The ideal scenario for a program currently with its own television contract and scheduling capability? Of course not, but last I checked, we weren’t lounged out in front of an Xbox 360 playing NCAA 2012. The Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) of Division I has seen some earth-shattering changes in the past two years of conference realignment, and what we saw on Tuesday was the long culmination of an inventible dynamic which can’t be turned back.
Not that it makes swallowing what Navy will lose by joining a conference any easier for fans. By moving to the Big East, Navy forfeits its previously unique scheduling advantage as an Independent, and trades in a productive and lucrative contract with CBS College Sports that has given the program and the Academy a tremendous boost in appeal. Gone will be the days when three to four games a year could be scheduled against lower tier FBS programs, and we might soon be saying “adios” to counting seeing on-demand and wall-to-wall coverage of Navy football each week. Instead, the Mids will have to play teams in a future conference which saw seven of the 10 other remembers it will have in 2015 play in bowl games last season, and will have to share the spotlight on a still up-in-the-air television situation with other future Big East teams.
Not exactly “smooth sailing,” by any stretch of the imagination.
Make no mistake about, Navy’s move to the Big East in football will not see a seamless transition for Navy fans intent on seeing the school’s unprecedented success over the last decade continue. There will be growing pains, and those growing pains are going to felt most strongly on the field and in the standings.
To put it bluntly, don’t have your travel agent on the horn booking your bowl tickets by Halloween, because starting in 2015, winning seasons are going to become that much harder to come by. But they will be possible, and Navy’s exposure as part of a coast-to-coast league (with a mix of up-and-coming powers like Houston and sleeping giants like South Florida) will receive a major boost.
Don’t believe me? All it takes is a check of the day’s headlines to see that the Naval Academy took a positive step in staying relevant in the ever-changing universe of college football, which has suddenly entered a period of feast-or-famine natural selection that is leaving us with a have and have-not divide in programs looking to stay competitive. The twitterverse seldom erupts over news about Navy football, but it did on Tuesday afternoon. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially for all those high school athletes locked onto their computers in lead-up to signing day.
When Big East commissioner John Marinatto mentioned Navy’s “significant national appeal” in his opening remarks during Tuesday’s teleconference, he wasn’t just preempting skeptics who might question the value of adding a program which went 5-7 in 2011 would have. He was instead speaking to the very real fact of what a culture of “excellence” at Navy has created, and what I hear from recruits and high school players all the time.
People gravitate towards Navy. They gravitate to the hallmarks of the school and its mission, to the service it represents and to the education it offers. But they also gravitate towards Annapolis, towards the immensely powerful bond of the “Brotherhood,’ and to an endearing spirit of a team which, in spite of the clichés, will always be composed of young men and actual student athletes playing with the fiery attitude of underdogs.
That is a powerful force. On its own, certainly, but thrust into a conference and given new and exciting stages to show the country each week? Now you have an expanded footprint, and now the move starts to make more sense. A few weeks ago Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo told me his hope that conference affiliation would help Navy make inroads in recruiting against schools like Duke, Stanford, and Northwestern. Like Navy, these schools seem to attract the best and brightest this country has to offer, but unlike Navy, they’ve had a BCS conference and its BCS bowl bid to offer to recruits in the past. Niumatalolo told me he believed the move would benefit Navy, and if talking to current recruits is any indicator, he’s right. That the Big East was willing to accommodate Navy’s service academy and Notre Dame scheduling requests only solidifies that Marinatto’s reference to “national” was anything but a stretch.
Uncertain about how the Academy will benefit from the move? We should be, but we should be a lot less uncertain given the alternative of staying Independent in an FBS configuration about to implode on itself. Navy fans have a saying when it comes to describing the school’s Athletic Director Chet Gladchuck, and I think it bears repeating on a day like today. “In Chet we Trust,” they say. As the Academy ends over 100 years of independence and works to transition into the Big East, it does so under the leadership of a man with a commitment not to allow Navy get left behind, and not to allow the tradition of Navy football to fall into the ever-expanding list of college footballs ‘have nots.’
Adam Nettina has been covering college football at the Naval Academy for the past five seasons. He is the former Sports Editor of the Utah Statesman and currently writes his own sports and pop-culture blog called Option Pitch and Waffle Crisp.