For over 100 years, Navy has gone it alone, making football independence work.
The Midshipmen succeeded where so many others could not, because, quite simply — they have a national brand, a national following, and a history that few programs can match. But the shifting winds of collegiate athletics have made even the strongest of independents weak in the knees.
Facing an uncertain future, scheduling restrictions and the prospect of being left on the sidelines, Navy has embarked on a program-changing course with its entry into the Big East beginning in 2015. There is a chance Navy will make conference affiliation work the way Air Force has in the Mountain West. There is a chance conference affiliation will fail, the way it did with Army in Conference USA.
Nobody is quite sure how this new era will work out, for Navy or the Big East. Both are taking incredible risks in their respective makeovers, hoping the convenience of joining forces will allow them both to be players in the future.
"We feel really strongly that it's clear to us the future of college football is in a conference, and that's the bottom line," Navy athletic director Chet Gladchuk said in a conference call Tuesday. "There's strength in numbers, there's strength in the market, strength in branding, strength in resources a conference can bring to the table."
Strength and the Big East do not exactly go together these days. The long-tortured season of expansion has left the Big East without founding members Syracuse, Pitt and West Virginia, in a court battle against the said Mountaineers, and in the middle of its second league makeover.
Boise State, SMU, San Diego State, Houston, UCF and SMU come on board in 2013, and commissioner John Marinatto reiterated Tuesday that the league plans on adding one more program to get to 12. The buyout for any departing team has now increased from $5 million to $10 million for current members, and goes into effect for new members once they join the conference. So yes, that means teams like Boise State or Navy could back out at any time and face no financial penalty.
Meanwhile, there are no answers about the future of the BCS and whether automatic qualifying status will still apply. None of that screams "strength." But this is not a decision Navy came to hastily.
In fact, conference affiliation has been kicked around for about 10 years at the Naval Academy. The expansion craze of the last two years has shifted perspective. Several studies were done, meetings were held. Navy looked at what Air Force and Army did with conference affiliation. It weighed the pros and cons.
Gladchuk clearly explained why Navy would make such a move now, and everything he said made sense.
There are scheduling concerns as an independent. A shift to nine-game conference schedules mean fewer windows for independents to get games, particularly in October and November. Bowl opportunities are sure to change in the next BCS cycle. The money is shifting toward teams in major conferences as well, creating even more disparity between the haves and the have nots. The idea that the Big East has reconfigured itself, increased its buyout for departing members and is up for a television renegotiation allowed Navy to feel now was the right time to make this decision.
"If this had happened at any other time, I don't know that I'd be for it," Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said. "In college sports, there's a hurricane getting ready to come and those that are in homes don't worry about it. It's the people on the outside looking in that need a place for refuge. That's why I was on board with Chet from the standpoint it's been great for us being independent, but with the college landscape changing we're out in the open trying to fend for ourselves. We feel we found a great home in the Big East for us."
There is no doubt the Big East and Navy feel they need each other. In adding Navy, the Big East gets to expand its media footprint and add a program that has been to eight bowl games in the last nine years. It has a national reach far larger than anybody left in the conference. In the Big East, Navy feels it gets security, the ability to expand its brand and an opportunity to put itself on better financial footing.
The risk is much greater for Navy, however.
"I'm not sure what's going to happen, but we feel like for us, this is road we need to go," Niumatalolo said. "We have to up our recruiting, up our facilities without compromising ourselves as an institution. As we maintain those parts of our mission with allowing us to compete at this level, we feel like we can do it. Are we biting off more than we can chew? I don't know, but we're excited about what the Big East has to offer."