For the finale of our look at Navy’s decision to join the Big East, I’m just going to do a Q&A format to expand on some of the things we touched on earlier and to cover any other lose ends. Each of these should probably be its own post, but whatever. This is running a lot longer than I thought it would, so it looks like there will be a Part 5 too.
So how does the new Big East stack up? Is it really going to be as difficult as people say?
Yeah, it will be.
The long pole in the conference expansion tent is name-brand marketability and television appeal, so losing West Virginia, Pitt, and Syracuse is a huge blow for the Big East in that sense. Speaking strictly in terms of on-field performance, though, West Virginia is the only powerhouse, having won at least 8 games every year for the last decade (including four seasons of 10+wins). Pitt has been up and down, and Syracuse has had one 8-5 season mixed in with a lot of bad football. The Big East is replacing these teams with a legitimate top ten team in Boise State (that at worst matches what West Virginia has put on the field), a top 20 team in Houston, three of the four teams that played in the last two C-USA championship games (Houston, SMU, and UCF), a resurgent San Diego State program, Temple, and…. well, Memphis, who was added more to appease the non-football half of the conference. Even with Memphis, though, there’s a decent chance that the new Big East will be just as good on the field as the pre-expansion league in the short term. Maybe even better.
The immediate short term isn’t what matters to Navy, though, since the Mids won’t be joining the Big East until 2015. What matters for Navy is how the conference looks over the long haul, which is a much different question. As good as some of these teams are now, it’s the quality of the program that translates to success over time. There’s a difference. Along those lines, the West Virginia, Pitt, and Syracuse programs are light years ahead of the newcomers as they stand now. But that’s the kicker; as they stand now, the newcomers are operating without the financial resources they will have once they join the Big East. The jump in revenue will help them build better facilities, keep coaches that would have otherwise been lured away by bigger programs, increase recruiting budgets, etc. Recruiting should also get a bump with the prestige of Big East membership compared to what they get now in C-USA or the Mountain West. Joining the Big East won’t magically turn these programs into winners, but it does raise their ceilings. Whatever these programs are now, joining the Big East gives them the opportunity to grow into much more.
It’s happened before. Cincinnati was nothing special in Conference USA, but in the 7 years since they’ve joined the Big East they’ve had four seasons of 10+ wins and played in two BCS bowl games. Louisville won the Orange Bowl. UConn was a I-AA program until moving up in 2000, but since joining the Big East in 2004 they’ve won a share of two conference titles and played in the Fiesta Bowl. USF’s program didn’t even exist until 1997, but they’ve been able to manage winning records more often than not since joining the Big East. Of these programs, only Louisville entered the Big East at the top of their game. That’s why an assessment of the challenge for Navy going forward requires one to look not at what these programs are, but what they could become.
Take San Diego State, for example. The challenge for the Aztecs, like other athletic departments in the Cal State system, has always been a financial one. Fellow CSU schools Long Beach State and Cal State-Fullerton discontinued their football programs in the early ’90s, with both athletic departments becoming more successful (and profitable) after the move. For years there has been a debate on whether other Cal State schools should follow suit. San Jose State came pretty close in 2004. The situation hasn’t been quite as dire on Montezuma Mesa, although talk heated up after SDSU dropped men’s volleyball– the only team to ever bring the school a NCAA Division I national championship– in 2000. That kind of talk will end once the Aztecs join the Big East. The revenue they’ll receive from the Big East’s television contract will be like winning the lottery compared to what SDSU gets now from the Mountain West, giving them the resources to aim higher than mere existence. Once that revenue stream is in place, there is no reason why SDSU can’t thrive. Southern California is obviously loaded with talent. The increased money and prestige won’t be enough for SDSU to steal local recruits from titans like USC, but it will allow them to compete with other programs that recruit California heavily such as Utah, Arizona, and Boise State. San Diego State is ready to explode, and joining Big East is the match that lights the fuse.
