Like any other school, graduation is the highlight of the year at the service academies. That isn’t the case for everybody, though. The end of the school year also means that some midshipmen and cadets with low grades will have their fate determined by the Superintendent and senior faculty at an academic board. Not everyone makes it through.
One of the underrated benefits of the Army-Navy Game is that the media uses it each year to reacquaint themselves with both programs. A lot of the stories in the week leading up to the game are reflections on each team’s season up to that point. If you need a snapshot of the big-picture issues facing either program in any given year, try narrowing your Google search to the first week of December. It’s like digging up a time capsule.
That’s how I came across this 1998 article about Army’s move to Conference-USA. I found it fascinating for reasons that others might find it a bit unnerving. Nearly 17 years later, we’ve come full circle. Switch “Army” and “Navy,” and these quotes could easily have been said today:
“We’ve been on TV seven times this season,” said Army coach Bob Sutton, in town last week to preview Saturday’s Army-Navy game at Veterans Stadium (noon kickoff), the 99th meeting. “That’s more than we’ve ever been. We’ve already felt the impact in recruiting. [The conference] is close to a lot of our major recruiting areas, from Virginia to southern Florida across to Texas.”
According to Lengyel, Navy has no problems scheduling quality football opponents. Next year, the Midshipmen’s first five opponents are Georgia Tech, Boston College, Rice, West Virginia and Air Force. (Navy has home-and-home games with Temple to open the 2000 and 2001 seasons).
TV, scheduling, and recruiting benefits for the team joining a conference? No scheduling problems for the team that isn’t? These are essentially the same pros & cons offered today by the other party. It’s sort of funny, but given Army’s eventual fate in Conference-USA, is it also foreboding?
I don’t think so.
Army’s reasons for joining Conference-USA were far different from Navy’s decision to join the American. Army felt that they were striking while the iron was hot, capitalizing on their top-25, 10-2 season in 1996. To them, the time was right to make a step up in competition; joining C-USA was the logical move to take their program to that ever-elusive “next level.”
Navy’s motives are different. I wouldn’t call Navy reluctant to join the American; to the contrary, they’ve been vocal advocates for the conference and leaders in shaping it. However, it’s a move being made out of perceived necessity, not ambition. It’s a different world in 2015, and Navy leadership feels that the days of viable independence are numbered. As scheduling, bowl game access, and television coverage are being consolidated among the conferences, Navy is joining the American in an effort to preserve their standing in the broader college football world.
To that end, the success of Navy’s decision can’t be measured solely in terms of wins and losses. Time will tell whether the decision to join the American Athletic Conference was the right one, but even now there are positive signs. Think about it; for the last 4 months, one of the main storylines about the Navy program has been how the College Football Playoff committee should handle a potential Navy berth in the Fiesta, Cotton, or Peach Bowls. If the goal of joining the American was to preserve Navy’s relevance, the fact that this conversation is even taking place is a pretty decent indicator that the goal is being achieved.
Don’t get me wrong, though. Winning matters, and for most people it probably will be the only measuring stick they use to judge Navy’s decision to join a conference. With the similarities between Army’s 1998 optimism and that of Navy today, it’s only natural to fear that the same optimism will be met with the same results. Fortunately for Navy, though, the similarities end there.
Army wasn’t without success in the decade leading up to their C-USA debut, putting up 5 winning seasons in that span. There were two problems, though. The first was with who those winning records came against. Army went 9-3 in 1988 and 6-5 in 1989, but in each of those seasons they played four I-AA teams. They averaged playing three I-AA teams every year, mostly against the likes of Holy Cross, Bucknell, Lafayette, etc. The rest of their schedules weren’t exactly filled with a who’s who of college football at the time, either. That leads us to the second problem. If Army had 5 winning seasons in those 10 years, that means they had 5 seasons against those light schedules that weren’t winning seasons. When the Cadets won 10 games in 1996, West Point leadership didn’t recognize it for what it was: an outlier for a .500 program straddling the line between I-A and I-AA. Army was in no position to make a move into C-USA, and made matters worse by replacing Bob Sutton with Todd Berry.
In contrast, a look at the 10 years prior to their joining the American Athletic Conference tells you that the Navy program is in a far better position. The Mids have been a consistent 8-9 game winner over the last decade, and the schedules that Navy has faced were of a different caliber than the ones faced by those Army teams. Army won 27 games against I-AA opponents, while Navy has won 17 against BCS/Power 5 opponents. Army had only played 3 of its future conference-mates a total of 5 times in the 10 years prior to joining C-USA. Navy, on the other hand, makes regular appearances on many American schedules. Of Navy’s 8 conference opponents in 2015, 5 have played at least part of a multi-game series with the Mids since 2005 (a sixth, Houston, was scheduled to play Navy before a conflict forced them to cancel). While Army was stepping up to play in C-USA, Navy is joining a conference of familiar peers, and doing so with the program’s all-time winningest coach at the helm. There’s no guarantee that Navy will win, but there’s no doubt that they belong.
