One thing that has always annoyed me is how service academy football programs and athletic departments are seen by many people as a monolith.
It's true that service academies form a unique subset of the larger world of college athletics and that there are some parallels between them. Those similarities, however, are not as widespread as fans and media members tend to assume. Service academy athletic departments are each organized differently, run by different people, have different budgets, and often have different priorities.
Nothing offers a better demonstration of these differences than the topic of football conference membership. The decision whether or not to join a conference carries significant impact, not only for football programs, but for schools as a whole. With each of them having a similar mission, one might think that the service academies would take the same approach to conference membership, yet that hasn't been the case.
Once upon a time, Army, Navy, and Air Force were all independent. They had each considered joining conferences at various times, perhaps most notably as part of the "Airplane Conference" that would have united the annual powerhouse programs on both coasts when it was proposed in 1958. It was Air Force that first took the plunge, joining the Western Athletic Conference in 1980.
Until recently, the primary driver behind service academy conference affiliation had been geography. As the most isolated of the three academies, Air Force had more difficulty filling their schedules. The '70s were lean years for the Falcons. After finishing 6-4 in 1973, Air Force failed to mount a winning campaign for the rest of the decade, with four two-win seasons. Their schedules had a lot to do with that. Air Force's last season as an independent included games against Wisconsin, Illinois, Kansas State, Notre Dame, Oregon, Georgia Tech, and Vanderbilt, with the Commodores being their only win among that group. Major conference programs were willing to come to Colorado, but the regional teams that would have provided more evenly-matched competition were not. Joining the WAC solved that problem. By 1982, Air Force won eight games against a more reasonable schedule and earned a trip to their first bowl game since 1970.
Scheduling was never much of a problem for Army and Navy. For decades, they were two of several eastern independent schools that frequently played each other. Navy continued to enjoy success against those schedules during the George Welsh years, but it wasn't long before both programs started to experience the same decline that Air Force suffered. Neither school felt that joining a conference was the right answer, and it's debatable whether an appropriate conference even existed on the East Coast at the time. Instead, both Army and Navy tried to schedule themselves more wins by adding games against teams in Division I-AA, a classification within NCAA Division I that was created in 1978.
The strategy didn't pay off for Navy, but Army found limited success this way under Jim Young. Young led the Cadets from 1983-1990 and is regarded as one of the finest coaches in Army history, going 51-39-1 in eight seasons. Many of those wins, though, came against I-AA opponents. Each of Young's three bowl seasons (1984, 1985, and 1988) featured four games against I-AA teams, including many that were non-scholarship (Colgate, Harvard, Penn, Yale, Holy Cross, Bucknell, Lafayette).
Army was competitive under Young, but their success was also misleading. When you're playing four I-AA teams almost every year, to win six or fewer games in five of those eight years isn't very good in the grand scheme of things. After Young retired, he was replaced by one of his assistants, Bob Sutton. Under Sutton, Army played three I-AA teams in each of his first six seasons, and the team generally hovered around .500. Then came 1996.
The 1996 season was a banner year for both Army and Navy. Army won ten games and finished ranked in the AP top 25 for the first time since 1958. Navy finished 9-3 and beat Cal in the Aloha Bowl. It had been years since either program had experienced that level of success, and neither of them knew how to handle it. Both head coaches were signed to long-term contracts that later became albatrosses for their respective programs. Both schools also looked to build on their success by changing how they scheduled, although they took different approaches.
NCAA rules had changed regarding how many wins against I-AA teams could count toward bowl eligibility. Navy finished 7-4 in 1997, but they didn't go to a bowl game; the rule at the time was that a team had to have six wins over I-A competition to be eligible. Navy had two wins over I-AA teams that year: VMI and Colgate. Head coach Charlie Weatherbie recognized that playing too many I-AA teams would hold his program back, so he gradually phased them out. Weatherbie, however, misjudged the progress that his program had made. The I-AA teams on Navy’s schedule were largely replaced by BCS-conference teams, and Navy couldn’t handle them. In 2000, Navy’s 11-game schedule included five BCS-conference teams, Notre Dame, and #16 TCU. They lost to all of them.
