Army announced yesterday that its football team will no longer compete in Conference USA after the 2004 season. School officials took great pains to say that the move should not be considered a "downgrade" for the football team, which finished 1-11 last season, 1-7 in the conference.

"Absolutely, unequivocally in no way will we not be a Division I-A program," Army Athletic Director Rick Greenspan said.

The move affects only Army's football program; its other teams will continue to compete in the Patriot League. Army will start scheduling the 2005 football season under the assumption that it will play as an independent, although Greenspan said the school will monitor other options as fallout from the ACC expansion begins to sort itself out.

He said he has had no contact with Big East Commissioner Mike Tranghese about joining that conference, which will lose Miami and Virginia Tech to the ACC after next year.

Army officials did meet last month with Navy and representatives from other Conference USA and Western Athletic Conference schools to discuss possible future alliances.

Yesterday's announcement was made after a high-profile panel that included Congressman Tom Osborne (R-Neb.), the former Nebraska football coach, and Dallas Cowboys Coach Bill Parcells convened to cook up ways to improve the program. Their biggest gripe was that Conference USA did not allow Army much scheduling flexibility outside of the eight-game conference slate.

Greenspan said he would like to be able to schedule six or seven games at Michie Stadium. This season, Army will play only one home game during October.

Conference USA could see the departure of other members when the Big East looks to restock its football roster, but Greenspan said that was not a factor in Army's decision to leave.

"In no way did we feel we had to get out of town before the building collapsed," he said.

Army had been discussing the possibility with the conference for a while, so it didn't come as a surprise to Commissioner Britton Banowsky.

"We have the greatest respect for the Academy and its leadership, and we know this decision was not an easy one for them," Banowsky said in a statement.

Army will pay an exit fee that has yet to be determined.

In the midst of all the realignment talk, Conference USA officials voted to abide by an existing conference bylaw that would prohibit any member school from withdrawing until after the 2004-05 school year. The Big East made a similar declaration yesterday, reaffirming that any changes to the conference's structure won't come until 2005-06.

Connecticut will, however, accelerate the process of becoming a football-playing member of the Big East. It will begin playing with the conference in 2004, earlier than planned. After that season, Temple is scheduled to drop out of the conference, leaving the Big East with six football programs.