SMU is another program that could flourish in the new Big East. They have a lot going for them already; excellent academics, first-rate facilities, generous donors, and a location in the deep end of the talent pool. They showed their commitment to building a winning program when they ponied up (GET IT?) to lure a name-brand coach like June Jones from Hawaii. So far, it’s paid off. Coach Jones has led the Mustangs to two division titles and three straight bowl games; the first consistent success the program has seen since receiving the NCAA’s death penalty. By joining the Big East, SMU has positioned itself to go even further. In general, Texas, Texas A&M, and Oklahoma have the first pick of Texas recruits, but they can’t sign everybody. The state exports a LOT of its football talent. Like San Diego State, joining the Big East will make it easier for SMU to persuade some of those local players to stay closer to home. Even if the lion’s share of the state’s top players still end up in the Big 12, you can build one hell of a football team out of the best of the rest, and maybe even steal a few away. Being in the Big East makes SMU a lot more appealing than they were in Conference USA.
You can make similar arguments for UCF and Houston. Temple’s football program has already had a bit of a renaissance, and is a far cry from the one that the Big East dropped in 2004. Even Memphis, which has financial issues of its own, can only get better once Big East money starts coming in and those issues are addressed.
Perception and reality are two different things. Big East football has been mocked for years for its supposed weakness, yet when other conferences have decided to expand, the Big East has always been picked clean. That wouldn’t happen if those programs weren’t good enough. That’s the reality. The Big East started out as a group of big programs making big money, but has evolved into big money making big programs. Navy is going to have its hands full.
Wouldn’t all of that apply to Navy too?
Navy will get the same financial bump as the other football programs. The problem is that a service academy like Navy has limits when it comes to what they can do with that windfall, thanks to strict admissions, a service obligation, and having to sell 18-year-olds on attending a military school.
By service academy standards, Navy has had a pretty good run of recruiting success. They’re never going to show up on the radar of “recruiting experts” (a phrase I use very loosely), but Navy’s coaches in recent years have been able to get into a few living rooms that would have been closed to them in the past. Still, even though Navy has been able to recruit against other I-A programs better than they used to, the bulk of the roster is still made up of guys who had mostly I-AA offers but wanted to prove that they could play against I-A competition. By joining the Big East, the hope is that future rosters will instead be made up of guys who had MAC or C-USA-type offers but want to prove themselves against BCS competition. Of course, the BCS as we know it probably won’t exist by the time Navy starts Big East play, but the same principle applies regardless of how the divide manifests itself.
Even if things pan out that way and Navy is indeed more attractive to recruits, we still don’t know if that will be enough to be competitive in the Big East. Coach Niumatalolo wondered aloud at the teleconference if Navy was biting off more than they could chew. It’s very possible.
If it’s going to be that hard, then wouldn’t it be better to win at a lower level than to lose at a higher level?
For fans, yes. Nothing beats winning. But for the mission of the school? Not so much.
Let’s take Appalachian State for example. App State has a model football program. In the last 25 years, they’ve won at least a share of 11 Southern Conference titles and 3 I-AA national championships. Their fans couldn’t be happier. But for years, nobody had heard of them except for college football diehards. That all changed in 2007, when the Mountaineers opened the season by upsetting Michigan. A generation of I-AA excellence, and App State was a relative unknown. One win over a Big Ten team, and all of a sudden they’re a household name. That’s the difference between the top tier and everyone else. There’s plenty of good football played at the I-AA level, but that’s not the point.Vanderbilt can go just 6-6 and lose the Liberty Bowl, and that’s still bigger news and better exposure than North Dakota State winning the whole thing in I-AA.
If you don’t believe that there is a split on the horizon between the so-called haves and have-nots, then obviously none of this will ever be a good idea to you. But if you do think a split is inevitable — and Academy leadership clearly believes that to be the case – then joining the Big East is the right decision for the sake of the school’s mission. The Naval Academy is obligated to position themselves as a national, mainstream institution. That makes visibility the priority for the football program, which means doing whatever you can to stay in the top tier.
