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Air Force Academy’s new athletic director signals big improvements to Falcon sports

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The hiring of Nathan Pine as the new Air Force Academy Athletic director means Air Force is taking its sports programs seriously

Air Force v UNLV Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

On Dec. 13, the Air Force Academy announced their selection of Nathan Pine as the athletic director, starting in 2019. To casual Air Force fans, this may not mean much, but after a decade of extreme highs and lows, it’s a huge statement for the direction and importance that athletics serves in developing cadets and recruiting future classes.

The Truth About Academy Sports

It can be difficult to break down and understand the moving parts that make up a service academy. The American public seems to view them as solely existing to be premier institutions for producing military officers and that position is certainly justified. After all, they are taxpayer-funded and report directly to the Pentagon. Because of this, service academy sports programs are somewhat impervious to criticism of their performance, especially against civilian schools. It’s as if feeling any frustration with a losing record as a fan can immediately devolve into questioning a fan’s patriotism.

As an exhibit, we can see one of the hundreds of tweets which echoed a common sentiment throughout the entire internet when Army and Navy’a football teams played on Dec. 8.

Not only is this tweet factually incorrect because it ignores the fact that Air Force plays both teams earlier in the season and that inter-service academy games are played across other sports like basketball, lacrosse, hockey, baseball, wrestling, boxing, rugby and more, but it also highlights the belief that it’s okay if service academy teams under-perform. If they have a losing record, that just means that they’re probably spending more time on preparing to fight for their country.

I’m not criticizing the people who think this way. I wouldn’t expect those who aren’t fans of academy sports teams to understand any differently. After all, the Army-Navy game paints a picture that validates that belief. The TV spots with deployed service members, the flyovers, the patriotic segments of what the game means to veterans all serve to draw big numbers, but in a way, it’s kind of condescending to the football players who take their game just as seriously as any player on a Power Five conference team.

Who’s Accountable?

In saying all of this about academy sports, I’m effectively yelling at the clouds. No sports talk show would ever dive deep into criticism of Army, Navy or Air Force because it would be too easy to grab a sound clip and paint them as unpatriotic and quite frankly, many sports shows don’t take these athletes as serious contenders, but rather, military members who just so happen to play sports.

The reason it needs to be talked about is because while many service academy fans have accepted their team’s fate of being a mid-tier competitor, there is a lot of money being made.

This year, the Army-Navy football game brought it 8.05 million viewers. It tied for seventh for the most watched college football game, beating out Notre Dame-USC, Georgia-Florida, and all of the bowl games that have already been played. It’s not publicly released how much Army and Navy earned from that game, but we can look at salaries and TV deals to see that the service academies are comparable with other schools in terms of how much money is being thrown around.

In 2015, Air Force football head coach Troy Calhoun signed a deal for $4.25 million through 2019. Navy’s head coach Ken Niumatalolo commanded a $2.1 million salary in 2018. In 2017, Air Force made $10.5 million in cooperative agreements.

With this kind of money being made, the question enters as to who is responsible for seeing the academy athletics’ success? As fans, the built in excuse that cadets and midshipmen don’t have to have success on the field or court because they are answering a higher calling goes out the window when objectively looking at the business aspect of how programs are run.

Historically, Air Force’s leadership falls on to the military side. The superintendent’s position is a three star general’s billet and there are three one star billet’s that fall under that to oversee academics as the dean, the military training as the commandant, and the athletics as the athletic director.

The dean and the commandant positions make perfect sense that they would fall under military direction. That’s the bread and butter of what the academy does to produce officers. However, the athletics director position is unique because the person in the position oversaw the cadet side of things with physical education and fitness testing, but also the NCAA Division I athletics program.

The Air Force’s high ranking leaders are certainly competent in their respective fields, but how could this not be a problem for creating a successful environment for competitive athletics to thrive? From 2004 to 2015, Air Force’s athletic director was Dr. Hans Mueh. He cared deeply for the Air Force academy, but his military experience was as an intelligence officer before returning to the academy to teach chemistry. He had no discernible background in NCAA sports, and he held the position under several superintendents who put athletic success at odds with their own strategic goals. Although athletic goals and military education aren’t mutually exclusive, there is sort of a sliding scale as to how time is allotted based on the desires of the superintendent. Without a background in sports, a superintendent may not understand what is needed for cadet-athletes to have the proper practice, recovery, and nutritional needs to stay healthy and compete successfully. Why would they? Their background is in protecting the nation. So it would seem strange that they are required to oversee these aspects of a cadet’s life who plays Division I sports.

