In November 1995, I was standing on the sidelines at Michie Stadium on a frigid afternoon watching the Army football team practice. Al Vanderbush, then Army’s athletic director, was watching with me. In the midst of small talk about plans for Thanksgiving, Vanderbush suddenly said, “Mind if I ask your opinion on something?”
Flattered, I said, sure.
“What would you think about us joining Conference USA?” Vanderbush said.
My answer was instinctive rather than thought-out: “You’re kidding, right?”
Sadly, Vanderbush wasn’t kidding, nor was anyone else at West Point. They thought that being part of Conference USA’s TV package would give them more exposure and more revenue and being part of a league would help in recruiting.
Put simply, the end result was a disaster, culminating in an 0-13 season in 2003. To be fair, Todd Berry, who was hired in 2000 to replace Bob Sutton as coach, and Rick Greenspan, the athletic director who hired him, had as much to do with that record as playing in Conference USA did. But the decision to join C-USA in 1998 led to Sutton’s firing and a fall from football grace so precipitous that, all these years later, Army is still recovering.
I thought about all of that Tuesday, when Navy announced its decision to join the Big East for football in 2015.
I understand that in the currently unstable college football landscape, this is a safe decision: Navy will be a part of the Big East’s new TV package; it will be guaranteed a bowl spot so long as it wins enough games, and scheduling won’t be a headache. In fact, the case can be made that scheduling will be too easy.
Under the agreement, Navy will play eight conference games each season: That will be four at home and four on the road. It will also continue to play Army, Air Force and Notre Dame each fall. That means Navy is locked into 11 games. Check out Navy’s schedule for 2012. It opens with two big-money road games: Notre Dame (in Ireland) and Penn State. Army and Air Force are, of course, on the schedule. But it also includes games against VMI, San Jose State, Central Michigan, Indiana, East Carolina, Florida Atlantic, Troy and Texas State. Even if Navy loses both money games and both service academy games (which it has not done since 2001), it has a reasonable chance to make a bowl game.
A year later the schedule is similar: Indiana, Delaware, Western Kentucky, Duke, Toledo, South Alabama and San Jose State are among the opponents.
These are the kinds of schedules that helped get Navy to the postseason eight straight seasons before finishing last season 5-7. When Paul Johnson arrived at Navy in 2002 after the Midshipmen had gone 1-20 in the two previous seasons, he told Athletic Director Chet Gladchuk he need a “4-4-4” schedule: four games that were almost certain wins; four games that would be winnable with a good team and — at most — four difficult games. Navy’s 2012 schedule is more like a “6-4-2”: Only against Notre Dame and Penn State will the Mids be clear-cut underdogs.
Beginning in 2015, that’s all gone. The Big East isn’t exactly the Southeastern Conference, but a full slate of conference games will be more demanding than what the Mids currently put together on their own. Big East members Boise State and San Diego State will always be difficult opponents. Louisville, Cincinnati, East Carolina, Houston, South Florida and Central Florida are exactly the kind of schools Army struggled with in Conference USA because they can recruit players the academies can’t even think about because of academics.
Can Navy compete in the Big East? Maybe. Most years, 4-4 will be a good record. Anything better will be exceptional.
Gladchuk says he had concerns about getting games and bowl bids in the future as an independent. Concerns are understandable in the constantly changing quagmire of Bowl Subdivision football. But this smacks of panic. Teams want to play Navy: It has a national profile; it sells tickets; fans like to travel to Annapolis for a road game; and the Midshipmen are never going to physically dominate an opponent.
Plus, second-tier bowls love Navy. The Mids have bowl commitments already in hand for the next four years.
Most important, though, is the fact that joining the Big East could harm Army-Navy, which is the game that makes the two schools important and relevant more than anything else. What if Navy does make it to a Big East championship game and has a chance to go to a BCS bowl? Which game matters more: the championship game the first week in December or the Army game a week later?
What if — and this is entirely possible — the Big East insists on folding Army-Navy into its TV package once the current TV contract is up in 2017. What if ESPN decides Army-Navy would be great for ratings on Thanksgiving night? Think that sort of thing is impossible? Think again.
Back in the ’90s, Navy refused to give up its football independence. Since Army joined Conference USA — even after getting out as soon as it possibly could — its record against Navy is 2-12. In the 10 Navy games prior to joining Conference USA, Army was 7-3. It has been to one bowl game since 1998, has had one winning season, has beaten Air Force once and has won zero Commander-in-Chief’s trophies. Strictly as an independent, Navy has been to eight bowls, had eight winning seasons, beaten Air Force seven times and won seven Commander-in-Chief’s trophies.
Good coaching and leadership account for most of that — but not all of it. Just something to think about.
For more from the author, visit his blog at www.feinsteinonthebrink.com. For his previous columns for The Post, go to washingtonpost.com/feinstein.