which every option is said to be on the table. This includes but is not limited to membership expansion, scheduling agreements, and conference mergers.
With all of this uncertainty, there is certainly a scenario where FAU's stature is improved, even if without receiving an invitation to join the AAC. Time can only tell.
Whether FAU decides to move on from C-USA or not, one must have confidence in the leadership of Brian White and Dr. John Kelly to continue to right the ship towards greener pastures.