Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby decided on Monday to turn the annual parade of preseason polls and coachspeak known as “conference media days” into something a bit more noteworthy. That’s not the greatest of news for Navy fans, either.
For those who dismissed the idea of a new top tier of college football when Navy decided to join the Big East, well, here you go. A conference commissioner is openly calling for it. And just so you don’t think this is the work of some rogue looking to make waves, his ACC counterpart is saying the same thing, hinting that major changes could come as soon as January. While change as drastic as a new football division within the NCAA isn’t a guarantee, some change is inevitable. None of it is good for Navy.
We’ve talked at length about the importance of keeping Navy in college football’s top tier, however it manifests itself. The football team is the most visible ambassador that USNA has, and is crucial for spreading awareness of the school to potential applicants. Playing in anything other than college football’s top tier would be crippling. It would be just as catastrophic for NAAA’s finances. Would Notre Dame continue to play Navy if the Mids were in a lower tier than the Irish? Would they even be allowed to? Not if the top tier completely segregates itself. Navy’s other cash cow, the Army-Navy Game, also becomes significantly less valuable to TV if it is no longer the last top-level regular season game. These threats to Navy’s top-tier viability are exactly why they decided to join a conference.
Joining the American should provide the long-term financial stability Navy wants, even if it isn’t as lucrative as we all might have hoped. Once Navy’s contract with CBS runs out, their primary financial pillar will be a more stable conference TV contract as opposed to two games. Stability only goes so far, though. The money might be stable, but if the conference isn’t in the top tier, then it still won’t be very much. When Bowlsby talks of “schools that don’t look like the rest,” it’s hard to imagine any group of schools that look less “like the rest” than the service academies. If Navy is going to maintain its top-tier status, it isn’t going to happen on their own as an independent. They need to associate themselves as much as possible with the schools that Bowlsby has in mind. The problem for Navy is whether or not the American fits the bill.
I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself here because I don’ t think that a new NCAA division is on the horizon, at least in the short term. The BCS conferences (you know what I mean) have money, and they want rules that allow them to spend it. They’re tired of smaller programs telling them that they can’t. They are using the threat of a new division to get everyone else to fall in line with certain rule and governance changes. As long as they get the changes they want, they won’t need to take the drastic step of creating a new division. It’s important to note here is that the smaller programs I’m referring to are more of the Georgia State and South Alabama-types– newcomers to the I-A scene– than schools in conferences like the American or the Mountain West. These schools have very small athletic budgets. At the same time, they have spent a lot of money to move to the FBS level with the idea that they’ll see a return in making FBS money. They know where their bread is buttered; they would much rather comply with BCS conference demands than run the risk of seeing their FBS investment go for nothing. The changes that the BCS conferences want– like full cost of attendance scholarships, for example– will pass. Those that can’t afford it simply won’t offer it.
Still, it’s hard to imagine such a setup lasting very long. Never mind the obvious competitive chasm that is only going to get wider; small-budget schools are eventually going to get tired of having more and more rules shoved down their throats. At some point, when the BCS schools threaten to leave, the smaller programs will tell them to go ahead. When that happens, which side of the fence will Navy find itself?
American commissioner Mike Aresco has stated that his conference intends to be included in the top subdivision whenever that split occurs. That’ll draw snickers from those accustomed to mocking the Big East/American, but as long as the separation happens within the NCAA framework, it should be possible. The BCS conferences might be able to dictate the criteria a school or conference would be required to meet in order to qualify for the top subdivision, but any effort to exclude other schools beyond that would open them up to a legal mess. (That wouldn’t be the case if the BCS conferences left the NCAA, but so far they’ve indicated that doing so would be too much of a hassle.) What kind of criteria are we talking about? One way to make it difficult for smaller-budget schools to make the jump is to increase the minimum number of sports each school would be required to offer. North Carolina AD Bubba Cunningham made the suggestion that for inclusion in a new top subdivision, schools should be required to offer a minimum of 24 sports. On the surface that would be fine for Navy (although it’s closer than you think, since non-NCAA sports wouldn’t count) (sorry, squash). It would be a problem for the rest of the American, though. The current Division I minimum is only 14 sports (7 each men’s and women’s), and the conference only competes in 15. That means a lot of schools would have to spend a lot of money to add a lot of sports. There would be BCS conference schools that would need to add sports too, but when your AD’s office is just a Scrooge-McDuck-style money bin, that isn’t as big of a problem.
