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.”
With the public paying more and more attention to college athletics, colleges became aware of how the results reflected on each institution’s prestige. This created a problem. The informal nature of competition meant that rules of the game were loosely defined, as were rules for who was allowed to play. Could schools hire paid ringers for their teams? Could faculty play? Both were common practices, as were others that might seem preposterous today. If schools were going to be judged based on the results of these contests, then they at least wanted a level playing field. Like-minded schools began forming associations under a common set of rules for competition. These associations were the beginnings of the modern college athletic conference. In 1892, the Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the Northwest was formed. It disbanded 2 years later, but its members came together with others in 1895 to form what would become the Big Ten. In 1894, the SIAA– the precursor to the Southern Conference, ACC, and SEC– was formed. Eventually, membership in athletic conferences became the norm.
One exception has always been the Naval Academy, at least for football. Navy has fielded a football team since 1879, but while football programs across the country have aligned and realigned with various leagues since then, the Mids have always remained independent. That ends today, as Navy football is now officially a member of the American Athletic Conference.
I’ve seen a lot of media references along the lines of Navy “ending a 134-year tradition of independence,” but I’m not sure that’s the most accurate way to describe what’s happening. It’s not that Navy has held fast to tradition all this time. Their independence has always been a matter of pragmatism more than principle. The Naval Academy has periodically considered conference affiliation when it was prudent to do so. In the late 1950s, Navy was part of a group exploring the possibility of creating a coast-to-coast conference to unite the era’s independent powerhouses. Conference affiliation was a question brought up repeatedly during Jack Lengyel’s tenure as athletic director. Navy was always mentioned in the 1980s when the idea of uniting the eastern independents began to pick up steam. That movement led to the creation of the Big East conference, a league that kept communication lines open with the Naval Academy for years. Even as current Navy AD Chet Gladchuk would explain the advantages of remaining independent, it always came with an important caveat:
Gladchuk said he doesn’t see Navy’s position changing, but he does see the landscape of college football changing drastically in the next two or three years.
“It’s difficult to project the future, but I think we’re going to have a playoff,” Gladchuk said. “I think there is a sentiment for it, and in the latest survey of athletic directors I’ve seen, it’s about a 50-50 split, which is way up from before. When that happens, I think you’re going to see some serious shuffling and realignment, and we’ll see where we would fit in all that.
Everything happened as Gladchuk predicted, and he went about analyzing Navy’s fit in the new big picture as promised. What he found left him reason to be concerned.
While conferences were originally created as a way for like-minded schools to play under a common set of rules, that isn’t their primary function today. Today’s conference provides strength in numbers for scheduling, marketing, television, and postseason opportunities. In a more fractured environment, an independent Navy was enough of a recognizable brand to be able to carve out a niche for themselves along those lines. That became much more difficult as conferences grew. Larger conferences meant more league games, and fewer non-conference scheduling opportunities (especially late in the season). It also meant that leagues that once had 5 or 6 bowl game affiliations now wanted 7 or 8, leaving fewer landing spots for independents. Conference television contracts exploded in value, and schools that weren’t part of that bonanza were left at a disadvantage. It was apparent that Navy needed to join a conference in order to maintain its place in major college football.
It’s fortunate, then, that Navy was able to find a home as well-suited as the American Athletic Conference. As the home of traditional eastern independents, the former Big East was always the logical choice for Navy to land if they decided to join a league. The American is the successor to the Big East, although it admittedly bears little resemblance to the conference formed by Navy’s historical opponents. It is, however, home to several of Navy’s opponents of the last 20 years such as UConn, ECU, SMU, Temple, Tulane, and Tulsa. For most schools, conference realignment has meant schedules full of unfamiliar matchups; Rutgers vs. Nebraska is going to take a while to get used to. That’s not the case for Navy. Navy fans will see more of what they’re used to, and that’s a good thing. What makes a conference enjoyable for fans is the development of rivalries, and the first ingredient of any rivalry is familiarity.
One of the best things about the American is that the conference’s leadership understands this, and aligned their divisions and conference schedules to foster creation of matchups that fans can look forward to every year. As other conferences have expanded, they’ve created divisions that feel contrived. Worse yet, they might feel as if they were engineered with the idea of certain teams winning them (Florida State in the ACC Atlantic and Miami in the ACC Coastal, for example). The American didn’t mess with such nonsense, opting instead for more natural East and West divisions. Most conferences would have been tempted to split the Florida and Texas schools so that each division had one of each, but the American resisted the urge to overthink things. They also applied some common sense when it comes to scheduling. By having an 8-game conference schedule with 5 divisional games and 3 from the other division, the American has ensured that every team in the conference will play each other at least twice in a 4-year span. In other conferences, some schools can go years without playing each other. Fortunately, the American understands a basic equation of college football: Familiarity + Geography = Rivalry. Rivalries make a conference more fun and get fans to watch, which is ultimately what will help the league grow.
The one geographic outlier is Navy, of course, being placed in the West division. While it doesn’t make geographic sense, it’s logical for other reasons. Playing in the same division as the Texas and Tennessee schools allows Navy to maintain a presence in two of their most important recruiting areas, which has obvious benefits. Just as important, though, is that playing in the West also aligns Navy with the American’s 3 private schools (SMU, Tulane, and Tulsa). Navy is a member of the Patriot League for most other sports, and that league’s academic requirements make it a good fit. One of the common concerns raised whenever there would be talk of Navy football joining a conference is that the team would be at a disadvantage due to academics; there is no Patriot League equivalent in FBS football. That’s still true, but the private schools at least come a little closer than most to the Naval Academy’s academic vision. It’s still a legitimate concern, but being in the American’s West division is about as favorable a situation as Navy could have hoped for.
Another problem that many people have had with giving up independence is that it would be the end of Navy playing a national schedule. The school has a mission to achieve, of course, and the football team helps accomplish that mission by spreading the word about the Naval Academy nationwide. If the team’s schedule is set in stone every year now that they’re in a conference, is their role in fulfilling the mission then compromised? To answer that, you have to consider what playing a “national schedule” really means. Once upon a time, that meant playing around the country so that as many different local media outlets would cover the team. Television has changed that. Today, getting exposure for the Naval Academy is less about coverage on local news outlets and more about making sure your games are part of a national television contract. By joining a conference, Navy has more long-term stability in maintaining a national audience than they would have had by remaining independent. As good as Navy’s deal with CBS Sports was, there’s no telling how long that relationship would have been maintained as larger conferences sold multiple rights tiers to various outlets. As an independent, Navy would have been left out of the national conversation on playing in a New Year’s Access Bowl as well. Having even a small role to play still keeps Navy in the mainstream and provides greater visibility than they would have as an independent.
Navy joining the American makes sense, but watching the Mids join any conference is still a hard pill to swallow for some. It’s understandable, especially considering how good the last dozen years have been. Messing with a successful formula isn’t usually a wise move. The problem, though, is that the formula only works if certain variables remain constant. When those variables change, the same formula won’t work anymore. College sports are evolving, and if you argued that it wasn’t for the better, I wouldn’t disagree. Yet even if you don’t like the evolution of the game, you still have to account for it. Other schools have resisted change, but they did so accepting that they would fall out of college football’s mainstream. For a service academy like Navy with an obligation to maintain a national presence, that cannot be their fate. Joining the American is a step toward ensuring that it won’t be.
With that, we close the book on independence. Don’t think of it as the end of an era; think of it as the start of an exciting new one. Both the Naval Academy and the American have a lot to offer each other, and I think both sides are made stronger with this partnership. I’m looking forward to an exciting season, with many more to come.