Zemek: Army WP should remain an independent

The past several years of conference realignment have caused many teams to switch conference affiliations. Many will ask why Army did not join Navy in moving to the American Athletic Conference for this season. If you observe a few details about college football in general and about this season in particular, you will be able to see that Army made the right decision... and it's not a close call.


For more than a full century, Army was a major college football Independent. If Beano Cook – the beloved late college football historian and commentator – was still alive today, he might have said of Army, “It fought for our freedom, so it should remain free from a conference affiliation.” You may or may not chuckle at that line, but regardless of whether you did or not, you cannot refute the following claim: Army’s brief foray into the USA – and by that, we mean Conference USA – was no laughing matter.

Army spent seven seasons in Conference USA, from 1998 through 2004. Bob Sutton – not Army’s best coach, but certainly not its worst, and a good coach against Navy (which counts for a lot in West Point) – could not handle the transition well at all. Army finished 3-8 in Sutton’s two years as a Conference USA coach. The even more depressing part about the Conference USA years is that 3-8 was as good as it ever got. In four years under Todd Berry and one under Bobby Ross, the program could not improve upon that mark while still a Conference USA member. It would take five seasons after the Conference USA exit for Army to reach as many as five wins in a single season.

One could look at the Conference USA years and say that since Army lost a lot of games in the league, there was no reason to stay. That’s obviously a part of any cost-benefit analysis in college football, but the discussion can’t – and shouldn’t – end there. For some Independent programs, joining a conference is either something which has been done (Navy) or needs to be done (BYU, to get much better bowl and playoff access). It has been asked, and it might continue to be asked this year, especially since Navy has taken the plunge: Why not join the parade away from Independent status?

The reality of conference championship games – which did not exist on nearly the same scale in 1998, when Army joined C-USA – has adjusted the landscape in college football. It’s not as though Army ever had to deal with the prospect of playing in a C-USA title game; the league didn’t adopt one until 2005, when the Black Knights had already left. However, had Army remained in the league, it would have had to face the possibility. That might not seem to matter at first glance, but when you realize that a conference title game is played on the first Saturday of December, that’s the week before the Army-Navy Game. Not having a bye to prepare for the Midshipmen is an inconvenience at best, a hardship at worst. Yet, the deeper issue is that since Army’s program has been trying to play catch-up to Navy for a long time now, Army needs to enter that Navy game with every last competitive advantage it can find.

If Army was the superior program at the moment, it might have been able to afford playing (or at least risk playing) a conference title game. As the program trying to make up ground, though, that’s just not a realistic or sensible consideration – not right now.

Some people will say, “Well, conference realignment began only five years ago, so it’s not as though Army couldn’t do something in the near future.” The back end of that statement is true, but as the history of Army and many other programs shows, realignment was not something which happened only in 2010 after BYU and Utah left the Mountain West and Nebraska moved to the Big Ten, unleashing a series of subsequent events. Realignment has constantly happened in smaller measures, and 2004 – when Army left C-USA in football – marked shifts in the ACC and Big East as well. Realignment can and does happen at various intervals. Army could have pursued some options if it wanted to… but it did not want to.

The school chose wisely.

Because the football program is an Independent, Army still gets a double-bye before the Navy game, plus a midseason bye as well. The composition of opponents is one matter, but the construction of the schedule in terms of rest breaks, an allowance for the centrality of academics at West Point, and preparation for Navy is exactly where it should be. Army travels outside its home region only twice after October 3. The Black Knights play only two true road games after that date (Navy, of course, being a neutral-site contest that’s easy to get to and is preceded by ample rest). Army also has those two road trips broken up by a bye week, so the prospect of having to play a game one week after a long commute is something this team will have to deal with on only one occasion in 2015: Army goes to Colorado Springs to face Air Force on Nov. 7, and then it hosts Tulane on Nov. 14. This schedule is logistically sound, one the players on this team should appreciate. Being Independent made it possible.

Army is not American (Athletic Conference), so to speak, and Army is not in the USA (Conference USA), to use another conference-based wordplay. Army is simply Independent and free – it’s the way it ought to be, at least in 2015.

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