I said in my post on Army’s football program that even if the team isn’t as good as some people think they are, they finally have some stability and are moving in the right direction. What do I mean by instability? Over the past decade, Army has been in and out of Conference USA, had to scramble to fill an independent’s schedule in 2005, seen the Alternative Service Option come and go, went through two athletic directors, and labored under four head coaches (five if you count John Mumford’s half-season interim stint in 2003). Now, with winnable games on the schedule and a coach that the school is committed to, Army has a chance to get better. That certainly doesn’t guarantee success, and there is a lot of work to be done; but changing the environment was the first step on the road to recovery.
Stability has never been much of a concern for Air Force, which over the years has been the most rock-steady of the service academies. While Army technically had 5 head coaches in the last decade, Air Force has had 5 head coaches since 1958, including 23 years under Fisher DeBerry. When Ken Hatfield left, Air Force hired DeBerry, one of Hatfield’s assistants. When DeBerry retired, Air Force hired Troy Calhoun, one of DeBerry’s former players. Not surprisingly, neither strayed far from their predecessors’ formulas. 2009 was Air Force’s also 30th year as a conference member, having joined the WAC in 1980. Even when the Mountain West rocked the boat and split from that conference in 1999, all it really did was re-create the WAC that Air Force originally joined. Air Force is stable even in ways they don’t necessarily want to be; with 8 conference games plus Army and Navy, they have pretty much the same schedule every year. They’ve finished 8-5 in back-to-back seasons, played in the same bowl game 3 years in a row, and even faced the same opponent in those bowl games the last two seasons. Things haven’t changed much in the land of bus driver blue.
That might not be the case for very long. Strange things are afoot in Colorado Springs, both within the program and in the Mountain West.
We’ll start with the former. Here are a couple of quotes. First, we have Navy’s Ken Niumatalolo after signing his contract extension:
“The Naval Academy has made a significant commitment to me and my family, for which we are eternally grateful,” said Niumatalolo. “We love this great institution, we love Annapolis and we love the young men that we have been entrusted to lead. The Naval Academy is a special place and I have no desire to coach anywhere else in the country. This mutual commitment is a clear sign of the future direction of this storied program. The Naval Academy is about excellence. Excellence is not just expected here, it is demanded. We will continue to raise the bar of excellence on the field while we continue to develop leaders of men off the field.”
Now Troy Calhoun, announcing back in January that he would not be leaving Air Force for Tennessee:
“We are more than grateful and proud to be closely involved with the character building of our cadets and the mission of the United States Air Force Academy,” Calhoun said in the statement. “We are diligently recruiting and working with our team to prepare for the upcoming season. We look forward to coaching and being a part of the Air Force Academy team both on and off the field in 2010.”
There is a difference between these two comments. Niumatalolo is talking about how his signing represents a mutual commitment to building the Navy program into the future, and how he has no desire to go anywhere else. Calhoun only talks about coaching Air Force in 2010. That’s because I think this will be his last season in Colorado Springs.
I don’t point these quotes out to say that one is better than the other; it’s just an observation. Looking back on the 2007 season, Paul Johnson gave Navy fans plenty of hints that he was looking to move on, like in this CSTV interview from the preceding summer where he said that “it’s intriguing to think that you’d have a chance sometime maybe to win a championship where it might be a little easier.” There was a time back in January when it appeared that Calhoun was as good as gone to Tennessee. It didn’t materialize, but I doubt it was due to a lack of interest on Calhoun’s part. Depending on what rumor you choose to believe, the opposite is true. It would make sense if that was the case. It’s hard to imagine that Calhoun spent his career rising from the college ranks to two different NFL teams, including offensive coordinator for the Texans, just so he could wind up at Air Force. That isn’t a slight to Air Force; it’s just a matter of what each individual coach’s career goals are. I believe that Coach Niumatalolo would be happy to coach at Navy as long as they’ll have him, mostly because he’s said as much. I think most of us knew that Paul Johnson’s ambition would lead him out of Annapolis eventually. While it might sting a little more for Air Force fans since Calhoun is a graduate, it appears that his path is more like Johnson’s.
