CHANGING COURSE, PART 1

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.

 

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26 Responses

  1. This course change, weather we like it or not, still only presents us with a 50/50 chance of staying in “big time” college football; especially if the “BCS-nonBCS” split occurs.

    • There’s so much uncertainty that I don’t think you can put odds on anything right now. I know people are down on the Big East, but I think that once the new TV deal is done, we’ll see the real drawing power of the new conference. Remember, the lines are being drawn based on money and television, not what happens on the field.

    • Okay, (rewrite): This course change DOES NOT GUARANTEE Navy staying in “big time” college football… (caps to show edit)

  2. It’s always better to be proactive than reactive. I just hope we read the tea leaves correctly….

    • Just hope the course change isn’t into waters that runs us aground!!! Potentially all you said can happen…so can Navy becoming a lower-tier doormat for the Big East!!! Back to the days in the 1990s.

  3. Our chances in the “new look” Big East all depend on what kind of program we have. The 2004-2010 Navy teams would finish in the top half of this new conference and we could all plan bowl trips every year. The Weatherbie Era teams and 2011 team would be fortunate to win 3-4 games in this new conference. It’s impossible to predict how it will pan out 3+ years from now. But if Ken, Ivin, and Buddy are still here, and this gives our recruiting a little shot in the arm, I like our chances.

    Mike – most people think I am crazy when I say this, but could Air Force ever drop off the schedule? With at least 8 conference games and 3 guarantee games (AF, ND & Army) that only leaves one slot, and I am guessing Chet will want to schedule an easy home win against a FCS team. ND & Army bring in TONS of revenue, so those games here to stay. But what do we get out of AF? It costs us a home game every other year, and Navy could use that date to either schedule a money game (O$U, South Carolina, PSU) or a “bowl helper” game against a Florida Atlantic.

    • DJ, you must have read ESPN.Com today

    • COULD we drop Air Force? I guess. I don’t think we will. They’re a distant third out of 3 on the Navy rivalry hierarchy, so if we’re forced to drop someone it would be them. I don’t think that will happen, but you can’t bet on anything right now.

    • not so sure i would be scheduling tOSU, SC, or other teams in that tier level just for money. The BE schedule will be brutal enough. If you want to schedule an FAU, well then keep AF…just my opinion.

  4. Navy41 – I did not, but maybe ESPN picked up the thought from me. I just feel like the AF rivalry is so distant compared to the Army rivalry, and Chet has made it clear over the years that he is very focused on the business side of the deal. And with AF declining to join the Big East, I don’t know how much sense the rivalry will make from a business standpoint. If Chet is willing to abandon 100 years of independence to make this program better, dropping AF would just be collateral damage.

  5. Mike-I think that’s all Niumat was saying. IF, and that’s a big IF, one of them had to go it would be his preference to let go of Air Force. I think most people would agree the ND game is more important to the program than the AF game is (big picture).

  6. Mike,

    On point and very well crafted as always.

    I know I speak for everyone else when I confess how much I have enjoyed the last ten years. God, please spare us another Uzelac-Chaump-Wetherbie curse.

    We shall see.

  7. I will take what I assume will be the unpopular position that it makes more sense if you have to drop someone, to drop ND and keep AF. Don’t get me wrong – I loved beating ND 3 out of 4 years, but there were 43 lean years in there. In the last ten years the AF game has been incredibly entertaining as a football game. Army has the pagentry but has been a rivalry only in the sense that a nail is a rival to a hammer. I know the ND game generates a lot of money, but being in a conference generates a big payout from the bowls that should offset that. Mike mentioned the risk of becoming a “Vanderbilt.” Not a bad briar patch to be thrown in. As the SEC “doormat” Vandy got a piece of 9 (including 2 BCS) bowls. In all other sports they are very competitive. I think losing the C In C competition is something we should avoid at all costs even if it means losing the Domer rivalry.

    • Vanderbilt has been to 5 bowls in its existence, only 2 in the last 30 years, and no BCS bowls. Not sure what you’re referring to.

      Notre Dame doesn’t just generate money. It generates interest from recruits who want to play Notre Dame. That’s the kind of thing that matters to a football coach. Air Force has been a good game recently, but that doesn’t really matter. Niumat is looking at what he can do to help overcome the recruiting disadvantage he’ll face in the Big East. Keeping the money and interest in the program that comes from playing Notre Dame is one of them. You don’t get any of that by playing Air Force.

    • Well, 2 bowls in the past 4 years (makes it sound better). Don’t get me wrong, they are in the wrong league. They care about academics… Ole Miss cares about Masoli. LSU played a QB that stomped on a dude’s head, literally.

  8. Definitely not a right or wrong answer. I just think Niumat’s point was that if we are going to join the Big East we need every recruiting advantage we can get and playing Notre Dame helps us in recruiting, Air Force does not.

  9. I agree. Most of our recruits are players that want to prove that they belong in Div 1A (FBS), and were snubbed by the bigger programs. They want the opportunity to beat those 4-5 stars that were ranked over them (the best example being ND).

  10. I’m hoping (maybe dreaming) that when 2015 rolls around, if things change, and we want to, we can somehow get out of this agreement, . Probably have to pay a huge fine.

    • I am sure Chet has some sort of “out” if the whole thing blows up, such as a Louisville going to the B12 and Rutgers/UConn moving to the ACC, but I don’t see that happening.

  11. Navy doesn’t have to pay anything until they are in the conference, they can walk away at anytime, but unless the BIG EAST implodes (and I don’t see that happening) there is no way that’s going to happen. Read Bird Dog’s column. He has it right.

  12. If Louisville goes to the Big 12, no big deal. I don’t believe Rutgers and UConn are going anywhere.

  13. Now, we wouldn’t have to play USAFA if DoD folded the air force back into the Army…would we? Problem solved?

    • a service searching for a mission…
      let’s see 1947 action merged the two services by adding a third…

  14. Mike,

    Thank-you for this post!

  15. Anyone seen a troll army?

  16. lol

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