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It’s Way Too Early For AAC Mistake Talk: Navy Just Needs to Stay in the Ring

A recent article suggested Navy might have made a mistake joining the AAC. It’s not only way too soon for that kind of talk, but goes against why they ultimately need to stay.

Temple v Navy Photo by Will Newton/Getty Images

A couple of weeks ago, John Feinstein wrote an article in the Washington Post following Navy’s 31-30 overtime loss to SMU indicating that it might be time to officially start questioning the decision to join the American Athletic Conference. Feinstein was one of the more outspoken critics of the move to the then-Big East back when it was announced in 2012, and his reasoning for justifying his opinion is a counter to the reasons AD Chet Gladchuk gave for Navy joining in the first place.

Scheduling, bowl affiliation and television were the three main reasons Gladchuk emphasized from the beginning, and Feinstein opposes this by simply saying that Navy will never have trouble getting on people’s schedules because of who they are and what their brand represents, that the same can be applied to getting into a bowl game even without a conference tie-in, and that it’s almost impossible not to be on television these days. He also pointed out Army’s disaster of an attempt at conference affiliation with Conference USA in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. Finally, he mentioned the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” reasoning of trying to mess with something that was clearly working.

Immediately, I wanted to write a counter-post, but we were gearing up for Air Force week here at AAE, and I couldn’t really find the time to divert from what we were doing for our first big CIC week since launching to get something posted. I’ll admit, as well, that my Navy fandom creeped in to some degree, and so it’s probably for the best that it’s two weeks later that I’m getting around to writing this. Since then, Navy has gotten drubbed by Air Force and lost a heartbreaker to Temple that included a very questionable block in the back call that would have given Navy the lead late in the game.

The first and maybe biggest point I want to make about the timing of Feinstein’s post is this: It’s way too early in my opinion to start having this conversation! Navy is still 19-8 in the conference since they joined, and a two point conversion attempt and questionable penalty away from being undefeated this year in conference. I know you don’t play these games in hypotheticals, and I’ll be the first to admit that the slide since the middle of last season in conference play is concerning, but I think we should pump the brakes on this whole thing.

Navy has gone from 11 wins to 9 wins to 7 wins the past three seasons. And, if you were to ask any non-Navy random college football fan what the prognosis looked like for the rest of the season, my guess is you would be looking at an optimistic 5-8 season at this point. That would mean three consecutive seasons of losing two more games each year. That is certainly not the “success” level Navy fans have grown accustomed to from simply a win-loss perspective, but when it comes down to it, I believe this as well as the other points made by Feinstein are oversimplified.

First, with regards to conference affiliation and scheduling, Army, coming off a 10 win season in 1996, made the knee-jerk decision to join Conference USA. As Mike James of TheMidReport pointed out last year, that’s far from what happened when Navy joined the AAC. Army never saw more than 3 wins in Conference USA because they took one great season and parlayed it into conference affiliation when they were not prepared. Navy spent a decade establishing itself as a perennial 8+ win team before deciding that it was time to attempt to move to greener pastures.

With regards to scheduling, could Navy continue to put together a 12 game schedule like they did in the past? Boo Corrigan, Army’s AD, says he has had no such problems in doing so. But, once again, as James pointed out, look at their November this year. They have, as he called it, a “bye month”. After the Air Force game November 3rd, they get two FCS teams in Lafayette and Colgate before a two week bye prior to the Navy game. I’m sure the argument can be made that this is great, a month to prepare for Navy so we can beat them three times in a row. But, the Army faithful are already clamoring about not getting any love in the polls, as they received just 4 votes this week in the Coaches poll and none in the AP. If you want to become a top-25 team, taking the month of November off isn’t going to help your cause. They could easily be 7-2 after Air Force and find themselves on the brink of or in the top 25 only to drop out while continuing to win or not play over the next 4 weeks. And the prime reason for the November scheduling is that all of the conferences load October and November with conference games. It’s really hard at this point to find teams with open weeks late in October and November and it could get even harder in the future. It’s a gamble Army is taking in hopes that the success they have found recently will pay off down the road, similar to what Navy did over the last decade plus.

That brings me to another important point. I believe that Boo Corrigan was brought in to replicate what Navy had done under Gladchuk, plain and simple (Though I’m sure Army hopes he does it even better). He was at Navy in 2002-2004 in the marketing department when Paul Johnson was brought on board and saw the turnaround happen. Jeff Monken was of course on Johnson’s staff at Navy and saw what it took first hand as well. Army would never in a million years admit that they are simply attempting to copy Navy’s success and perhaps eclipse it, but the background of those two hires are not a coincidence. And they are doing just that with their scheduling. They are employing a similar 4-4-4 model that Johnson established with four tougher games, four winnable games, and four nearly guaranteed Ws each season. For them, I think it’s more of a 2-6-4 model, which is closer to what Johnson started with his first couple years at Navy. And, yes, it’s absolutely working. Monken has done an incredible job turning this program around.

At first, they just wanted to break the streak against Navy. Check.

Then they wanted bowl victories and the CIC. Check.

But what comes now? Likely it’s just to duplicate this over a number of years.

