Maybe it’s time for Army to look beyond its disastrous 1998 decision to join Conference USA. The Black Knights should follow, cough, cough, Navy’s lead.
Four years ago the Midshipmen surprised the college football world when they announced they planned to join the Big East Conference in football (the other sports have remained in the Patriot League). It was a headline-grabbing story, although Air Force has long succeeded as a service academy in the Western Athletic Conference and the Mountain West Conference.
Times changed. TV dollars and conference affiliation are much larger pieces of the college football landscape in the 21st century.
Times changed so much between the 2012 announcement and the planned date to join the Big East in 2015, the conference had split up. The Big East’s remaining football members formed the American Athletic Conference.
Many were skeptical of Navy balancing an eight-game AAC slate with its three annual showdowns against Notre Dame, Air Force and Army. The fear was 11 taxing games would hurt Navy’s chances for bowl eligibility.
AAC membership has left Navy with room for only one other “certain win” to pad the schedule. Navy opened last season with a 48-10 win over Colgate and begins this season on Sept. 3 against Fordham. Both are Football Championship Subdivision members.
With the AAC games, Navy traded softer 2014 opponents such as VMI, Texas State, Western Kentucky, San Jose State and Georgia Southern for AAC 2015 foes that included Houston, East Carolina, Connecticut, Memphis and South Florida.
But the Midshipmen upset the apple cart. They abandoned the so-called 4-4-4 philosophy designed for bowl eligibility with four certain wins, four winnable games and four tough foes.
Navy went 7-1 in the AAC West to tie Houston for the division title.
When the Midshipmen surprised No. 15 Memphis last season, they jumped into the Top 25. They never left the remainder of the season despite a loss to Houston that allowed the Cougars to advance to the AAC title game over Navy. The Midshipmen beat Pitt in the Military Bowl to finish 11-2 and ranked No. 18.
That Memphis victory in the eighth week of the 2015 season offered national exposure Navy didn’t gain by beating VMI in the seventh week of the 2014 season.
Navy’s experience was an extreme contrast from what sunk — pardon the Navy pun — Army’s C-USA experience.
Army was 9-41 (.219) in C-USA play from 1998 to 2004. An 0-13 season in 2003 contributed to exiting the league.
Those records killed any bowl hopes year after year. In 1996, Army lost to Auburn in the Independence Bowl, 32-29, to finish a 10-2 season. That helped fuel C-USA membership. Since then, the Black Knights have been to only one bowl game, in 2010.
So what changed between then and now? It’s a combination of patriotism and economics that millennials have grown up with this century.
Patriotism stems from the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorists attacks on U.S. soil. An increasing number of Navy, Air Force and Army commitments state they wanted to serve their country.
The economic piece of this story was the 2008 financial collapse, combined with increasing college debt accumulated by civilian students entering a dim job market. Service academy graduates have a free education and a guaranteed job.
Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo and Air Force coach Troy Calhoun have been around long enough to notice a deeper talent pool for the service academies, although it is still shallow overall with academic demands and the five-year military commitment.
Army is coming off a 2-10 season, but three losses were by a combined total of 14 points — to Connecticut, Wake Forest and Penn State. Wake Forest won on a field goal as time expired.
Fourth-year head coach Jeff Monken has taken advantage of some West Point recruiting concessions to help Army compete for talent. Army’s players typically lost weight when training in the field in the summer. They returned to West Point trying to gain the weight back while enduring fall camp.
This season might be Army’s breakthrough with improved play at quarterback and bigger players throughout the roster.
The 2016 schedule also may prove to be a gauge for handling a conference schedule. The Black Knights open Sept. 3 at Temple, the defending AAC East champion. They also play Notre Dame (Nov. 12 in San Antonio) and two ACC members, Duke and Wake Forest.
Army has remained mum on the subject of conference affiliation, but the time to consider may be near.
One reason Bronco Mendenhall left independent BYU for rebuilding Virginia in the balanced ACC was that he recognized BYU’s independent status hurt the Cougars’ level of national recognition.
Even Notre Dame has partially joined the ACC. The Irish are required to play five ACC schools as “non-conference” games each year in order for the remainder of the athletic program to compete in the ACC. Speculation persists they may have to fully join the ACC as the conference affiliations continue to chase the almighty TV dollar.
A breakthrough season with bowl eligibility might make it time for Army to reconsider its conference affiliation future.
Follow Tom Shanahan of Today’s U on Twitter: @shanny4055