One could even argue that in some ways, Calhoun has more appeal to the average BCS athletic director than Johnson did. He hasn’t accomplished as much as a head coach as Johnson had, but Calhoun, with his NFL experience, also isn’t as dedicated as Johnson to running the option. He doesn’t have as much of the “option coach” stigma that still resonates for whatever reason. He wasn’t even going to be very option heavy at Air Force until he changed his mind after evaluating the tools he had to work with. That broadens his appeal among otherwise prejudiced ADs. And if he is in fact looking for bigger and better things, now is the time to move. After finishing 9-4, 8-5, and 8-5 in his first three seasons at Air Force, Calhoun still gets credit for turning the program around rather than getting criticized for not being able to break into the upper echelon of the Mountain West. That feeling won’t last forever, though. It’s hard to win at a service academy. While Air Force might occasionally break through for a dream season where they are in the running for the Mountain West crown, they won’t be able to do so consistently. Air Force’s basketball coaches realized this, which is why they all cashed in on their success as soon as they had the chance. Winning the conference isn’t going to get any easier, either. TCU, BYU, and Utah are a cut above the rest of the conference, and even though Utah’s days as a Mountain West member are numbered, they are being replaced with perennial BCS contender Boise State. Utah has a better athletic program, so it’s a net loss for the MWC. As far as what goes on between the sidelines, though, the Broncos will undoubtedly fit right in to Utah’s former place in the top tier of the conference.
The Utes’ impending departure for the Pac 10 weakens the Mountain West’s case to become an automatic qualifier for a BCS bowl game. The BCS is in the middle of a four-year evaluation period to determine if any non-AQ conferences merit AQ status. Conferences will be judged by where their top team ranks in the final BCS standings each year, the number of teams in the top 25 of the final BCS standings each year, and the final regular-season computer rankings of all conference teams. The MWC’s “big three” have carried the rest of the conference on the first two, but the third is a problem; there’s a lot of bad football in the bottom half of the MWC. If Utah had stayed put, the addition of Boise State would have turned the “big three” into a “big four” and helped to average out the anchors holding the conference down; instead, adding the Broncos just maintains the status quo, and that might not be good enough.
Then again, the status quo would be a blessing in disguise for Air Force. The Mountain West is small-time financially compared to the BCS AQ conferences. Once Utah leaves, only BYU will have an average attendance of greater than 40,000 per game. The MWC’s five bowl games combined only pay out as much as the Capital One Bowl, and the league’s 10-year, $120 million TV contract with Versus and CBS College Sports nets each team a little more than $1 million per year. The annual $18 million jolt of BCS bowl game cash would have an immediate impact, and having automatic qualifying status would add value to the television contract when it comes up for renegotiation. That’s more money for each program to put into coaching, recruiting, facilities, and anything else to try to attract higher caliber athletes. The problem for Air Force is that they can’t take advantage of these things the way the other schools in the conference can. They are still a service academy; no matter how much money they bring in, they are going to be constrained by the military and academic requirements of the school. They have a ceiling that the rest of the conference doesn’t. Over time, schools like San Diego State– in a great city, with gobs of local talent, but terribly cash-strapped– would leave Air Force behind. Air Force would become the Mountain West’s Vanderbilt. I’m sure that everyone at Air Force wants the Mountain West to get that automatic bid, but they might want to be careful what they wish for. As far as on-field competition goes, Air Force benefits from the financial limitations of the rest of the conference.
In the short term, Calhoun has called his team’s schedule “the strongest a service academy has played in decades.” That’s a bit ridiculous. It is unusual, though, in that Air Force has no off weeks and will be done with their season before Thanksgiving. There is also a real possibility that they will be 1-3, and no better than 2-2, going into the Navy game– making it pivotal not only for the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy, but for the entire season. As much as Air Force fans presumably want to keep Troy Calhoun, I doubt they want it to be because interest cooled off after a losing season. Not that anyone expects that to happen, at least not this year. But if Air Force puts together another season like their last three, it just makes it more likely that they’ll see changes in the future.