FB : Keeping structure: Service academies consider Big East, but traditions remain priority
Fisher DeBerry has mixed feelings about the changing landscape of college football. The former Air Force head coach sees the change as both exciting and sad as he watches conferences realign across the country.
‘Nothing stays the same in college football from year to year,’ DeBerry said. ‘But the sad part about it is that some realignments are forcing teams to lose some natural rivalries that they’ve had for years and years.’
The Big East conference is the latest to feel the effects of change in college athletics after Syracuse and Pittsburgh announced Sept. 18 that they will leave to join the Atlantic Coast Conference. The Big East is now searching for replacements to solidify its future in the Bowl Championship Series. And Navy and Air Force are the Big East’s top choices to join as football-only members, according to The Associated Press. Army is another target for the conference, but the school would be ‘reluctant’ to join, according to The Star-Ledger.
A Navy spokesman said Thursday that the school is not talking about conference expansion, but focusing on the football team’s ‘biggest game of the year’ against Air Force this Saturday. The spokesman referred to comments made by Navy Athletic Director Chet Gladchuk to GoMids.com about conference realignment on Sept. 20. Gladchuk confirmed receiving interest from BCS conferences, including the Big East.
In an email to The Daily Orange, an Air Force spokesman said the academy is ‘not discussing rumors or speculation about conference realignment as an institution.’ The spokesman provided a statement from Hans Mueh, director of athletics, saying Air Force is a proud member of the Mountain West Conference.
The Big East is aggressively looking at all its options, but will not discuss specific schools until an official agreement has been reached, a Big East spokesman said. After officials from the remaining football schools met in New York on Sept. 20, the Big East released a statement on the future of the conference after the departures.
‘Our membership met this evening and we are committed as a conference to recruit top-level BCS caliber institutions with strong athletic and academic histories and traditions,’ the Big East said in the statement. ‘We have been approached by a number of such institutions and will pursue all of our options to make the Big East Conference stronger than it has ever been in both basketball and football.’
Gladchuk, Navy’s athletic director, said to GoMids.com that he has been proactive in the conference realignment discussion. Though Navy is currently stable as an independent with television contracts and schedules already in place, the apparent move toward ‘superconferences’ leaves the future filled with uncertainty.
To remain relevant in major college football moving forward, Gladchuk knows Navy may be forced to join a conference. Gladchuk said the superconferences are ‘basically going to be creating a monopoly’ that will control television rights, bowl games and scheduling.
‘That’s why we have to be thinking about the future and not about where we are today,’ Gladchuk said to GoMids.com. ‘Today it works. Tomorrow, the way I see it, it probably doesn’t and therefore we have to be thinking of some type of conference affiliation very seriously, and we are doing just that.’
For Gladchuk, it all comes back to the money.
DeBerry, who was the head coach at Air Force from 1986-2004, also sees money as the driving force behind the change in college football.
‘I think it’s all being done in the interest of the almighty dollar,’ DeBerry said. ‘And it certainly takes a lot of money today to run a major college program.
‘But then yet at the same time, big is not always better.’
DeBerry knows firsthand the pitfalls that come with superconferences.
While at Air Force, he was involved in the formation of the first superconference, when the Western Athletic Conference expanded from 10 teams to 16 teams in 1994 and began play in 1996. DeBerry said the WAC wanted to create a conference championship to generate more revenue through television and to gain national exposure through the various media markets of the conference members.
But the excitement surrounding the addition of a conference championship game and the potential for increased revenue was quickly replaced with conflict between different teams with different interests.
After three years of play, the 16-team conference fell apart when Air Force, Brigham Young, Utah, Wyoming and Colorado State decided to break away and form the Mountain West Conference with New Mexico, San Diego State and Nevada-Las Vegas for the 1999 season.
DeBerry said revenue sharing was the biggest reason for the conference split. The WAC wasn’t bringing in the revenue that administrators had anticipated. DeBerry said he thinks both the coaches and the school presidents struggled to compromise.
‘I think probably the presidents were finding the same thing true the coaches were finding — that was when you had a meeting, it was all about me,’ DeBerry said.
That culture of ‘me’ can be seen at work as universities and their athletic programs try to figure out the best plan of action as conferences realign.
It’s why Gladchuk and Navy are waiting to see how things play out before jumping into the Big East or any other conference.
Uncertainty still surrounds the conference as Rutgers and Connecticut are reportedly interested in following Syracuse and Pittsburgh to the ACC. The Star-Ledger has also reported that Rutgers has been in contact with the Big Ten.
‘Today, as we speak, there is a lack of clarity of how the dust will settle,’ Gladchuk said to GoMids.com. ‘The most important thing is that the conferences stabilize their current membership and once they do, then they can talk about the next step.’
Air Force is also keeping its best interest in mind before addressing the possibility of leaving the Mountain West for a BCS conference.
‘The academy will continue to work towards what is best for our cadet-athletes in every area on and off the field as we continue working to produce officers of character for our Air Force and the nation,’ Mueh, the director of athletics, said in the statement.
DeBerry said it is easy to forget the real purpose of college athletics is for the student-athletes to get an education.
With education in mind, DeBerry believes a move to the Big East would be ‘very, very difficult’ for Air Force. He said he thinks Air Force and Navy could be extremely competitive on the field, but for Air Force, the travel would be too much for the students.
‘I think in addition to the wear and tear that academics and the routine and the regimen of the academy that it has on the athlete, it would tend with a lot of additional travel to really wear on the academy,’ DeBerry said.
But DeBerry also said Air Force is like every other athletic program in the country. It must survive on its own revenue stream. He said the only way Air Force could justify all the travel would be to make a sizable difference in revenue sharing.
And though money is the biggest factor in any decision Air Force and Navy will make, it is not the only one.
The service academies have competed for the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy each year since 1972. The series is a rich tradition in college football and often the highlight of the season for the service academies.
The service academy rivalries take precedence over any other scheduled games. Gladchuk said those games and traditions would be kept intact if Navy were to join a conference.
So while college football continues to change and conference rivalries come to an end, the tradition of the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy will remain a constant.
‘There’s no question in my mind if they went into the Big 12 or the Pac-10 or the Big East or where, they’re going to keep the rivalry with Army and Navy,’ DeBerry said. ‘That’s just a given. That’s the most important rivalry that there is between the service academies.
‘Those are sacred. Everything is built around those games.’
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