So why aren’t Army and Air Force joining?
It’s a good question. Maybe they aren’t as convinced that a divide is coming, although that’s difficult to believe in Air Force’s case considering how hard Troy Calhoun has tried to convince everyone that the divide is already upon us. Both also have less financial incentive to make a move since they receive direct government funding for their athletic departments (Navy does not).
For Army, the biggest reason why they’ve resisted the Big East is almost certainly that they still have a bad taste in their mouths from their experience in Conference USA, having only returned to independence in 2005. (We’ll have more on that in a minute).
Air Force’s decision to stay put is far more perplexing. Here’s their reasoning, straight from the horse’s mouth:
“The Air Force Academy will remain in the Mountain West Conference, where we have been since 1998-99 when we were a co-founding member of the conference. I made this decision based on what’s best for our cadet-athletes and the institution as a whole. This decision was made based on things like regional rivalries (like just playing our 50th football game against Colorado State Univ.), loyalties to the conference, travel time for our cadet athletes and fans, school time missed, and travel costs. I feel the Academy is a key and pivotal member of the Mountain West, and think we can do a lot to help this conference continue its tradition of excellence. We of course continue to watch the changes happening not only in the Mountain West, but within NCAA sports around the country. As for now, ‘We’re ALL IN’ the Mountain West Conference.”
Let’s look at these one at a time.
- Regional rivalries: This really means Wyoming and Colorado State, the two schools Air Force has played more than any other. But if the Big East was willing to accommodate Navy in their request to keep Army, Notre Dame, and Air Force on the schedule, I’m sure that they’d be able to do the same for Air Force if they wanted to keep playing Army, Wyoming, and Colorado State. With that, and with Boise State and San Diego State already joining the conference, Air Force could have plenty of regional rivals on their schedule if that is really a concern.
- Loyalties to the conference: That’s sort of ironic, considering that the Mountain West was itself formed when Air Force and seven other schools abandoned the WAC. Now, with BYU, Utah, and TCU being replaced by Fresno State, Nevada, and Hawaii, what’s left of the Mountain West looks a whole lot like the WAC that Air Force ditched the first time. And that ragtag bunch will be merging with Conference USA in 2013 to form a completely new league. So what is Air Force pledging its loyalty to? A conference that looks like the one it left once already? Or this new conference that doesn’t even exist yet? It doesn’t make sense.
- Travel time for our cadet athletes and fans, school time missed: This is just plain disingenuous. It was only two months after the superintendent released his statement that Air Force joined a football conference that will stretch from Hawaii to North Carolina in football, and California to North Carolina IN ALL SPORTS. Air Force isn’t easing the burden of traveling on its athletes by saying no to the Big East. They’re making it worse by joining a conference that’s even more far-flung than the Big East, and doing so for more than just football. Which also affects…
- Travel costs: This reason makes the least sense of all of them. Never mind that the MWC/CUSA mashup will be every bit as sprawling as the new Big East. The fact that it will be an all-sports conference means that travel costs could very well increase for Air Force if it doesn’t join the Big East. Citing travel costs as a concern is completely ridiculous anyway, since Air Force would more than make up for any increased travel costs with the increased revenue of the Big East. Granted, Air Force leadership isn’t convinced that the Big East will get the kind of money it thinks it will from its new television contract, and that could very well be true. But there’s no doubt that the Big East’s TV contract will be more than anything the MWC/CUSA combo will ever get, and a hell of a lot more than what the Mountain West is getting now. Make no mistake: Air Force would make money by joining the Big East. This logic makes about as much sense being guaranteed to win Powerball, but not buying a ticket because you don’t want to spend the two dollars.
