Jan. 30, 2012
By Bob Socci
After awakening last Wednesday morning to the news that American Special Forces had swept into Somalia to free two kidnapped aid workers, a recent conversation with the Naval Academy’s first-year basketball coach, Ed DeChellis, instantly came to mind.
Speaking inside Alumni Hall on the eve of his first Army-Navy game, DeChellis shared an anecdote from the previous day. His morning, like that of every other member of the Midshipmen and the traveling party accompanying them to and from Holy Cross, had begun in a Providence hotel at around 4 a.m.
With little time to spare, and less rest for the weary, the Mids had to catch the morning’s first flight to BWI. A full day of classes awaited.
Later that afternoon, DeChellis spotted one of his players, an equally sleep-deprived Ted Connolly, running with a pack of classmates; all fully outfitted in fatigues.
They were among the 28 seniors selected for training to become Navy SEALs; on their way to take a mid-January dip in the Severn River.
It was preparation for post-graduation, when Connolly et al will try to stretch all physical and psychological limits, to become one with those same commandos who swooped into Somalia for a daring rescue in the darkness of night.
For DeChellis, it was another of the daily reminders of the most important differences between life at a service academy and everywhere else. In seasons past -- the last eight, to be precise -- he coached in the so-called big-time -- the Big Ten, to be exact -- at Penn State.
Chartering through a major-conference schedule, if his Nittany Lions weren’t aspiring individually to play at the next level, they were at least plotting to stop future pros from places like Ohio State and Michigan State.
Either way, DeChellis never encountered one of his guards, less than 48 hours before the most important start of his career, shocking his body in hopes of someday diving into the most dangerous hotspots on the planet.
Of course, similar stories could have been told just as easily by DeChellis’s colleagues Bill Roberts, about his standout swimmer Mac Anthony, and Ken Niumatalolo, about his offensive captain Alexander Teich.
One is a talent of, potentially, Olympian proportions. The other a fullback athletic enough to merit the same NFL consideration as a couple of recent predecessors. Both, like Connolly, instead are all-in as warriors in waiting.
It’s a totally different deal, coaching and competing at the Naval Academy, where a player’s dream team is less apt to be the 76ers or 49ers than SEAL Team 6.
No wonder there have always been mixed emotions, with points met by counterpoints, regarding Navy’s place in major college athletics; and football, more specifically.
The overarching question has long been: how does an institution whose values and mission are unchanging move forward in the constantly-evolving world of Division I football? Evolving, you might agree, to the brink of insanity.
At root are rising revenues generated primarily by television and shared, predominantly, by the six conferences currently connected to the Bowl Championship Series. Seeking to reach more TV households, those leagues have encroached on new markets by including new members. Usually by raiding one another.
Their addition has led to fears of subtraction for schools that don’t automatically qualify for the BCS. The more college football trends toward a handful of super leagues, the less money there is for non-AQ’s. With respect to TV and bowl contracts, it’s survival of the fattest.
Thus, dialogue about the game’s future sounds a lot like the rhetoric of this political season; with talk of the ‘one percent’ and ‘class warfare.‘ If non-AQ’s want to occupy anything, it’s an opening created by the BCS’s current gang of six.
Two decades ago, both Navy and Army found a practically-perfect fit in other sports, joining civilian schools of similarly-rigid academic standards in the Patriot League. Meanwhile, on a higher level of football, the Mids maintained the independence they’d enjoyed for more than a century.
Army, however, signed on with Conference USA in the late 1990s. Seven disastrous seasons later, the Black Knights withdrew with a cumulative league record of 9-41.
By that time, head coach Paul Johnson and his staff were building the Midshipmen into consistent winners, while athletic director Chet Gladchuk was seizing the freedom of scheduling to craft exclusive television deals and forge relationships with bowl games around the country.
The natural spin-offs of on-field success were a rise in attendance, increased national exposure and, if applications for admission are an indication, a huge spike of student interest in the Naval Academy. In a time, one shouldn’t forget, of two wars.
Yet, all along Gladchuk and Academy leaders kept considering ‘what-ifs’ with regard to the ‘who knows what comes next?’ reality of college football. Eventually, the hyper-activity of the game’s true power brokers led them to more than re-think Navy’s status.
Late last Tuesday afternoon, they announced an end to independence. Gladchuk and Superintendent Vice Adm. Michael H. Miller were in Annapolis. Niumatalolo was on the road recruiting. All were connected by telephone to Big East commissioner John Marinatto to announce their new partnership, beginning with play in 2015.
What moved the Mids to act after years of both internal and external conversations, including annual overtures from Marinatto and his predecessor Mike Tranghese?
Gladchuk cited the increasingly difficult challenge of scheduling, specifically in October and November, when prospective opponents are committed to league games. Conference expansion and alliances, like the one formed by the Mountain West and Conference USA, leave fewer open dates down the road.
He also expressed similar concerns in trying to partner with bowl games beyond the deals currently in place for Navy through 2016.
Niumatalolo admitted to sleepless nights mulling over the future of his program, caught in what he considers a widening “drift” between “haves and have nots.” Invoking meteorological metaphors, he spoke of a residual angry sea change in college football.
