One of the Mountain West’s biggest talking points through all the conference realignment turmoil has been their “stability.” That’s just spin, of course. All “stability” really means is that you don’t have anyone left in your conference that another league might want.
The American Athletic Conference doesn’t have that “stability,” which is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing because it means that the conference still has some name-brand programs adding to its appeal. It’s a curse because, well…
“I’m just not confident that (realignment is over),” Castiglione said. “I know all the legal arguments, the grant of rights and all of those things that have taken place in other conferences. But there are still some other things that are out there. Whether or not it’s the discussion about reshaping Division I, a new division, or how the model goes, whether that causes it. Or there are some lawsuits that are still pending, whether that causes it…
“I just think you’ve got to stay tuned.”
So says Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione, and it isn’t all that hard to believe. We’ve thought we were done with conference expansion before only to have those hopes crushed repeatedly. Conference expansion began as the BCS leagues were looking to gain leverage for negotiating television contracts. The Big Ten’s current contract expires after the 2015 season, which means we’ll probably start hearing about negotiations next year. When that happens, the rumors of who’s-going-where won’t be far behind.
There is no shortage of speculation and “reports” concerning what the Big Ten’s expansion targets might be. With the conference looking to expand its reach to the east coast (aka where the people are), those rumors usually involve ACC schools. That’s a much dicier proposition now, since those ACC member schools agreed to turn over their broadcast rights to the conference until 2027. Still, with Maryland willing to enter a legal morass to be able to join the revenue king of college athletic conferences (something the Big Ten had to know was coming when it invited the Terps), perhaps another school or two would be willing to do the same thing over the grant of rights agreement. Should that happen, the ACC would most likely do damage control by turning yet again to their favorite expansion target: the (former) Big East.
Who would the ACC invite? The ACC’s bread and butter has always been basketball, so UConn’s three national championships since 1999 would certainly make the Huskies appealing. Cincinnati has an excellent basketball tradition themselves, with the added bonus of a football program that has won 10+ games in 5 of the last 6 seasons. The whole Florida State-Big 12 rumor was a hit on message boards, though not in the real world. Would Big Ten expansion force the Big 12 to consider such a move? If so, then USF might become a target to maintain the league’s Florida presence. (Look, I don’t believe it either, but in a world where Rutgers and Maryland are on their way to the Big Ten, I’m not sure what to believe anymore.) Then there’s this:
Before we follow this white rabbit, let’s be clear: it isn’t happening. Not that the ACC didn’t take a look at Navy at some point; I’m sure they did… Along with a dozen other schools that have no chance. Conference invitations are obviously a huge deal, and any conference looking to expand is going to carry out the due diligence appropriate for such a fundamental decision. That means looking at every possibility, no matter how remote it is. I doubt whatever inspired this report is anything more than that. Besides, the ACC isn’t going to be inviting anyone new unless they lose someone, and despite my daydreaming, that probably won’t be happening anytime soon with the legal hurdles now in place. This is an exercise in pure speculation.
Even if this is a pipe dream, it does present an interesting dilemma. When it was first announced that Navy would be joining the Big East, many Navy fans (including me) were concerned about the Mids’ ability to compete in the conference on an annual basis, and with good reason. Those fears have eased a bit as the Big East lost some (but not all) of its dominant programs on the way to being re-branded as the American Athletic Conference. But what if Navy did get an invitation to join the ACC? With the so-called Power 5 conferences doing all they can to separate themselves from everyone else (taking television, bowl games, and heaps of cash with them), it would be foolish for Navy not to accept. Such a move would have an enormous positive impact on both the mission of the school and the long-term financial stability of the athletic department. But would it also mean that Navy football would be doomed to a future of basement dwelling? The answer to that question is a little more complicated than you might think.