Conference loyalty and the value of regional rivalries are subjective, so these things are easier for Air Force to spin. Travel time and cost, however, are not. I cannot believe that nobody has followed up with the superintendent and questioned him on these points, especially after the announcement of the MWC/CUSA merger. I guess that’s the difference between being located in Colorado Springs instead of the Baltimore/Washington metroplex.
One has to assume that the superintendent isn’t completely full of crap and has other reasons for not joining the Big East that he doesn’t want to state publicly. Obviously, if Air Force football joined the Big East, its other sports would have to find a new conference home. There are fewer options in the midwest than there are on the east coast, but it can certainly be done. Air Force did an awkward two-step with the Missouri Valley Conference last year, and they’re right in the middle of the Big Sky’s footprint. Other options aren’t a perfect match geographically, but considering that Air Force hockey plays in a conference where their closest opponent is in Pennsylvania, Air Force doesn’t need perfection. As terrible as Air Force’s other sports have been in the Mountain West, finding a new conference is probably something that should have been done a long time ago anyway. I doubt this is the real issue.
My guess is that with all the good teams in the conference leaving for greener pastures, Air Force feels like it finally has a chance to win the Mountain West. Winning in the Big East, on the other hand, would be a lot more difficult. So instead of signing up for a harder path that (in their opinion) (which is wrong) doesn’t guarantee better money and visibility, Air Force has instead chosen to wait and see how this MWC/CUSA merger stacks up. The new conference is expected to expand to 18 or possibly even 24 teams, hoping that there will be strength in numbers when negotiating a TV contract and forcing their way to the big kids’ table.
It won’t work. The MWC/CUSA combo has very little television appeal; you aren’t going to make up for the loss of your best programs by merging the leftovers. The Big East is still looking westward, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if Air Force ultimately changes its mind and joins the fold.
Why did Army fail in Conference USA?
Army’s flop in C-USA was 30 years in the making, starting with the somewhat disastrous 1970s. They had only one winning season in the decade before Jim Young was hired in 1983, while losing seven or more games seven times. Some blamed Vietnam, some blamed the rise of the NFL; but whatever the reason for Army’s struggles, it led to a tug-of-war within school leadership over what direction the football program should take. For years, I don’t think they were 100% committed to playing at a I-A level. Army followed up the ’70s by “de-emphasizing” football in the ’80s, attempting to straddle a line between playing I-A ball and being a I-AA program in the mold of their traditional northeastern rivals. Under Jim Young, Army usually scheduled four I-AA programs per year, most of which were of the non-scholarship variety from the Ivy League and what is now the Patriot League. This continued into the ’90s, with Army playing 18 I-AA games from 1990-1995 (12 against Ivies or current Patriot League teams). They went on to schedule two more in ’96 before finally dropping them by the time they joined C-USA in ’98.
The problem is that Army went from that I-A/I-AA hybrid philosophy straight to jumping into the big time (relatively speaking) when they joined Conference USA. One could argue that the 10-2 ’96 season was the worst thing to happen to Army because it fooled them into believing that the program was already at a high level instead of the lightning in a bottle that the ’96 team actually was. There was no transition period; Army was basically a I-AA+ team when it joined Conference USA. Army struggled, but they did about as well in their first two seasons as one would think that kind of a team would do. They just didn’t have a schedule packed with Lafayettes and Colgates anymore. Instead of giving Bob Sutton a chance to build a C-USA program, Army overreacted, fired Sutton, and hired Todd Berry. The rest is history.
Navy is in a completely different situation. They spent the last decade reviving their program and turning it into a consistent winner. By announcing that they will be joining the Big East in four years, Navy will have a full cycle to recruit as a Big East team before playing their first conference game. Navy still might struggle in the Big East, but they will be in far better position to hit the ground running than Army was. As an added bonus, Navy won’t be coached by a buffoon. Maybe Army is looking to build itself up in a similar fashion before joining a conference again.
OK, that seems like a good place to stop for now. Part 5 will cover some of the financial implications of Big East membership for NAAA, the Big East’s TV contract, the future of the BCS, and several other topics.