After wrapping up a 10-2 season with a convincing win in the Emerald Bowl, the last thing most Navy fans want to think about is the Notre Dame game. But let's bite the bullet for a second and take a look back to October. There was a lot of buzz surrounding that game; there was the streak, Navy's bid for perfection, and Tyrone Willingham's job security. But with all that talk, there was something else, too; something that everyone probably knew, but few felt was significant. It was also a matchup between-- at the time-- the country's last remaining independent teams.
Once upon a time, independents ruled the east. Army, Navy, Penn State, Pitt, Syracuse… For decades, these schools and other independents were the face of eastern college football. But with the 1991 formation of a Big East football conference and Penn State joining the Big 10 in 1993, the era of the Eastern independent came to a close. Army eventually followed suit by joining Conference USA in 1998. Traditional independents elsewhere in the country, such as Air Force and Florida State, found new homes in the WAC (1980) and ACC (1992), respectively. Other schools have come and gone from the ranks of the independents, usually as conferences folded or new schools joined Division I-A; but through it all, Navy and Notre Dame have remained happily unaligned.
Events of the last off-season put that independent status under the microscope. The expansion of the ACC led to a maelstrom of conference realignment that significantly altered the collegiate athletic landscape. To recap:
- The ACC expanded to 12 schools, adding Miami, Virginia Tech, and Boston College from the Big East. Miami and VPI have begun ACC play this season, with Boston College joining them in the fall of this year.
- The Big East, in an effort to survive as a football conference, added South Florida, Louisville, and Cincinnati from Conference USA to begin play this fall. Two non-football schools, Marquette and DePaul, are also leaving C-USA to join the Big East. Connecticut joined the Big East this year in a previously scheduled move, and Temple makes its involuntary departure next season to become independent.
- The Mountain West Conference will add TCU as its 9th member this fall. TCU will be leaving C-USA after joining in 2001.
- In addition to the schools already mentioned, Conference USA is also losing non-football members Saint Louis and Charlotte to the Atlantic 10, as well as Army, which will be returning to independent status next season. To stop the bleeding, C-USA is transforming into a 12-team, all-sport conference by adding Marshall and Central Florida from the MAC, and UTEP, Rice, SMU, and Tulsa from the WAC.
- The WAC replaced their losses with Utah State, Idaho, and New Mexico State from the Sun Belt Conference.
- The Sun Belt has added Troy State in a previously planned move, as well as 1-A newcomers Florida Atlantic and Florida International upon removal of their provisional status.
That's quite a mouthful, and that's just among the Division I-A conferences; there are plenty of other changes in smaller-profile conferences. Naturally, while this game of conference musical chairs was being played, there was a good deal of speculation about how the two independents might fit into the picture. Rumors were pretty easy to come by, whether it was Notre Dame joining the ACC or Big Ten or Navy being courted by Conference USA or the Big East. There was also the much-ballyhooed rumor of a brand new conference being formed after a meeting conducted by Academy AD Chet Gladchuk with representatives from other academically prestigious I-A schools. None of this gossip panned out, but it goes to show that as long as Navy remains independent, this kind of speculation will always exist.
It makes sense that it would. Let's face it; Navy has a lot to offer any conference. For a conference seeking a national identity, or a conference looking to maintain one, the Navy name carries name-brand recognition, tradition, and academic credibility that few schools can match. A regular on national television, Navy has a national following that travels well (as demonstrated by the Houston and Emerald bowls). A beautifully renovated stadium, improving facilities, and a long-term contract extension for an outstanding coaching staff demonstrate a commitment to winning that any conference would want from a member institution. And what conference wouldn't like to see their logo prominently displayed during the Army-Navy Game? There would be an additional bonus for the Big East in adding Navy, given the traditional series that the Mids have had with several current Big East members. Any conference would benefit from Naval Academy membership.
The question then becomes whether conference membership has anything to offer the Naval Academy in return. What would compel Navy to abandon 125 years of independent tradition?
The genesis of most established conferences involved university presidents and faculty representatives from similar schools in a particular region coming together to establish formal rules for competition (especially eligibility rules) and a championship to play for. Each school's faculty was actually heavily involved in conference decision-making. The role of a school's faculty has declined through the years, becoming almost nonexistent in most conferences (how much input do you think ACC faculty had in that conference's decision to expand this year?). Instead, athletic conferences have become machines of marketing and money-making. Why else would Louisiana Tech and Hawaii be in the same conference? Why else would Army join a league of southeastern schools? Certainly not out of tradition. When it comes to leverage in TV and bowl game negotiations, there is strength in numbers. Well, that's the theory anyway. But if you're a Navy fan, you know that what's best for most college football schools might not be the best thing for Canoe U.
So what is best for Navy? To answer that, it helps to take a look at what makes USNA different.
There is no conference in I-A football whose members' academic standards reflect those of the Naval Academy; any idea of a I-A Patriot League clone is a pipe dream. Even the most vocal supporters of Navy football joining a conference will admit that the moment it happens, Navy is at a competitive disadvantage. It takes a special person to commit to the challenge of Division I football on top of plebe year, a military obligation, and an unrelenting academic load; finding this kind of person is a difficulty that other schools do not face. Certainly there is no conference that, under the traditional concept of an alliance of similar schools, would be anything more than a geographical fit for USNA. By remaining independent, Navy creates a de facto league with Army and Air Force, complete with championship trophy. The focus of the program is setting the standard for these like-minded institutions rather than keeping up with the big-money and often shady world that makes up the rest of college football. With all due respect to our friends in Nashville, Navy doesn't want to become another Vanderbilt.