There was once a dark period of human history where there was no internet. Corvettes only had 205 horsepower. The stock market crashed, and nobody knew where the beef was. In such a bleak and miserable age, it is no surprise that Air Force was the most dominant of the three service academies. It was quite a run, too. In the 20 years from 1981-2000, Air Force won 8+ games 12 times, went to 13 bowl games, and finished ranked in the top 25 of at least one poll 5 times (including a #5 finish in 1985).
That’s great and all, but those days are long gone. Only one service academy team has finished ranked in the top 25 in the last decade (Navy 2004). Army has only done it once since 1958. Both Navy and Air Force have had sustained success, but not at such a high level. So what’s changed?
There are only so many high school athletes willing to consider a military school with a service obligation, so the recruiting pool is limited. Whoever lands the most recruits from that pool is probably going to be the most successful. That dynamic has changed a little bit in recent years (Navy and Air Force don’t see Army very often on the recruiting trail anymore, and both have expanded their recruiting efforts to compete with other FBS schools), but it’s still the rule of thumb. Because of this, service academy football is almost a zero-sum game. There aren’t enough players to go around. On the other hand, if one school could somehow manage to get all the best service academy players, they would be able to hang with just about anybody.
That’s what happened with Air Force. The Falcons’ rise coincided with the end of the George Welsh era at Navy, while Army struggled for almost all of the 1970s. By the mid-’80s, Air Force was the only service academy program that was truly committed to playing I-A football. In Jim Young’s first year at Army (1983), the Cadets played Colgate, Dartmouth, Harvard, and Lehigh… and lost three of those games. While the results would improve during Young’s tenure, the schedules did not. Army continued to play no fewer than 3 (and often 4) I-AA games every year until 1996. Meanwhile, Navy’s program fell off a cliff, and their schedules weren’t much different; just substitute William & Mary and JMU for Holy Cross and VMI. If you were a service academy football recruit that wanted to play at the highest level, Air Force was your only choice. There were other factors in Air Force’s success; good coaching, obviously, and the liberal use of the prep school among them. The bottom line, though, is that Air Force consistently had the best players.
That’s why any Air Force fan pining for the glory days is bound to be disappointed. Air Force isn’t the only legitimate FBS program anymore between the three service academies. Army is sort of in their own world as far as recruiting goes, but Air Force and Navy are each others’ primary competition. Both get enough players to be successful, but neither get enough to dominate to the point where they make regular top-25 appearances. It’s a dynamic that isn’t likely to change anytime soon unless something drastic happens.
Something drastic like, say, one of the service academies joining a power 5 conference.
If Navy joined the ACC, the service academy recruiting scales would tip in the Mids’ favor. Between the influx of money and the upgrade in competition, the ultimate destination for the service academy athlete looking to play big-time football would now be Annapolis. Navy would be the program getting the pick of the service academy litter. The Navy teams that would play in the ACC wouldn’t be the same teams we have today. Like the Air Force teams of the ’80s and ’90s, they would essentially be service academy all-star teams. The ACC already has a few programs that Navy has matched up fairly well against in the past, like Duke, Wake Forest, and Boston College. An 8-game conference schedule in a 14-team conference means that the Mids wouldn’t play all of the good teams in the conference in a given year. Besides, one or two of those programs would have to leave in order for Navy to even be invited anyway. A team of the best service academy players might not win the conference, but it could certainly be competitive; the goal might be to achieve something similar to what Northwestern has built in the Big Ten.
It’s a very delicate balance, though. If either Army or Air Force later received their own invitation to a power 5 conference, then Navy’s recruiting advantage would be lost. Still, power 5 membership should also open a few doors for other recruits that might not have considered Navy in the past. It would still be difficult, but I don’t think it would be hopeless.
Again, this is all speculation about something that isn’t going to happen. We all know that. There is a point to all of this, though. We’re in the middle of a difficult time in college football, and even though Navy has found a home in the American, there will still be other tough decisions to be made. When you form your opinion on what direction Navy should take, try to consider all the effects of these decisions. It might not be as simple as putting the current program in a different situation.