Navy-Notre Dame Coming to Jacksonville?

The Gator Bowl and Jacksonville have been trying to bring a Navy game to town for years. In 2005 they tried to put a game together with Florida State, and when that didn’t work out, they set their sights on Navy-Notre Dame. It appears that the latter is finally going to happen, with a press conference reportedly scheduled for Wednesday. If so, it’s a big win for Jacksonville. When the Jaguars were trying to convince the Jacksonville city council to approve a renovation of EverBank Field, college football was a big part of the sales pitch. A more modern stadium, it was argued, would allow Jacksonville to bid for the national championship game, help return the profile of the Gator Bowl to its historical levels, and would help to attract more neutral-site regular season games. On that last point, Navy-Notre Dame was the one game specifically mentioned in the presentation. It took a couple of years to finalize, but it appears that it’s finally going to happen.

Paul Johnson made a couple of trips to Jacksonville when he was Navy’s head coach, doing the usual alumni wine-and-cheese tour as well as talking to the Jacksonville Quarterback Club. In each visit, he stressed the importance of scheduling games in Florida. Maybe that was just a way to throw a bone to the locals, but I don’t think so. One of the biggest reasons why Navy wanted to be placed in the American’s West division was to maintain a presence in Texas for recruiting. The Mids have tried to schedule a game or two with a Texas or Oklahoma team almost every year, and Texas players have been the cornerstone of Navy rosters for years. Navy recruits Florida just as hard, but it’s a tougher sell when recruits aren’t as familiar with your program. The Mids have played in Florida only 3 times in the last 40 years, with the most recent game being the 2000 Notre Dame game at the Citrus Bowl. That will quickly change thanks to Navy’s membership in the American, with future schedules now including regular games against USF and UCF. Playing Notre Dame in Jacksonville will only serve to make Navy’s Florida presence even better. The Mids will play games in Florida 4 times in the next 4 years, not including the potential of playing in one of the American’s several Florida bowl games.

Jacksonville isn’t as big as San Diego, but it takes just as much pride in being a Navy town. The large Navy presence combined with Notre Dame’s ability to draw anywhere should make this game a success. Most importantly, I live in Jacksonville, so neener neener I win.

It’s Official

American colleges and universities have been engaging in athletic competitions against each other since at least 1852, when crews from Harvard and Yale met on Lake Winnepesaukee for the first intercollegiate regatta. College athletics wasn’t an official endeavor in the beginning, with most contests consisting of one school’s student-run club issuing a challenge to another school’s student-run club. The result more often than not was an event that resembled a modern Navy-St. John’s croquet match: more of a social affair than a competitive one.

Not surprisingly, that didn’t last very long. As the races became more hotly contested, they started drawing more and more media attention. What was treated as a novelty by newspapers and magazines in 1852 became headline-worthy news by the 1870s. Competition began to extend beyond rowing to include football, track and field, and baseball. As Guy Lewis once noted in American Quarterly, media coverage of intercollegiate athletics “contributed to the destruction of the isolated academic world and helped make the nation more conscious of its colleges.”

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A Simple Solution for Army-Navy

Now that wasn’t so hard, was it?

The College Football Playoff management committee has recommended that the College Football Playoff semifinals and/or New Year’s Six bowls be held open until after the Army-Navy game is played if either school is in the running for the games.

The recommendation still has to be approved by the conferences, but it’s expected to pass. And with that, the offseason’s biggest mountain has been reduced to a more appropriately-sized molehill.

What It Means When People Say That Sports Are a School’s “Front Porch”

On Friday, Navy Athletics tweeted out a picture of Navy football players at Quantico doing Quantico things:

The tweet went semi-viral, getting noticed by CBS Sports, Sirius XM, and some of the more well-read college football blogs. It’s a great demonstration of why service academies play Division I sports, especially football. The only reason why the general public cares about a picture of mids in a stream is because those mids also happen to be varsity athletes. Athletics allows service academies to reach an audience that wouldn’t otherwise pay attention to them, and no sport reaches a bigger audience than football. It’s more than just good PR, too. Some high schooler will see this picture and start wondering if maybe that’s something that he or she wants to do. And that’s the whole point.

It’s just one tweet, so I don’t want to make too big of a deal out of it. But if you need an example of how athletics make service academies accessible to the mainstream public, well, here you go.

What Does Army’s C-USA Experience Mean for Navy in the American?

One of the underrated benefits of the Army-Navy Game is that the media uses it each year to reacquaint themselves with both programs. A lot of the stories in the week leading up to the game are reflections on each team’s season up to that point. If you need a snapshot of the big-picture issues facing either program in any given year, try narrowing your Google search to the first week of December. It’s like digging up a time capsule.