Like I said, being a site manager for an outlet that covers all three service academies, I’ve seen the Army faithful asking for love in the polls. Right now, they should bask in their success and their very good football team! Having been a part of the decade of 8+ win seasons at Navy, at some point, beating Eastern Michigan and Liberty loses its luster somewhat. Is there a chance that I’m looking back five years ago and forgetting that I had the same concerns because I loved the easier wins and bowl games? Perhaps. Is there a chance Navy could continue its descent and spend years at the bottom of the AAC West and have me looking for the good ole days? I suppose.

But, simply from a fan perspective, even with the grueling losses and disappointing start to the season, I LOVE being in a conference. I LOVE interacting with other teams’ writers and fans on Twitter. I LOVE following along with the conference each and every week. I LOVE the quality of games that we have gotten from Navy over the last three seasons and the ones still to come this year. I know that matters little when considering whether this was a good move for the program, but I believe I’m not alone in feeling this way.

The second point made was about bowl games. I believe Feinstein is right here. I don’t think Army or Navy would ever have a problem getting an at-large bowl bid given who they are, but to some degree that is still a gamble that Army is willing to take and Navy doesn’t have to worry about. Although, if you play an incredibly tough conference schedule and aren’t bowl eligible in the first place, then perhaps the true gamble is being made by the Mids.

The third point was about television. I think this one is oversimplified as well. Yes, Army will have no trouble getting on TV as an independent. Yes, they have a CBS Sports Network contract for home games just like Navy. But, last year, that meant two away games on BeIn Sports. So far this year, they have dodged that bullet outside of the Oklahoma game which was only on PPV. That wasn’t a fault of the Black Knights, as one OU non-conference game a year is slated for the PPV route and it pretty much came down to UCLA week one against new coach Chip Kelly, or Army. Given the outcome of those two games, hindsight is 20-20, but otherwise, Army has picked up CBS Sports Network and ESPNU for its three other away games, and only needs an outlet for its game against Eastern Michigan to make it on national TV for every game outside of OU (As I was writing this, they announced CBS Sports Network will grab the EMU game for a noon kickoff). Once again, though, it’s a gamble, and one that may not always pay off for exposure.

Regardless, the quality of teams and matchups for Navy in its AAC schedule can’t be compared. Navy is pretty much guaranteed national TV for every single game and will certainly draw more eyeballs in matchups against undefeated Cincinnati and defending National Champion UCF than against San Jose State or Eastern Michigan. So, yes, both schools will end up on TV. But not all TV is the same. Just ask Air Force, who had two games on Facebook this year, which left Falcons fans bemoaning again that they are the left-out service academy when it comes to exposure. The MWC TV deal is a disaster, and the AAC deal will, as Yahoo Sports pointed out over the summer, set the stage for the next round of conference TV deals when it expires. Mike Aresco know this, and knows that any hope of actually cementing his P6 push will be dependent on what that TV deal looks like.

But, Navy doesn’t have to worry too much about what that will look like. The AAC is clearly the best of the Group of Five conferences at this point, and the Mids have a guaranteed spot at the table, regardless of how the next round of TV negotiations goes. They have positioned themselves well on that front, and that brings me to another point.

I wrote on Underdog Dynasty back in 2015 the day Navy “officially” joined the AAC, outlining three reasons I believed this to be a good move. Security, exposure, and recruiting were my three reasons, and I believe these still to be true. We’ve already addressed exposure. Navy gets more of it than either of the two other service academies. A large part of that is what they have done on their own, like drawing in Showtime for A Season With Navy Football last year, but a large part of that is also just the fact that they are playing in the AAC.

Security remains true as well. No one knows what conference affiliation will look like ten years from now. If they tell you they do, they are probably lying. So, what happens if conferences continue to expand at some point and we end up with 16 teams in the P5 conferences? Well, for the AAC, that would probably mean losing teams like UCF, USF, and Houston to potentially the Big 12. But that also means Navy doesn’t have to worry about where they will end up. This is a long-term relationship they have established with the American. Army can’t say the same. Once again, this is a strategic gamble on their part. If, and it’s of course a big if at this point, we have more conference realignment, I believe Corrigan and Army think they will have no problem getting scooped up into a conference like the AAC. However, a second round of shuffling will probably lead to more conference games each year, which will result in it being even tougher to remain independent from a scheduling perspective. Army is playing the long game, thinking that they will find their way in regardless. Once again, they are emulating what Navy did a decade ago, and hoping the gamble pays off.

Beat Navy first and foremost.

Win second.

Regain the CIC third.

Repeat consistently fourth.

Navy doesn’t have to worry near as much about where they will end up if chaos reigns supreme again.

I think recruiting still remains one of the biggest benefactors of affiliation in the AAC. First off, I don’t put a ton of stock in recruiting rankings, and even less when it comes to service academies. Oftentimes, they are not accurate with who has actually committed when it comes to service academy players, and given the number of recruits each school brings in each year, it’s hard to get an accurate look at what that means for the future of the program. Add in the fact that the majority of the players will spend a year at the prep school and it’s even harder to predict. BUT...if you look at the 247 Sports composite rankings since Navy announced they were joining the AAC, they have seen a consistent steady uptick in the average player ranking each season form 2013-2018. This has corresponded with climbing from 116 overall in 2013 to 88 in 2018.