What might Vanderbilt be able to accomplish if they didn't have to take on Georgia, Florida, and Tennessee every season as they struggle to rebuild? Unfortunately for them, they're stuck trying to develop a culture of winning against an SEC schedule every year. As an independent, Navy can avoid a similar problem. Let's face it; Navy football's resurgence has been fueled in no small part by a schedule that, as Paul Johnson would say, "gives us a chance." The ability to replace Boston College with Eastern Michigan when you're coming off of a stretch of three wins in as many years can go a long way toward changing the attitude of a struggling program. Lighten up the schedule, gain momentum from winning a few games, and then sprinkle in a few higher-profile opponents. The plan is already in motion at Navy, where the 2005 schedule includes Maryland and Stanford in addition to Notre Dame. Navy's scheduling philosophy is, in addition to the rival service academies, three games in which they should be the favorite, three games where the matchup is roughly equal, and three games where a Navy win might be considered an upset (on paper, anyway). It would be impossible to follow this model under the restraints of conference obligations, making bouncing back from down years much more difficult.
Another aspect of scheduling flexibility to consider is variety. It might seem like a minor issue, but consider this; now that TCU is joining the Mountain West, Air Force will only have one game to schedule on its own in an eleven game schedule. With eight conference games and the two service academy games, USAFA has room for only one more. If Navy fans want to continue playing Notre Dame (and everyone not named John Feinstein does), then joining a conference would most likely mean playing the same schedule every year. For those excited about playing Maryland and Stanford this season, it's something to think about.
Scheduling limitations also raise another issue. While traditionally playing primarily eastern schools, Navy has, through the years, made an effort to play a national schedule. The dedication to this has varied somewhat as Academy leadership has changed, but it's a recurring theme. Over the last ten years, Navy has played at Hawaii and San Diego State (twice against the Aztecs), and a 2002 game at Washington has been rescheduled (probably for 2010). Navy plays a game in Texas or Oklahoma almost every year. In a season where several bowl games were hoping to land USNA, Navy accepted the invitation to the Emerald Bowl in part because of a desire on the part of Academy leaders to bring the football team to the west coast. In seasons to come, Navy has home-and-home series scheduled with Stanford and Cal, along with the aforementioned game in Seattle. Obviously, joining a conference would limit Navy's ability to schedule games around the country. Why is this important? For many people, their first (sometimes only) exposure to USNA is through the football team. By limiting the team's national exposure, you limit the Academy's ability to reach the people it serves and potential candidates for admission. After two decades in the WAC/Mountain West, Air Force has "regionalized" itself; they are perceived as more of a "western" team than a "national" one. As USAFA Senior Associate Athletic Director Mike Saks once said, "I think people tend to forget on the East Coast that the Air Force Academy exists." Playing in the same ten places every other year will do that.
For most schools, money is the primary motivator when it comes to joining a conference. Conferences can offer a more attractive television package than most schools can offer on their own, and members share money earned in bowl games. Some conferences have also tacked on a championship game at the end of the season, leading to even more revenue from TV and attendance. But USNA doesn't have the same challenges in terms of marketability and visibility that most schools have. Navy's athletic department makes money, thanks in large part to the football games with Army and Notre Dame plus solid football attendance. Few schools were on television as much as Navy last year, with the HDNet deal and three games broadcast by major networks. The Emerald Bowl saw its attendance jump 19 percent, and television ratings for the game rose a whopping 65 percent from the year before. It wasn't because of New Mexico, either. Navy has a place in the college football world as a bit of a novelty; it's one of the few college football teams that can attract the attention of the average American, not just the average college football fan. This unique status helps Navy to remain competitive as an independent in an environment dominated by conferences.
Even if it's still financially feasible to remain independent, the greatest fear from a fan's standpoint is being shut out of bowl games. As it stands right now, that isn't unreasonable; the only bowl slots not specifically designated for conference members are BCS at-large slots. The thought of 9-2 Navy not playing in a bowl game would be almost too much for a fan to bear, and would be a tremendous disappointment for the team. Yet the last three times Navy has been bowl eligible, they've gone to a bowl game. That is because with so many bowl games today, it is almost impossible for conferences with tie-ins for six, seven, and sometimes eight teams to consistently provide enough bowl-eligible teams to accommodate. Navy will usually be choice #1 for bowl games in search of a "free agent." Another thing to consider is that bowl games will be renegotiating their affiliations following the expiration of the current BCS contract next season. A shrewd AD would look to capitalize. The Liberty Bowl used to offer a spot to the winner of the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy. Conferences like the MAC are desperate to affiliate with another bowl game; perhaps bowl games would be more receptive if they also had the chance to take Navy (an arrangement like Notre Dame's with the Big East). Given the impressive following that Navy brought to Houston and San Francisco, USNA could have the clout to make arrangements with bowl games on its own. Do you think the Houston Bowl missed Navy this year after Colorado only sold 900 tickets? Bowl games want to make money. Fans equal money, and Navy brings fans. Bowl games will want to have the chance to take a team like Navy.
College football is in a constant state of change. Whether it's in conference realignment, the BCS, or the never-ending talk about a playoff, nothing really stays the same for too long. Perhaps a change might eventually come that will make Navy's entrance into conference affiliation a necessity. But until that conference affiliation offers the Naval Academy as much as the Academy can offer in return, Navy should maintain its tradition of independence in football.