That’s how I came across this 1998 article about Army’s move to Conference-USA. I found it fascinating for reasons that others might find it a bit unnerving. Nearly 17 years later, we’ve come full circle. Switch “Army” and “Navy,” and these quotes could easily have been said today:

“We’ve been on TV seven times this season,” said Army coach Bob Sutton, in town last week to preview Saturday’s Army-Navy game at Veterans Stadium (noon kickoff), the 99th meeting. “That’s more than we’ve ever been. We’ve already felt the impact in recruiting. [The conference] is close to a lot of our major recruiting areas, from Virginia to southern Florida across to Texas.”

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According to Lengyel, Navy has no problems scheduling quality football opponents. Next year, the Midshipmen’s first five opponents are Georgia Tech, Boston College, Rice, West Virginia and Air Force. (Navy has home-and-home games with Temple to open the 2000 and 2001 seasons).

TV, scheduling, and recruiting benefits for the team joining a conference? No scheduling problems for the team that isn’t? These are essentially the same pros & cons offered today by the other party. It’s sort of funny, but given Army’s eventual fate in Conference-USA, is it also foreboding?

I don’t think so.

Army’s reasons for joining Conference-USA were far different from Navy’s decision to join the American. Army felt that they were striking while the iron was hot, capitalizing on their top-25, 10-2 season in 1996. To them, the time was right to make a step up in competition; joining C-USA was the logical move to take their program to that ever-elusive “next level.”

Navy’s motives are different. I wouldn’t call Navy reluctant to join the American; to the contrary, they’ve been vocal advocates for the conference and leaders in shaping it. However, it’s a move being made out of perceived necessity, not ambition. It’s a different world in 2015, and Navy leadership feels that the days of viable independence are numbered. As scheduling, bowl game access, and television coverage are being consolidated among the conferences, Navy is joining the American in an effort to preserve their standing in the broader college football world.

To that end, the success of Navy’s decision can’t be measured solely in terms of wins and losses. Time will tell whether the decision to join the American Athletic Conference was the right one, but even now there are positive signs. Think about it; for the last 4 months, one of the main storylines about the Navy program has been how the College Football Playoff committee should handle a potential Navy berth in the Fiesta, Cotton, or Peach Bowls. If the goal of joining the American was to preserve Navy’s relevance, the fact that this conversation is even taking place is a pretty decent indicator that the goal is being achieved.

Don’t get me wrong, though. Winning matters, and for most people it probably will be the only measuring stick they use to judge Navy’s decision to join a conference. With the similarities between Army’s 1998 optimism and that of Navy today, it’s only natural to fear that the same optimism will be met with the same results. Fortunately for Navy, though, the similarities end there.

Army wasn’t without success in the decade leading up to their C-USA debut, putting up 5 winning seasons in that span. There were two problems, though. The first was with who those winning records came against. Army went 9-3 in 1988 and 6-5 in 1989, but in each of those seasons they played four I-AA teams. They averaged playing three I-AA teams every year, mostly against the likes of Holy Cross, Bucknell, Lafayette, etc. The rest of their schedules weren’t exactly filled with a who’s who of college football at the time, either. That leads us to the second problem. If Army had 5 winning seasons in those 10 years, that means they had 5 seasons against those light schedules that weren’t winning seasons. When the Cadets won 10 games in 1996, West Point leadership didn’t recognize it for what it was: an outlier for a .500 program straddling the line between I-A and I-AA. Army was in no position to make a move into C-USA, and made matters worse by replacing Bob Sutton with Todd Berry.

In contrast, a look at the 10 years prior to their joining the American Athletic Conference tells you that the Navy program is in a far better position.  The Mids have been a consistent 8-9 game winner over the last decade, and the schedules that Navy has faced were of a different caliber than the ones faced by those Army teams. Army won 27 games against I-AA opponents, while Navy has won 17 against BCS/Power 5 opponents. Army had only played 3 of its future conference-mates a total of 5 times in the 10 years prior to joining C-USA. Navy, on the other hand, makes regular appearances on many American schedules. Of Navy’s 8 conference opponents in 2015, 5 have played at least part of a multi-game series with the Mids since 2005 (a sixth, Houston, was scheduled to play Navy before a conflict forced them to cancel). While Army was stepping up to play in C-USA, Navy is joining a conference of familiar peers, and doing so with the program’s all-time winningest coach at the helm. There’s no guarantee that Navy will win, but there’s no doubt that they belong.

Comparisons between Army and Navy are common, which is understandable given the unique nature of service academies. That doesn’t mean those comparisons always appropriate, though. Each program’s decision to join a conference was the product of different times and different teams. Because of that, we have every reason to expect a different outcome.

