One of the first lessons I learned as a young officer of the deck was that when dealing with contacts on the radar, you want to avoid putting the ship in extremis. Make course corrections to avoid collision early rather than waiting until the last second when you have fewer options and are more likely to panic. I kept thinking about that lesson as I listened to the teleconference announcing Navy football’s decision to accept the Big East’s invitation to join the conference. After 130 years of going it alone, Navy has made their course correction. We’ll be seeing Big East logos on Jack Stephens Field in 2015.
My journey through the five stages of grief is slowly reaching the acceptance stage, although I’m no more thrilled about the prospect of conference membership now than I was before. Self-determination with scheduling, television, and bowl games was a big part of Navy’s resurgence over the last decade, but there’s more to it than that. Navy’s independence goes back a lot longer than just those ten years, and for good reason. Athletic conferences were originally formed as alliances of similar schools across a particular region. As a service academy, there just aren’t enough schools similar to Navy for them to have formed that kind of a partnership. Navy plays the other service academies, obviously, and it makes sense to play Notre Dame as another national school. The rest of Navy’s schedule has always been pretty fluid, usually with a smattering of fellow Eastern independents mixed in with various other schools from around the country. Traditional opponents like Penn and William & Mary faded away, and new teams like Tulane, Rice, and Wake Forest took their place. As Navy’s place in the college football world has changed, independence has allowed their schedules to change along with them.
That’s all going to change in 2015, when Navy’s schedule will be set in stone. If that makes you more than a little nervous, it should. The risk of becoming the Vanderbilt of the Big East is very real, which is the main reason why Navy was independent in the first place. But this isn’t a decision that Navy is making because it wants to; Navy is moving to the Big East because it has to. Conference membership is not a new topic of conversation at the Naval Academy; both the superintendent and the newly-hired Chet Gladchuk mentioned it as far back as 2001. It was mentioned more than once on the teleconference that Navy and Big East officials had met every year since then. Navy could have joined the conference at any time. So why now?
The important thing to remember here is that the main driver in conference realignment is television. Broadcasters are paying conferences insane amounts of money for the rights to their games, but it isn’t without a catch. To get better ratings (and a greater return on their enormous investment), they’re going to want to see more matchups with BCS-level opponents and less of Louisiana-Monroe. We’re already seeing the effects of that push, with a trend toward 9-game conference schedules and with the recent scheduling pact between the Big Ten and Pac 12. These conferences aren’t just expanding; they’re consolidating. They’re playing more games against each other, and fewer games against teams that won’t draw in viewers. In essence, they are creating a new top tier of Division I football. There is even the potential for a formal split between the BCS conferences and non-BCS conferences. College football is at a crossroads, and the Naval Academy has to pick a direction to take.
Navy can’t afford to fade away like the aforementioned Penn and William & Mary. The Naval Academy has an obligation to position itself as a mainstream, national school. The football team is the most visible element of USNA and the best tool for increasing awareness among potential candidates for admission. With the role that the football program plays in supporting the mission, it is crucial for Navy to maintain that visibility by playing in the top tier of college football, whatever that is. Navy doesn’t have the muscle to force a seat at the table like the Notre Dame does. With the increasing power and influence of the major conferences, it appears less and less likely that Navy would be able to do so as an independent.
It probably seems ridiculous to paint such a bleak picture of the future of independence when, by most measures, Navy has so much going for it now. CBS is truly exceptional as a television partner, giving the Mids top billing on Saturdays, producing the fantastic A Game of Honor documentary, and even airing the spring game last year. Navy has bowl games lined up for the next 5 years. Attendance is high, and the program is coming off of one of the most successful decades in its history. Navy is doing just fine right now. But this isn’t a decision that’s being made for right now; this is a decision that’s being made to put the program in the best position to face the uncertainty of 10-20 years from now. If you wait until it becomes obvious that a move is necessary, it will be too late. So the superintendent did what any good OOD would do.
He changed course.