Navy Mids celebrate win. (AP/ Matthew S. Gunby)
Welcome to the brave new world of conference affiliation, Navy fans. Not even a full month has passed since the announcement that Navy will begin Big East play in football starting in 2015, but already one of the standbys of service academy football – the yearly battle for the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy – could be facing an uncertain and ominous future.
That, of course, if you take the word of Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo, who told the Annapolis Capital last week that his program will have more important things to worry about when constructing future schedule starting in 2015.
"I'd rather keep Army and Notre Dame and not worry about the Commander-In-Chief's Trophy,”
Niumatalolo told Bill Wagner. “We're in a conference now. So we need to try to win a conference championship."
Niumtatlolo’s comments draw attention to an issue that many Navy fans and followers – notably award-winning author and journalist John Feinstein – have pointed out over the last two weeks. With the announcement that Navy will play within a challenging redesigned Big East that will include Boise State, Houston, San Diego State, and Central Florida (not to mention current members like South Florida and Rutgers) skeptics have been quick to question if Navy can use its four noncoference dates each year to maintain a “4-4-4” scheduling philosophy. Under this philosophy, which helped Navy spark a return to postseason play beginning in 2002, the Mids have been able to, on average, schedule four games in which Navy is favored. According to Feinstein, those four games end with the new Big East schedule, and place Navy in a situation in which keeping its current rivalries with Army, Notre Dame, and Air Force could leave Navy with only one favorable matchup per season. And given the shifting nature of scheduling, getting a struggling program to agree to play that game could be tricky.
You don’t need to take my word for it though. Here’s what Feinstein had to say in a recent Washington Post story.
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.
Feinstein might be off track in using the argument to bolster the position in why Navy should remain Independent, but he is definitely right in that the new scheduling demands will make getting to a bowl game exceptionally difficult for Navy in the future (especially now that momentum is building to make bowl berths contingent on seven wins.) Niumatalolo appeared to be addressing those concerns with his comments, and was dead-on in putting precedence to playing Notre Dame and Army over Air Force.
It’s a complete 180 of everything we’ve come to regard as central to the yearly Navy football goals. Like clockwork, Niumatalolo -- and Paul Johnson before him – have maintained that the first goal of the program is always to win the Commander-in Chief’s trophy by beating Army and Air Force. Next up? A winning season, a bowl, and then the proverbial “gravy.”
But beating Army – and Air Force – have always taken priority. So it’s no surprise that some folks are taking Niumtalolo’s comments worse than a kid finding out there’s no Santa Clause. Lost within this inevitable and often initial rejection, however, is a point which needs to be made; Navy football is bigger than service academy football, and while the Air Force-Navy rivalry remains as heated and important as ever, winning against the Falcons can never be allowed to become the end all, be all of what the program aspires to accomplish.
Make no mistake about it; winning the Big East and playing competitive football in the conference are the new goals. They have to be. A team, a program, which subverts itself to goals that are any less has no hope of remaining competitive in a conference. Think about it. If you were 18 years old a wide-eyed high school recruit, would you really take a chance on attending an institution as demanding as Navy if the coaches told you, “yea, our conference is great and all, but we need to worry about beating two other teams first.”
The answer is no. Were not living in the 1920s anymore, and while recruits will always be attracted to the uniqueness of the Academy, that uniqueness is not going to help the program attract the kinds of players who’ll be able to mitigate the loss of always setting up a favorable schedule. Navy will have to recruit better athletes. It’s just that simple. And just as the program had to evolve in a changing world of conference affiliation, so will it have to evolve in prioritizing it’s goals to support not only its uniqueness and preserve its most important rivalries (Army and Notre Dame) but in maximizing its ability to stay competitive.
Why Air Force and not Army? That’s a no-brainer. Army-Navy is one of the oldest rivalries in all of sport (much less college football) and its majesty and aura are as much a part of our national fabric as the Super Bowl. And Notre Dame-Navy? It’s only the longest uninterrupted intersectional series in the game, and features the second most visible representation of Navy football to the rest of the country each year. Air Force-Navy? That rivalry can claim neither the history nor the respect that Navy has in its rivalries with Army and Notre Dame, and carries only a fraction of the money-making potential to boot.
For the record, it should be noted that there are no plans from the Athletic Department to drop Air Force after 2014. Athletic Director Chet Gladchuck even went so far as to refute Niumatalolo’s comments, saying “"That is never going to happen” with regards to not playing for the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy.
And it might not happen, because Air Force – or Army, for that matter – could eventually see that the shape of Division I football is evolving, and the only option for remaining relevant will be to join the Big East. If I’d have to guess, I’d say that Niumtatlolo’s comments were a not-so-subtle nudge in the direction of the Air Force administration to wake up to the realities that are coming to college football, and coax the Academy into becoming that 12th member of the Big East. Of course, the move by Memphis to join the league as its 12th football member changes things slightly, but should the Big East expand again (still possible) it further reinforces the need for Air Force or Army to get on board before it's too late.
There’s a lot we can speculate on in regards to Niumatalolo’s comments, but above all, it speaks to the fact that as a rivalry, Air Force and Navy will never hold as much weight or importance as Army-Navy, or even Navy-Notre Dame. After years of bitter, back-and-forth contest, it might be time to question why it is that the rivalry continue on an every year basis. As college football, and the Naval Academy adapt to the new gridiron climate, new challenges and rivalries will have to be embraced, and some will have to be let go of. The only question now is a matter of priority, as all three academies must take a hard look at defining what it is they really want to accomplish both on the field, and off.
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.