Comparisons between Army and Navy are common, which is understandable given the unique nature of service academies. That doesn’t mean those comparisons always appropriate, though. Each program’s decision to join a conference was the product of different times and different teams. Because of that, we have every reason to expect a different outcome.
It’s official: Army hired Jeff Monken to replace Rich Ellerson as their head football coach.
Judging by the list of reported candidates, it appeared that Army was choosing between going the “Jim Young” route or the “Paul Johnson” route. As usual when it comes to Army, Paul Johnson won. Of course, it’s unfair to Monken to simply reduce him to a “Paul Johnson guy.” He has a track record of his own to be proud of. Monken inherited a Georgia Southern program that was gut-punched by Brian VanGorder, and treading water under Chris Hatcher. He won immediately, taking the Eagles to the FCS semifinals in each of his first three seasons. Even this year, when 19 of his 63 scholarship players were lost to injury, Monken was still able to guide Georgia Southern to a 7-4 record and a win over Florida. If 7-4 is a down year for you, then you’re probably doing something right.
At first I didn’t think that any former Navy assistants would coach at Army. It wasn’t because I thought they’d have any loyalty to Navy or anything. Having competed against Army for so long, I figured they would have a pretty good idea how Army’s athletic department operates and want no part of it. Monken was part of Navy’s turnaround and knows what it took to make that happen. If he’s willing to give it a shot at West Point, then maybe it’s a sign that enough changes are on the way that he feels he can compete. Or maybe there are only so many places a coach with the “option” stigma can go to get a raise. Either way, it looks like a good hire for Army. If nothing else, it adds a wrinkle to Army-Navy.
Now the wait begins to see what kind of a staff Monken assembles and where Georgia Southern turns for their next head coach.
Looking at the final statistics from Saturday, you might think that this year’s edition of Army-Navy was completely different from the nip-and-tuck affairs of the recent past. This looked like a blowout, with Navy winning 34-7 and out-gaining Army 343-157 on the ground. There is no greater truth than the scoreboard, so in that I suppose you could call the game a rout. It sure didn’t feel that way as it happened, though, and once you dig a little deeper into the numbers you can see why. Both teams struggled to convert on 3rd downs, and combined for 12 punts. Four runs made up 165 of Navy’s rushing yards; it took 53 more to get the other 178, which is why the game felt like such a grind. Take those long runs away, and Navy’s advantage becomes a lot more modest. Unfortunately for Army, the big plays count as much as any other, and the Mids’ ability to make them was the difference in the game.
A couple of items to note here:
He also said Army could be slightly more relaxed on its admissions policy when it came to superior athletes. “We’re looking for a level of trust that our people out there recruiting can recognize that a young man has the character and leadership qualities to come and succeed at West Point,” he said. “We want to be able to take an educated risk on someone that we’ve identified holistically. We’re not talking about five deviations from the average cadet.”
Oh boy. That’s sure to raise some eyebrows.
Army’s admissions standards are their own business, so if they want to take their “educated risks,” they can go on ahead as far as I’m concerned. They can judge for themselves how well they are meeting their mission. What irritates me about this is that there is an implication here that Army needs to relax their standards in order to win. In other words, Army doesn’t win as much as Navy in part because their admissions standards are higher than Navy’s. That’s been a rallying cry among the Army faithful during the streak, but nobody provides any details when pressed. Considering how they’ve been sending as many as FIFTY recruits to their prep school, I would wager that the opposite is true.
“We’re a national institution that should play against other colleges and institutions and all over the country,” Dawkins said. “I think it’s crucial that West Point stand out as a place of winners. We owe it to the country. They deserve to have a winning Army football team.”
On a less serious note, another comment I see a lot from people in and around the Army program is that Army’s football struggles are an issue of national importance, or something along those lines. The American people deserve a winning Army team. No, the American people demand a winning Army team! Come on, now. Don’t get me wrong, winning is important in getting wider exposure to potential admissions candidates, and it should absolutely be very important to the school. It matters. Let’s just not pretend that anyone is losing sleep over it.
Well, the dark deed is done.
There was a lot of excitement around the Army program when Ellerson was first hired. He was hailed as a defensive innovator and the coach who would bring a “true” option offense back to West Point, and both were true. He made immediate progress, too, leading Army to a bowl win in only his second season. It was all downhill from there, though, as it took Army 3 seasons combined to surpass their win total from the high water mark in 2010.
Firing the coach is the easy part. Now comes the job of finding his replacement. Sal Interdonato offered up the usual suspects:
I don’t know if these guys are really on the list or if this is just the usual “find a grad or past assistant” guesswork. No matter who Army hires, though, there are so many questions to be answered. Is this just one change of many ahead for Army? Will they still run an option offense? It’s going to be an interesting week ahead.
O glorious day
Not rain nor snow nor Army
Stops this Navy team