Since Dr. Mueh’s retirement, Air Force hired Jim Knowlton in 2015. Knowlton was a West Point graduate who had experience in Army’s athletic department as well as Rensselear Polytechnic University, but his time at Air Force was short lived as he moved on to Berkeley in early 2018. His move was completely understandable as he went on from a $167,000 salary at Air Force to what we can assume is a much higher salary. Berkeley does not publicly list Knowlton’s salary, but in 2016, their athletic director was paid $707,900. After Knowlton left, Colonel Jen Block, an Air Force contracting officer by trade who held a position in the athletic department, took his place as the interim athletic director.

As innocuous as this sequence of events might seem, it points to a problem. Jim Knowlton, who certainly had no personal loyalty to the Air Force Academy, was brought in on a salary that was well below his peers. Colorado State University’s athletic director, for example, makes $400,000 a year on a contract that was signed in 2015 and goes through 2022. Knowlton did a fine job as proven by the fact that he was seen as a viable candidate to fill the Berkeley position, but it was clear that his position had no longevity. Then, Colonel Block — who may have been the most qualified for the position in the department, but certainly was not fully qualified by the job requirement’s standards — took over for nearly the entire year of 2018.

The problem with constant change and moving slowly to bring in a talented athletic director goes beyond the financial implications of doing so. It affects the athletes who committed to the Air Force Academy in good faith that the Academy’s leaders would competently enact policies and spend money in ways that allow them to be the best cadet-athletes they can be. For cadets who were recruited and committed in 2015, they had to play during a lame duck period of athletic directors and those are years they will never get back. They’ve endured 5-7 records while playing to empty stadiums for the simple reason that the powers that be, who make a lot more money than they ever will as Air Force officers, are slow to react due to a lack of accountability.

Last week, a huge move was made in the right direction for establishing accountability. With the hiring of Nathan Pine, the athletic director position will be moved from being a military/government service worker position, over to the Air Force Academy Athletics Corporation, which is the private side of Air Force’s sports program. This move gets rid of salary restrictions, which means more competitive pay, and more flexibility for the new athletic director to focus on the NCAA sports first.

Moving Forward

I felt it necessary to lay this groundwork to show the importance of the decisions that have been made over the last few weeks. The current superintendent, Lieutenant General Jay Silveria, is an accomplished combat pilot who has flown the F-15 and F-35. Yet, he had the foresight to recognize that the best move is to privatize the athletic director position and allow the Air Force academy to grow its sports programs to new heights. Nathan Pine has experience at Oregon State, Army, and most recently, as Holy Cross’s athletic director. His accomplishments have been focused on growing monetary support for athletics programs and gaining national exposure through television deals, marketing, and alumni outreach.

As an Air Force fan, you may be asking, “why should I care?” This is the exact type of person Air Force needs to fill its stadiums and arenas. Air Force fans have collectively been conditioned to accept the state of its sports programs as they are and not ask for any more. As alumni move away, we become disconnected from the sports programs because games are often played on small networks that are blacked out or unavailable unless you’re willing to purchase outrageous, long term packages even if it’s to watch a single game.

Air Force still has a lot of untapped potential and talented coaches who get paid a lot of money. If Mr. Pine can empower them to grow recruiting and the programs in general, the Falcons can potentially see levels of success we haven’t reached before. Along with the move from falling under the Air Force Academy’s military side to the AFAC, we may see more transparency. It’s easy for Air Force to provide limited comments as to why we’re seeing downtrends in success or ticket sales and what they plan to do about it because it fell under the military’s scope. Now alumni may be more willing to provide donations if there is a concise goal as to what will be done with the money that is given.

If you’re a Falcon fan, this hiring should come as huge news. We welcome Nathan Pine with open arms and are excited to see what the new era of Air Force Athletics will bring.