A 24-sport minimum wouldn’t necessarily be all smooth sailing for Navy, though. Rule 3.3 in the NCAA Division I manual governs the eligibility and composition of conferences. It isn’t hard to imagine, for example, adding an additional line item in there stating that in order for a conference to participate in “Division 4” football, the conference would have to support 24 sports, and its members would have to play those sports in that conference. In other words, Navy wouldn’t be allowed to play football in the American and everything else in the Patriot League in that scenario. I won’t go so far as to call that a disaster for our non-football programs, but it won’t make their lives any easier. At the very least it would be a huge culture change.
This isn’t a prediction. I’m just brainstorming the possibilities for how another Division I split could occur. The bottom line, as we all know, is that it’s all about money. Schools that have it want to get away from schools that don’t, and the rules are going to reflect that.
That’s what makes the whole Big East/American saga so frustrating. I’m still fairly bullish on this conference. The American is still the best league outside of the “power 5” by most reasonable metrics. Most, but not all; Boise State is still the best individual football program, and that matters. But in terms of top-to-bottom performance, market size, revenue, bowl matchups, and the fact that it still has the benefit of being a BCS conference for one last season, the American comes out on top. Only by so much, though. Even if the conference is better off than the next-best league (the Mountain West), it isn’t like the two aren’t in the same stratosphere or anything. As far as the general public is concerned, they’re about the same; perception might even favor the MWC a little because of Boise State and the endless drumbeat of “the Big East is doomed” stories from the last two years. Either way, nobody is clearly ahead, and that’s a problem. The American could have been.
You can’t fault Louisville and Rutgers for moving to greener pastures, but Boise State is another story. Boise State changed its mind on joining the Big East not because the Mountain West was a better conference, but because they offered the Broncos a better deal. The Mountain West skewed their conference rules to ensure that one school would make far more money than all the others in the league, something the former Big East was unwilling to do. In Boise’s defense, the Big East was certainly not the league that they originally signed up for once Louisville and Rutgers left. The Broncos also had a very tough time finding a conference home for its other sports, and the Big West didn’t exactly welcome them with open arms. Given those things, the appeal of staying in a conference that you’ll be favored to win every year is pretty obvious. Obvious, but perhaps short-sighted.
Lines are being drawn based on money. If the schools on the outside looking in want to remain competitive, they have to work together to make the most revenue that they can. That’s exactly what the Big East was trying to do. Nobody was going to make the billions that the power conferences are bringing in, but a coast-to-coast conference of the best of the rest would have had considerable appeal; more than the American or MWC have now individually, anyway. Combine the best football programs (Boise State, Cincinnati, Tulsa) with the best TV markets (SMU, Houston, UCF, Temple), the best brand names (service academies), and top-notch basketball (UConn, Cincinnati, Temple, Memphis), and you have a credible conference that would be worth something to television. Not anywhere near what the power conferences make, of course, but a clear middle class in college football would be defined. That conference would make more than either the American or Mountain West are getting now, and would be in a better position to move into any new top-tier subdivision that gets created. Am I being overly optimistic? Maybe. It might not be worth that much more, and this obviously isn’t a model that has been tried before, But you aren’t going to force your way into the conversation by maintaining the status quo. You have to take action when the storm on the horizon is plainly visible.
It’s easy to blame Boise, SDSU, Army, and Air Force for not sharing this vision, but the truth is that the Big East itself never did a very good job articulating it. Column after column was written with the same theme: that of a BCS conference in freefall. The conference never got out ahead of the story to offer anything different to write about. It’s sort of understandable, I guess. I’m sure that Cincinnati, USF, and UConn weren’t too eager to look like they were conceding defeat after having already sampled from the BCS buffet, and there were dozens of other issues that Mike Aresco and the rest of the conference’s leadership had to juggle over the last year or two. It just feels like a missed opportunity. Hopefully it doesn’t cost us.