The state of Army-Navy in a constantly changing college football landscape

“I’ve had to tell several families, ‘Sorry ma’am, sorry sir, the government won’t allow us,’” Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said. Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

THE ANNUAL ARMY-NAVY football game remains the same as it has for decades. It's patriotism and tradition all wrapped up in one. It's the Army Corps of Cadets and Navy Brigade of Midshipmen marching on the field before taking their seats in the stands; U.S. Presidents strolling through pregame warmups; the players standing alongside one another after the final whistle and singing their respective alma maters together -- the loser first, then the winner.

It's college football at large that keeps evolving around America's Game. In recent years, there's been seismic realignment, with blue-bloods Oklahoma, Texas, UCLA and USC all making moves to change conferences. Players have more power now than ever, whether it's the freedom of movement facilitated by the transfer portal or the ability to make money from name, image and likeness opportunities.

But at service academies, all of that is noise. Realignment chatter is just that -- chatter. Athletes don't have access to NIL. The transfer portal, on the other hand, is essentially a one-way-street beckoning players out of town.

Army and Navy stick to the old-fashioned wishbone, the triple-option, the seed from which modern run-pass option offenses sprung. The scheme can come across as quaint, but it's actually a necessity. Army coach Jeff Monken says they don't have the caliber of athletes to compete with the rest of the FBS. By doing something unique, it gives them a chance to close the talent gap.

But the gap between service academies and the rest of the FBS keeps widening thanks to NIL and the transfer portal.

It's to the point that Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo hardly recognizes the American Athletic Conference anymore. "When we first got in the league, we challenged for a championship a couple times; once we won the West outright and two times we tied for it," Niumatalolo says. "And I feel like the American Conference for us is a super competitive league, but the teams have changed. You just look at the demographics of what guys look like. You just look at Cincinnati and they have the running back from Alabama. Some of our schools are really enticing for SEC or Big Ten or Big 12 players.

"SMU doesn't look like the same SMU team when we first got into the league. Memphis doesn't look the same. Houston doesn't look the same. I mean, these schools all look different."

Niumatalolo and Monken aren't looking for sympathy. They're talking about cold, hard facts. Their players are considered federal employees, and therefore can't have conflicting sources of income. So NIL is off the table. The portal, meanwhile, flows almost entirely in one direction: out. Admission standards are hard to meet. Also, there's no such thing as transfer credits. Everyone who gets into Army, Navy or Air Force begins from scratch -- as a first-year, or plebe (Doolies at Air Force), responsible for going through summer training.

No one else in college football has to deal with those barriers to entry. It's enough to make you wonder whether coaches like Niumatalolo and Monken have to adjust their expectations.

"No way," Monken says defiantly. "Not me. You can talk to somebody else about that. I got one expectation."

And that's to win.

"But it is more difficult," he says.

NIUMATALOLO ADMITS THEY'RE not in the running for top recruits. Never have been. Probably never will be. He laughs when players hear rumors of NIL deals and ask, "What do you have to get to be in the ballpark with this guy?"

"We weren't going to be in the ballpark anyway," Niumatalolo says. "But even some of the lower-tier guys for us, we can't compete with that." It doesn't matter if a prospect has zero FBS offers, they inevitably believe they can become stars, play in the NFL and earn a little NIL money in the meantime.

"I've had to tell several families, 'Sorry ma'am, sorry sir, the government won't allow us,'" Niumatalolo says.

No exceptions. Army athletic director Mike Buddie says they had a soccer player who had a small NIL deal in high school. He got free pads in exchange for his endorsement, but that ended the moment he got to campus.

Since NIL is so clear-cut, Niumatalolo and Monken say they don't spend much time worrying about it. They have a counter argument, in fact, because there are other perks to going to a service academy besides having room and board paid for, plus a healthy stipend each month.

"Our NIL is on the back end," Niumatalolo says. "That's what we sell. Like, 'Hey, just look at our graduates. Look at their starting salary or what they're making five years after they've graduated.' Or we put out the number of alumni that are working at different places -- on Wall Street or different things."

Says Navy athletic director Chet Gladchuk: "There's no such thing as a Naval Academy graduate who's unemployed. They'll have a job, they'll have that ring on their finger, it'll open numerous doors."

It's the same way at Army. So say you're Monken, you've made a similar sales pitch and your roster is filled with developmental prospects. Monken counts about 30 players from Georgia, and none were offered by the University of Georgia or even Georgia Southern. He has an offensive tackle who played quarterback in high school.

Maybe you find a few diamonds in the rough. But can you hold onto them? Navy lost starting linebacker Johnny Hodges to TCU, where he's currently the leading tackler.

"When you play a team -- a regional state university on our schedule, no particular one -- they now are not similar to us in that they recruit high school seniors and they have to develop them," Monken says. "If they're deficient in an area, they can go get a guy that's 22 years old and has played 30 college football games, and he will walk into their program and start. They can change their roster instantly. I mean, just look at the teams that have done that and are very open about, 'Hey, we got 38 guys on our roster that weren't here a year ago.' Thirty-eight?! I'm thinking, 'Holy moly!'

"And then we've got to keep those guys that come in as freshmen and they're going to a military school, which is a challenge itself. There are professional standards here -- the rigors of the academics, the formations in the morning, just the things that they have to do to endure four years of college football and being here. It's a challenge. So there's attrition."