Both Army and Navy can talk about their brotherhood. Both can talk about the quality of education. Both can talk about looking at the next 30 years, not the next three. But Navy can go into living rooms across the country and say a few things Army cannot.

First, you will get the chance to play in one of the most competitive conferences in the country. Second, if you live in the recruiting hotbed of Texas, you will have a game in your home state every season. If you live in Tennessee, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Florida, all important states for recruiting as well, you will play a game in your home state every other year. Ohio, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania? At least once in your four years as a Midshipman (Not counting Army/Navy).

Service academies are national recruiters in a way that other schools don’t have to be. Navy’s current conference affiliation gives them a big reach when it comes to where they will be playing each season. The only problem is Army has been slowly catching them, and as of now, may have eclipsed them in recruiting heading into 2019. That’s another article for another day, however.

I think that given all of the points and counterpoints I’ve tried to make, that it’s too early to hit the panic button on joining the AAC. This was a strategic move that paid off tremendously early, has hit a rough patch on the field, but still continues to provide serious tangible benefits moving forward. But, even if you are on the fence, feeling like we are in the middle of what will ultimately prove to be a failure, and you already find yourself as a Navy fan longing for the good ole’ days, I hope my final point moves you beyond wins and losses, TV contracts and exposure, and scheduling headaches and bowl games, and shows what I believe to be the biggest reason this continues to be the right move for the future.

The United States Naval Academy is supposed to be developing future Navy and Marine Corps officers to tackle enormous challenges in the face of extreme adversity and hardship, to accomplish the mission they are called to perform regardless of who the opponent is, and to do so in a way that inspires our nation. Inspirational is one of the seven attributes of a Naval Academy graduate after all. What this looks like according to USNA is this: “Mentally resilient and physically fit officers who inspire their team to accomplish the most challenging missions and are prepared to lead in combat.”

I believe that Navy had maxed out its potential as an independent in the same way Army is trying to do right now. I believe that the next challenge was to be a part of a conference year in and year out and to compete at the highest level in that conference. Beyond all of the other reasons joining a conference was necessary at the time, the fact simply that this was the next challenge may be the most important.

On day one as a Midshipman, when you are wandering around Alumni Hall, terrified of getting yelled at for things you don’t even know you are doing wrong, one of the very first things you are handed is your very own copy of Reef Points. Inside are pages of info about the school, its history, the laws of the Navy, distinguished graduates, general orders of the sentry, and many many other tidbits you will be required to memorize over the next six weeks of Plebe Summer. And on one of those pages, you will find the “Man in the Arena” by President Theodore Roosevelt.

It’s been in Reef Points for years, well before it saw its popularity in mainstream culture grow. Now, Lebron James often puts those words on his sneakers before a game and has shown love to the speech on Instagram. It’s been quoted by President Obama. It’s been referenced in big time MLB playoff games when a team was in a do-or-die elimination moment.

Perhaps you’ve read it as well. It goes like this:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

The famous excerpt is from a speech entitled Citizen in a Republic, in which Roosevelt, speaking in France, says that what is most important to the success of a Republic is the quality of the average citizen. He speaks about the past, about the pioneers, about the Industrial Revolution, and all of the successes that got the United States as a nation to this point. He then addresses the fact that we cannot sit idly by and simply hope success will continue. We must confront and seek out each new challenge because that is what is required to build our individual and collective character. He goes onto say that “There is little place in active life for the timid good man...The good citizen in a republic must first of all be able to hold his own. He is no good citizen unless he has the ability which will make him work hard and which at need will make him fight hard.”

Work hard always, fight hard when necessary.

Roosevelt himself knew what this is like. He was a frail, asthmatic child, who forced himself into extreme physical exertion because it was the only way to overcome the challenges he faced from being sick so frequently. But even that wasn’t enough. Even after working out day after day, he recalls getting beat up on a train returning home one summer. It was in that moment that Roosevelt realized that he would have to work twice as hard as everyone else in his training, adding boxing to his regimen in order to overcome his weaknesses and achieve greatness.

He coined this way of living in a speech he entitled The Strenuous Life. The “strenuous life” is about seeking out the hard things, not living a life of ease, not settling for what you know you can accomplish, but constantly challenging yourself, consistently jumping into the arena regardless of what the critic might say and getting bloodied and beaten because that is the recipe for growth.

Roosevelt also astutely states that “No permanent good comes from aspirations so lofty that they have grown fantastic and have become impossible and indeed undesirable to realize.”

So, if the “Man in the Arena”, included in Reef Points because it is critical to the development and attitude each Midshipman should embrace is important enough to memorize during Plebe Summer, perhaps the only question that remains is whether or not the ambition of playing in the AAC is too lofty an aspiration?

19-8 in three plus seasons tells me that’s not the case.

If you ask me, the only thing left to do is to get back in the ring and keep swinging!