Army didn’t fare any better. In a way, the '96 season was the worst thing to happen to Army because it fooled them into thinking that the program was ready to jump to the next level; in reality, they had caught lightning in a bottle. In a move that they thought would capitalize on their newfound program strength by allowing them to get onto television and compete for bowl berths, Army decided to join Conference USA in 1998. There was no transition period; the Cadets essentially quit playing I-AA programs cold turkey. They weren’t ready. They did about as well in their first two seasons as one would think a team used to straddling the line between I-A and I-AA would do. After a pair of 3-8 seasons in 1998 and 1999, West Point leadership overreacted, fired Bob Sutton, hired Todd Berry, and the rest is history.
Both programs made huge mistakes in the wake of their breakthrough 1996 campaigns, but it was easier for Navy to recover from theirs. Because they had remained independent, Navy had more control over their schedule. When Paul Johnson was hired after the winless 2001 season, one of the first things he set out to do with athletic director Chet Gladchuk was to lighten Navy’s load. While the 2002 schedule was already set, Navy was able to replace scheduled 2003 games against North Carolina State and Boston College with games against Eastern Michigan and VMI. The Mids were able to string together a few wins, gain momentum, and earn their first bowl berth since that 1996 season. It would be the start of the longest sustained run of success in Navy football history.
That run came at a time of increasing uncertainty in college athletics as conferences realigned to position themselves favorably for television rights negotiations. That realignment was really a consolidation as most conferences added members while others, like the WAC, went away. The trend toward larger conference sizes started to make Naval Academy officials nervous. As conferences expanded, they secured more bowl affiliations, making it more difficult for an independent to find a postseason landing spot. Some leagues outside of the so-called Power 5 even had to create their own bowl games just to ensure that their bowl-eligible members would have a place to play. The advent of the college football playoff also made it nearly impossible for a non-Notre Dame independent to play in a major bowl game, as the only automatic berth for a non-Power Five team in a "New Year's Six" bowl was reserved for a conference champion.
Larger conferences also made scheduling difficult; a few leagues moved to nine conference games, and all of them focused on scheduling league games in October and November. Some conferences even instituted rules to regulate the non-conference scheduling of their members in an effort to create marquee matchups to justify the enormous amounts of money in their television contracts.
Even without the changing landscape, scheduling was getting difficult for Navy. The more the Midshipmen were winning, the less other schools were willing to play them. Recognizable opponents like Tulane and UConn were disappearing from Navy's schedules. Gradually, those schedules began consisting of two groups: powerhouses that weren't really afraid of losing to the Mids (Ohio State, Penn State, South Carolina), and Sun Belt and MAC schools that used games against a recognizable name like Navy to drive up their home attendance (South Alabama, Central Michigan, Troy).
Between postseason access, financial disparity, and scheduling, Navy officials saw independence becoming less and less viable. They made the decision to join the Big East, now the American Athletic Conference, beginning league play in 2015.
No change of this magnitude will be without its detractors, and there was no shortage of skepticism once it was announced. The word that Navy officials regularly used when explaining their decision, though, was "relevance," and it is difficult to argue that the move has failed to achieve that goal. Navy had their first 11-win season in 2015, was a contender for a major bowl game late in the season in both 2015 and 2016, and has spent part of the last three seasons ranked in the top 25. Instead of struggling to find opponents to play in November, Navy has played games of national significance. The football program serves as the primary contributor toward national awareness of the school, and Navy has enjoyed increased coverage not only through their own success, but also the success of the conference and its associated "Power 6" initiative. By contending for a Cotton Bowl berth and winning the Lambert Trophy, Navy has been in the conversation for things that haven't been discussed in Annapolis since the days of Staubach and Bellino; things that were considered almost impossible before joining the American.