Monken is careful when he talks about this kind of thing. Because he loves his players -- their toughness and their character. He loves being the coach at Army, too, but he acknowledges the difficulties in winning there. They existed before the portal and NIL, and are even more evident now.

Niumatalolo agrees. Navy went 41-25 from 2015 to '19. COVID disruptions contributed to a disappointing 3-7 record in 2020. But then, in the spring of 2021, the NCAA took the lid off the transfer portal by allowing athletes to change schools once in their career with immediate eligibility. The Midshipmen are 8-15 since then.

"It has been frustrating," Niumatalolo says, "because I can see like, 'Holy smokes, these teams are getting way better.'"

Last month, as Navy prepared to face No. 20 UCF, it rained during practice one day. The indoor facility was unavailable and it was freezing cold outside. Everyone had an excuse to feel miserable, but an assistant coach, who was recently on staff in the Power 5, put things into perspective.

"He said, 'Guys, I've been a lot of places. I don't think there's very many 3-7 teams that are practicing in the cold, practicing the way we practice. There's just a resolve,'" Niumatalolo recalls. "We ended up going to Central Florida and beating them. It just made me think as a coach, 'You know what? We can't do any of that other stuff. Let's just build our team the old-school way. You know, try to be a tough team that loves each other, that works hard, that's selfless, that it's not in it for how much am I getting out of this?'

"It's kind of corny and it's kind of cliche, but it's our only alternative."

JUST BECAUSE IT'S corny doesn't mean it's wrong. Part of the enduring attraction to the Army-Navy game, beyond it being the nexus of football and country, is that it radiates a sort of old-fashioned purity of competition, unchanged by time and unencumbered by whatever complications are impacting the sport at large.

All three Division I service academy football teams -- Army, Navy and Air Force -- have a distinct brand in that way. It's a big reason schools like scheduling them. They'll market it as a Military Appreciation Game, which is what Troy did last month when it hosted Army. The Trojans' mascot wore military fatigues and helicopters flew over the field before kickoff. It was the highest-attended game in Veterans Stadium history.

When realignment rumors began swirling during the last two summers, speculation inevitably turned to the service academies. If a conference wanted to add a group of teams with broad appeal, why wouldn't it target Army, Navy and Air Force? The Army-Navy game would be worth it; according to CBS, about 10 million people tuned into the game last year.

"What you're talking about has been kicked around for 30 years," Gladchuk says. "There's so many factors that go into it -- affiliation with teams that bring market value and bring traditional history and success as Division I institutions. That's the combination everyone's trying to manage. Would Army, Navy and Air Force be a welcome addition to a conference? Certainly they would be. No question about it. It would bring another dimension of interest."

But Gladchuk says Navy is happy in the AAC. It only joined seven years ago.

Air Force had reported interest from the AAC a year ago but decided to stay in the Mountain West.

Only Army remains independent in football.

"So who's gonna give to create this triumvirate?" Gladchuk asks. "I don't know, because it's serving Navy well to be where we are. But I certainly would be very open to and very interested and very proactive if there was interest on Army and Air Force's part to join us for some good reason. And I think the AAC would certainly consider them joining."

Gladchuk says the three athletic directors have spoken about it, "But everyone has their own agenda and right now the stars aren't lined up."

Buddie says of watching USC and UCLA join the Big Ten this past summer, "You're crazy not to pay attention and try to think how that's going to impact the landscape."

"Certainly we were contacted as the tectonic plates started to shift," he says. "We've had conversations. Some were initiated by me to understand what options existed, and some were certainly initiated by others just to see. ... But, as of now, we just haven't felt compelled to make that leap."

Buddie admits they're "leaving a few dollars on the table" by not joining a conference in football. As long as they can create a competitive schedule, they like the flexibility independence offers.

With that said, scheduling got tricky during COVID. If a result of conference expansion is that it leaves no wiggle room in teams' schedules -- and therefore no place for Army to slide in -- then Buddie could see reconsidering their stance.

"If the dust falls and there's an academically based league that believes in scholarship and believes in service and education and we all ended up in it," Buddie says, "I don't think that would be a bad thing."

THE ONLY THING that feels certain is Army-Navy. If there's something both schools are committed to, it's America's Game.

There's nothing else like it. Where else could a coach be tempted to correct a president of the United States? It happened to Niumatalolo once when George W. Bush wandered through a pre-game drill.

"You don't know how to say, 'You're going to get run over. You better move back over here,'" Niumatalolo says. "He has all his security guards with him, so you just tell your kids, 'Watch out. Don't run over the president. Don't run an out-route into him, go wider.' It's bizarre."

And it's an honor, Niumatalolo says. For a kid from La'ie, Hawai'i, to grow up and meet multiple presidents is special.

Monken struggles to describe the intensity of the game.

"It's never just a play. It's always the most important play of the game," he says. "It's a great game to be a part of because of who we represent -- the men and women that serve and are all over the world watching. And if they can't watch, they're listening. And if they can't watch or listen, they're parked in a foxhole somewhere with their eyes on some bad guys knowing it's going on."

Gladchuk says there's a reason it's on so many bucket lists.

"There are people who like to go to a national championship game or they may want to go to the Super Bowl because of their affiliation with the teams or they want to get to the U.S. Open because they're a Freddie Couples fan," he says. "But everyone's an American, and everyone takes great pride in something that exudes what the country stands for. And it's all on display in a four-hour time frame on the second week in December."