What went wrong for Army in Conference USA? Several different answers to the question exist, all of them valid and truthful.
The best answer, though -- even better than the deficient quality of the Black Knights' head coaches during those seven seasons from 1998 through 2004 -- is very simple: Conference USA contained a lot of formidable programs.
Wait a minute, you might reflexively think. Conference USA used to be tough? In football?
Anyone who follows college basketball might remember the days when Louisville and Rick Pitino; Memphis and John Calipari; and Cincinnati and Bob Huggins all populated Conference USA basketball. What is today a mid-major-level conference used to possess high-major programs and coaches.
Yet, Conference USA football once was a big deal, too. Army joined a league in 1998 which featured a few surprises, and a number of programs which were on their way up the ladder.
One school thrived in 1998 which neither Army nor anyone else in Conference USA could have expected to be great.
Before he moved to Clemson and coached against his daddy in the ACC, Tommy Bowden guided Tulane -- yes, remember when this was a thing? -- to a 12-0 record and a No. 7 season-ending ranking in the Associated Press poll. The quarterback for that team? Shaun King, who -- the very next football season -- came within one win of a Super Bowl appearance as a member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The offensive coordinator? A man who won the Sugar Bowl with West Virginia; came within one game of a BCS national title game appearance in Morgantown; failed at Michigan; and then led Arizona to the Fiesta Bowl: Rich Rodriguez. Tulane became Tulane again after that coaching staff sought bigger and better jobs, but the point remained that Army entered Conference USA in a most unusual year.
Then consider the schools which were also part of C-USA that season... and other schools which joined before Army left the league following the 2004 season.
Louisville, Memphis and Cincinnati -- brand names in basketball -- all made varying efforts to succeed in football. Even the weakest program of the three, Memphis, reached a number of bowl games under former coach Tommy West and made itself stronger in the time Army occupied C-USA. Cincinnati reached great heights -- "votes short of the 2010 BCS title game" heights -- after Army left the league, but when Army was still in Conference USA, the Bearcats employed a head coach by the name of Mark Dantonio. They pursued football success with a level of vigor Army was not in a position to match.
Then comes Louisville. A fellow named Bobby Petrino could coach a little bit, to put it mildly. The Cardinals were contending on a national scale by the time Army decided it needed to return to Independent status. Louisville's 2004 clash with Boise State in the Liberty Bowl marked a point in time when it was clear that both programs were on their way to the penthouse in college football. Two short years later, they both won BCS bowls, Louisville the Orange and Boise State the Fiesta.
None of this even mentions Houston, which eventually hired a man named Art Briles to improve its product.
None of this even mentions South Florida, a program which obtained a No. 2 ranking in 2007, just three years after Army left C-USA.
None of this mentions East Carolina, a fairly consistent bowl program.
None of this mentions TCU, which Gary Patterson was beginning to push up the mountain en route to a more prosperous period in the Mountain West, onward to the Big 12.
Conference USA, in 1998, was about to take off. That's pretty clear.
None of this means that Army *should* join the conference today. However, one can say that if Army did choose to join C-USA today, it would not have failed the way it did 18 years ago.