No, Army-Navy Being Played After Bowl Bids Are Announced Is Not “Bad For College Football”

In the dust-up over whether the Army-Navy Game should be moved to accommodate the College Football Playoff’s timetable for announcing access bowl bids, it appears that there might be some progress being made toward a common-sense solution:

Under discussion: If Navy is that highest-ranked team going into the Army game, a loss would drop it to the bowl inhabited by the No. 2 Group of Five team. The CFP Selection Committee would make that determination with its rankings.

“I know that there is a discussion about it,” Navy athletic director Chet Gladchuk told CBSSports.com. “Call it a popular consideration.”

This is the same suggestion I made back in January, not that it was some stroke of genius on my part. It just seemed like a pretty simple accommodation.

Simplicity isn’t everyone’s goal here, though. The Mountain West has an interest in knocking the Army-Navy game down a peg, so commissioner Craig Thompson had to find someone in the media to get his message across. That message?

The simple fact is the stubbornness exhibited by those parties is bad for college football.

Bad for college football. The Army-Navy Game being played on the second Saturday of December is bad for college football.

That sounds like some weapons-grade hyperbole. There has to be some hard-hitting reasoning behind such a bold statement, right? Well…

“Let’s say everything is delayed a week,” Thompson said. “That gives a Mountain West team seven days, from Saturday to Saturday, to go to the Las Vegas Bowl. It’s hard enough now on Dec. 5 having barely a couple of full weeks to get ready for it. One week would be, c’mon.”

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“I’m a full American,” Thompson said. “I’m all in favor of the Army-Navy game. I think it’s a tremendous athletic event, but it’s disruptive to 128-plus other FBS schools.”

That’s the only reason that was given. This is apparently what’s “bad for college football.”

It’s an utterly ridiculous claim. Playing Army-Navy after the CFP makes its selections isn’t “disruptive to 128-plus other FBS schools.” It might be disruptive to one: the second-ranked Group of Five champion, if that champion is from the Mountain West, and if that champion is close enough to Navy in the eyes of the CFP committee for the Army-Navy results to even matter. Nobody else would have reason to care.

If Thompson is concerned that his champion won’t have enough time to prepare for the Las Vegas Bowl, then it makes more sense to move that game. Between the Las Vegas Bowl and Army-Navy, which one has been played longer? Which one has the better attendance? Which one has more people coming in from out of town? Which one has the bigger television audience? Which one is the more valuable media property?  Why move a fixture of college football’s regular season for the sake of a bowl game, when bowl game dates change every year? The value of the Las Vegas Bowl wouldn’t be any different if it was played on a later date, and it could have just as much time to promote itself as it does now.

(It should also be noted that Navy won the Poinsettia Bowl only 10 days after playing Army last year.)

It would be easier to move the Las Vegas Bowl if Thompson’s concern was truly rooted in preparation time for his champion, but it isn’t. Thompson sees this situation as an opportunity to weaken a rival conference, and to remove a thorn that has been in Air Force’s side since the school was created. To argue that this is out of some greater concern for college football would be humorous if it wasn’t so conniving.

You know what’s really bad for college football? That a system exists whereby the schools that have every financial and competitive advantage can quite literally write their own rules– rules that codify these advantages to ensure that they will be maintained forever. Among the schools left on the outside looking in, there is but one property with a financial heft comparable to those owned by the powerful. And who is looking to take that property away? Not the “Power 5″ conferences. They couldn’t care less. No, this is a challenge from another “have not” with an “if we can’t have it, no one can” attitude. Thompson’s Mountain West spent most of its existence criticizing the BCS monopoly, but now it wants everyone to fall in line for the good of college football? Nothing disingenuous there!

The Army-Navy Game has been the cherry on top of college football’s regular season for as long as anyone can remember. Based on the game’s ratings, that’s exactly where people want it to be. That there is some hypothetical scenario that might inconvenience the Mountain West is not reason enough to move the game. Some might choose to label Army and Navy as “stubborn.” Maybe it’s true. But in a world where so much of the fun and tradition of college football is being killed off for the sake of the Power 5’s bottom line, thank goodness someone is willing to be.

As Navy Players Get Drafted, Don’t Forget the Lessons of the ASO

It’s been quite the spring season for Naval Academy athletics. Baseball, track, men’s and women’s lacrosse, men’s and women’s tennis… All of them had very good campaigns. The women’s rowing team captured the Patriot League championship in exciting fashion, and in doing so clinched the conference’s all-sports Presidents’ Cup for Navy for the third time in four years. It’s boom times for the Blue and Gold, yet on-field success might not even be the biggest Navy sports story so far in 2015. Big news came off the field as well, as two Naval Academy athletes were drafted by professional leagues. Joeseph Greenspan was selected by the Colorado Rapids in the second round of January’s MLS SuperDraft, while the New England Patriots picked Joe Cardona in the fifth round of the NFL draft. Their selections re-ignite one of the oldest debates in service academy sports: under what conditions should athletes be allowed to turn pro?

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