Navy's success in the American has silenced most critics of the decision to join a conference, but not all of them. Author and columnist John Feinstein was perhaps the most prominent of those critics, and apparently remains so. Feinstein's opinion carries significant weight when it comes to service academy football due to his long association with both Army and Navy. In his opinion, Navy is feeling the effects of joining a conference this season:
Navy's been rocked by injuries last two seasons. Could it be that having to play in a tough conference week-in, week-out is a factor? They could throw in soft touches as an independent--look at Army. Can't do that anymore.— John Feinstein (@JFeinsteinBooks) November 25, 2017
That's a curious position to take, in my opinion. I doubt there's any evidence to support the assertion that injuries are more likely to happen against better teams. Nevertheless, injuries are a factor in every football season regardless of the cause, so it's not crazy to think that they've affected Navy in 2017. I think that's a gross oversimplification of Navy's issues, to be honest, but even if injuries are a problem, what exactly has been the effect? When Navy was independent, they had two goals every season: to become bowl eligible, and to win the Commander in Chief's Trophy. Today, Navy is bowl eligible, and they will play for the CIC Trophy on Saturday. What, then, is the problem? Navy is still playing for everything that they've always played for, only now they've made even loftier ambitions attainable.
Still, while Navy has seen several practical benefits to conference membership, there are drawbacks. Scheduling variety is pretty much a thing of the past for Navy; with eight conference games plus Army, Notre Dame, and Air Force, Navy is locked into playing more or less the same schools every year. And the schedules that Navy plays are indeed more difficult. According to the Kellner Points Index, Navy has played the 32nd-strongest schedule in 2017, by far the strongest among the so-called Group of Five programs. Those who like the optics of better records due to easier wins won't be fans of Navy's approach. Of course, that assumes that those wins are even out there to be scheduled. It takes two sides to agree to play, and just because Navy wants to schedule a game, that doesn't mean that potential opponents do. Even if they do, that doesn't mean that they'll be available when Navy wants to play them. Nevertheless, Feinstein and others still prefer independence, which is the path that Army has chosen.
Army was in an unfortunate position when the Big East was looking to expand in 2011. By that point, Navy had eight years of relative success under its belt, so the prospect of playing more difficult schedules four years later wasn't as daunting. Army faced a different challenge. The Black Knights left Conference USA in 2005 primarily to regain control over their scheduling. By 2011, though, they still hadn't seen the on-field benefit they were hoping to achieve, with only one winning season since rejoining the ranks of the independents. Army athletic director Boo Corrigan was at the Naval Academy when they turned their program around. He understood the part that scheduling played in Navy's success. Joining a tough conference like the Big East might make sense as a way to protect the program from further evolutions in college athletics, but it might also have caused a revolt from Army fans (and donors) who felt that joining Conference USA was a mistake. They were desperate for a winner, no matter how it came. West Point leadership obliged, and the football program remained independent.
Just as it is difficult to find Navy fans critical of joining the American, there aren't too many Army fans regretting the decision to stay independent. After only two winning seasons in 22 years, Army football is finally headed in the right direction. Corrigan hired another veteran of Navy's resurgence, Jeff Monken, to serve as Army's head football coach, and the two appear to have successfully replicated the formula. Against weaker schedules (Army's is ranked 106th in the Kellner index), Army has thrived. The Black Knights finished 8-5 in 2016 with only their second bowl win in 30 years. This year, Army has already secured a berth in the Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl and has a chance to finish with 10 wins for only the second time in school history. After losing for so long, nobody seems to care where the wins are coming from, and one can hardly blame them; Navy fans certainly didn't care in 2003.
One wonders how long the era of good feelings will last. Army did not have a bowl tie-in in 2016 and had to wait to see if there would be enough eligible teams to fill their contracted bowl berths. That will be the case going forward after the team plays in the Armed Forces Bowl this year. With the glut of bowl games, it's possible that conferences will never be able to fill all their affiliations and that Army will always have a spot. If a winning Army team ever does get shut out of a bowl, though, the uproar will be colossal. Waiting for conference leftovers also ensures that the bowl games that are able to take Army will always be the ones with less appeal. Again, it's not a big deal today, when going to any bowl game still feels special. There is, however, a ceiling to what teams can accomplish playing these kinds of schedules. If Army is still winning 5-6 years from now, fans will start clamoring for more.
