The next two posts will address some of the criticism of Navy’s decision to join the Big East. We’ll start with John Feinstein’s piece in the Washington Post.
(Apologies in advance for the fisking.)
Feinstein’s comments carry a bit of weight, since he’s the go-to national media voice when it comes to the topic of service academy football. He’s completely wrong much of the time, but he cares, and that counts. There’s a lot that he’s right about in his commentary when it comes to the challenge of playing a Big East schedule. It’s no secret that scheduling played a big part in the rebirth of Navy’s football program, with the “4-4-4” philosophy of 4 stretch games, 4 relatively even matchups, and 4 games where they should be favored. Setting that up is easier said than done, as teams can (and do) get better or worse in the time between contracts are signed and games are played; but for the most part, this is the idea that has governed Navy’s schedules. Once Navy joins the Big East, the schedule becomes more of a 9-2-1 instead. Every team in the new conference is already an even or better matchup for the Mids, and they will only get better when a new TV contract is signed and more money is poured into their programs. When Feinstein says that 4-4 will be a good year for Navy in the Big East, he’s right.
But he doesn’t have to point that out to us. We already know all about it. Coach Niumatalolo himself even expressed that concern during the announcement teleconference, questioning whether Navy might be “biting off more than we can chew” by joining the Big East. USNA leadership made this decision knowing full well what it means on the field. It’s a risk they are willing to take, though, for all the reasons that we pointed out in Part 1. This isn’t a decision being made out of ego or dreams of BCS glory. This is a decision being made for survival. The superintendent feels that the mission of the school is better served with football playing in the new top tier of Division I (whether formal or informal), even if the team has a harder time being competitive. Feinstein has a point, but he misses the big picture. Wins and losses aren’t the top priority.
Other valid points are harder to come by in that column.
Few things drive me up the wall more than when people assume that Army and Navy are interchangeable. Feinstein does this all the time. THEY AREN’T. Both are military schools that have rigorous academics and a service commitment after graduation, and they obviously have some common interests as a result. But that’s it. Beyond that, they are different schools with different cultures in different locations with different coaches and different players and different administrations. That is why Army’s Conference USA experience is wholly irrelevant to anything Navy decides to do. And let’s not pretend that Army was some juggernaut that fell apart once they joined Conference USA, either. Army had all of two winning seasons in Bob Sutton’s seven years at the helm prior to joining Conference USA, while winning only 4 or 5 games 5 times. Sutton was 3-8 in two seasons of Conference USA. Army was no worse as a team after joining the league. The difference was that they weren’t scheduling 3 I-AA games a year anymore. And most of those games were against non-scholarship I-AA teams like Yale, Holy Cross, Lehigh, Colgate, Bucknell, Harvard, and Lafayette. Army wasn’t going to be able to pack their schedules with those teams forever whether they joined a conference or not. It wasn’t joining C-USA that was the problem; it was joining the ’90s after playing schedules built for the ’40s. Army was just as lousy before joining Conference USA as they were afterward.
Of course, Army did themselves no favors by firing Sutton and hiring Todd I-Expect-We’ll-Be-11-0 Berry, which Feinstein is right to acknowledge. But that leads to a pair of questions. One, does he think that Berry would have been any less of a disaster if Army was independent? I can’t imagine that anyone would. I mean, he lost to Holy Cross for crying out loud. Two, Feinstein has always insisted that Army could have hired Paul Johnson instead of Berry. So let’s say that they did. Does anyone believe that Army’s C-USA fortunes wouldn’t have been drastically different? Todd Berry couldn’t have coached the Pittsburgh Steelers to a winning record in Conference USA. Army’s problem wasn’t the conference. It was a train wreck of a coach hired by a train wreck of an athletic director. Navy, to put it mildly, doesn’t have that problem.
And now for the fisking:
Teams want to play Navy
This was true back when Navy was 2-10. It isn’t true anymore. Sure, Navy sells tickets. But you know what else does? Winning. Everyone is under pressure to succeed– even supposed cupcakes– and they don’t want to make their own path to a bowl game any harder than it has to be. The better Navy has become, the more those schools have stopped answering the phone when the caller ID says “Annapolis, MD.” A lot of them, like Tulane, Vanderbilt, and Eastern Michigan, are playing Army instead. Some teams still want to play Navy. Teams like South Carolina, Ohio State, and Penn State do, because they’re pretty sure they’re going to win. I don’t think filling up the schedule with those guys is any more palatable than joining the Big East, though.
Besides, whether teams want to play Navy or not is beside the point. The problem is that they can’t, or won’t be able to in the future. TV interests are driving conferences to move to 9-game schedules. On top of that, conferences are making scheduling agreements with each other, and not just the BCS conferences. As a result, non-conference scheduling opportunities for these schools are being reduced, particularly late in the season when conference play becomes the focus. Navy might be able to find a few teams to play in September, but November would be a bye month.
Plus, second-tier bowls love Navy. The Mids have bowl commitments already in hand for the next four years.
This is true. But what about after the next four years? The larger conferences become, the more tie-ins with bowl games they are going to seek. And if the 7-win bowl requirement comes to pass, some of those second-tier bowls are going to disappear. Again, the way things are now doesn’t matter. What matters is how they’ll be 10 years from now. Securing a bowl berth as an independent in the future is not a given. Far from it.
Most important, though, is the fact that joining the Big East could harm Army-Navy, which is the game that makes the two schools important and relevant more than anything else. What if Navy does make it to a Big East championship game and has a chance to go to a BCS bowl?
Yes, God forbid THAT happens. We don’t want Navy playing in more than one important game, you know. Come on, John. Is this a serious question?
Ratings for the Army-Navy Game are consistently better when the teams playing in it are better. I’m pretty sure that a Navy team good enough to be in BCS contention would be the best thing to ever happen to Army-Navy.
What if — and this is entirely possible — the Big East insists on folding Army-Navy into its TV package once the current TV contract is up in 2017. What if ESPN decides Army-Navy would be great for ratings on Thanksgiving night? Think that sort of thing is impossible?
Army-Navy probably will be part of the Big East’s TV package once the existing contract with CBS expires, at least when Navy is the home team. And? I don’t see the problem here. As long as the game is on TV, who cares? Army-Navy was played on Thanksgiving weekend for generations, and has been moved around for TV before. Playing on Thanksgiving Day would sort of stink, I guess, but that whole idea is just a canard. I can’t imagine that it would be more valuable programming on that day than on the weekend it’s played now. That was the whole point of the move to begin with.
Feinstein is off the mark here, but at least his heart is in the right place. Part 3 will break down a whole different ball of wax.