Scheduling is another potential long-term headache for Army. Corrigan has repeatedly stated that he's had no problem filling future schedules, and that may be true. That doesn't mean their aren't complications, though. Army is lining up the very schedules that Navy hoped to avoid, full of MAC teams, Sun Belt teams, Conference USA teams, and recent additions to FBS, coupled with one game against a powerhouse each year for recruiting purposes. They also are scheduled to play two FCS teams in each of the next two seasons.
Army's schedules also tend to be front-loaded, since it is difficult to find games to play in November. Next year, after playing Air Force on November 3, Army plays Lafayette and Colgate in consecutive weeks, followed by two bye weeks before playing Navy. While the rest of the college football world is playing its most critical games late in the season, Army will be left out of the conversation as they essentially take a bye month.
Even if independence doesn’t work out, there’s a sense among the Army faithful that their program could join a conference whenever it wanted to. To some extent, that’s true; the Army brand would be the most prominent in a few conferences, and I’m sure that one of them would welcome them with open arms. The problem is which one. Many assume that the American would happily extend an invitation to Army, and while that may have been true once, I don’t think that’s the case anymore.
League officials have stated that they are very comfortable at 12 teams, and there is reason to believe them; the American craves stability above all else. Any team they add would have to bring significant value to the next television contract above and beyond the cost of adding another mouth to feed and further dividing revenue. It’s highly debatable whether Army can do that on their own, especially when you consider that their addition would immediately devalue the Army-Navy Game, which would have to be moved to Thanksgiving weekend to accommodate conference schedules. That, along with several other reasons, would cause Navy to balk at any Army invitation.
The other problem for Army is that they can’t be invited alone. The American won’t give itself a scheduling headache with 13 teams; someone would have to come with them to make an even 14. When you scan the ranks of teams that would make sense for the American to invite, you realize that there aren’t very many.
The ultimate prize for the American would be BYU, although that is more or less a pipe dream at this point. That wouldn’t happen unless the Cougars felt that they absolutely had to join a conference. As long as ESPN keeps paying for BYU home games and helping out with scheduling, that won’t happen. The American would bend over backward to get BYU, though, and would add just about anyone along with them to make it happen, including Army.
It’s conceivable that some Mountain West teams might want to leave that league given its uncertain television future. Again, though, it’s questionable whether any of them would add enough value to outweigh dividing revenues two additional ways. Boise State or San Diego State might be willing candidates, but one of them plus Army is unlikely to move the financial needle.
One interesting possibility to partner with Army would be Air Force. There might be some value in being able to market the American as the home of all three service academies. The problem with Air Force, though, is still geography. The Falcons would need a home for the rest of their sports since Mountain West bylaws won’t allow a team to keep those sports in the league if their football program leaves. Joining the American in all sports is not an option; Air Force can’t afford to send non-revenue sports to Florida every year, and subjecting their women’s basketball program to UConn annually might be considered a crime. Other options for Air Force could be the Big Sky or the Summit League, but each of those conferences come with drawbacks, and it’s possible that neither would want to expand themselves.
The most likely scenario is that the American doesn’t expand. If that’s the case, then the only other reasonable options for Army would be the MAC or Conference USA, and it probably makes more sense at that point to remain independent. Ironically, Army lost a measure of self-determination when they decided to remain on their own. It will most likely take another round of power conference realignment for enough dominoes to fall that a suitable conference would want to invite Army.
For now, that’s not a problem. It's smooth sailing for both Army and Navy, and they each have reason to be pleased with the decisions they've made. Both will enter Saturday’s game with winning records, bowl games secured, and a positive outlook. Optimism rightfully abounds. The future of the rivalry, though, will be shaped by these decisions. The program that made the right choice for the long term will have the upper hand.