“There's a storm getting ready to come, a hurricane and those that are in homes don't really worry about it,” Niumatalolo said. “It's the people outside looking in that need a place of refuge. It's been great for us to be independent but with the landscape of college football changing...we had to find a home and we feel like we found a great home in the Big East.”
Wherever the Mids turned for shelter, considerable questions were sure to arise. Among the most fundamental: does Navy fit philosophically in a league comprised mostly of large state schools with widely-varying academic reputations?
In fact, there are only two other like-minded and like-missioned Division I institutions. One is in Colorado Springs; the other at West Point.
Even if you exclude the military component from the equation, the ranks of D-I universities with similar academic profiles aren’t much more inclusive; limited to the likes of Rice, Duke, Vanderbilt, Northwestern and Stanford. Each met the Mids in the recent past. But with four of the five in BCS conferences, there’s really no way to accommodate all, if any, on an annual basis.
Therefore, the overwhelming majority of programs Navy plays face nowhere near the same kind of restrictions on recruiting. That’s true for all the academies, independent or otherwise.
Such reality leads to legitimate concerns over competitiveness, now that the Mids will relinquish scheduling flexibility. Niumatalolo himself wonders aloud.
“Are we biting off more than we can chew?” he said in Tuesday’s conference call with reporters.
Certainly, Army did when it aligned with Conference USA. But circumstances for those Black Knights and these Midshipmen are vastly different.
At the time of Army’s foray into C-USA, the sport wasn’t nearly as unstable. The league it joined was regional, rooted mainly in the deep and mid-South. And most pertinent, the Black Knights were far less prepared for such a move than the present-day Mids.
In the seven years prior to playing its first conference schedule in 1998, Army experienced just two winning seasons. Granted, the Black Knights were 10-2 in 1996. However, half of those wins were over Lafayette, Yale, North Texas, Miami (OH) and a then pitiful Rutgers.
Furthermore, soon after joining C-USA, Army made the colossal mistake of abandoning the triple-option in favor of a passing style of offense doomed to fail, following the firing of Bob Sutton and hiring of Todd Berry as head coach.
Navy’s decision to join the Big East comes in the wake of eight winning seasons in nine years. The lone exception was this past fall, when it lost five games by 11 points against a strenuous schedule.
The Mids are also three years removed from a 10-win campaign that opened with a near-upset of Ohio State and ended in a rout of Missouri. In between, they beat then nationally-ranked Notre Dame.
Gladchuk points out that several future Big East foes were or remain on Navy’s schedules in recent or coming seasons, including SMU and San Diego State. Two of them, Houston and Connecticut actually opted out of scheduled dates. The Huskies did so after being routed by the Mids in 2006.
No one understands Navy’s new on-field undertaking better than Niumatalolo, who confesses to not knowing the answer to his own question. However, he does gain some solace from recent efforts; like when the Mids scared the Buckeyes in 2009, and nearly knocked off South Carolina last September.
Niumatalolo hopes affiliation in a league stretching from coast-to-coast, with members in California, Florida and Texas, will deepen the pool of potential recruits. Perhaps now, he suggests, more kids otherwise thinking about schools like Vanderbilt or Stanford will be interested in the Academy and its world-class education.
Of course, those universities don’t require a five-year military commitment in return for the prestige of one’s diploma. Again, that’s something only Army and Air Force do among Navy’s D-I counterparts.
As you know, the Black Knights’ short-lived tenure in C-USA was regrettable. But for the Falcons, conference coexistence with mostly public non-military institutions has been very favorable.
Air Force first belonged to the Western Athletic Conference, before becoming an original member of the Mountain West in 1999. Competing in both, former coach Fisher DeBerry established a record for overall victories at a service academy. His successor, Troy Calhoun, has since led the Falcons to bowls in each of his five seasons.
Although Air Force has never won a MWC title, it has remained a successful program by all other measures in a league whose best teams of late -- from Utah to TCU to Boise State -- were every bit as good as any out of the Big East.
For obvious reasons, Naval Academy officials examined the experiences of both rivals before reaching a decision on conference affiliation. One was so painful that Army shows no desire to surrender independence. The other positive enough to keep Air Force from accepting its own invitation to join the Big East.
So barring any changes between today and 2015, the Mids will be alone among academies in the Big East. And though the only thing unforeseen for college football three years from now is the status quo, let’s hope it stays that way.
For the sake -- and sanctity -- of one game, in particular.
In negotiating the agreement with the Big East, Gladchuk protected Navy’s interests with regards to several issues of great emotional and historical significance. Among them, he ensured that games in Annapolis continue to be held on Saturdays, as opposed to serving as weeknight programming for the league’s television partners.
In contrast, one of Army’s few C-USA highlights was a 59-52, double-overtime win over Louisville on Oct. 7, 1999. It was a Thursday night.
Gladchuk also made sure the Notre Dame and Commander-In-Chief’s series won’t be interrupted when the Mids commence Big East action. They’ll continue the nation’s longest intersectional series with the Fighting Irish, while engaging in national treasures opposite the Falcons and Black Knights.
Attending to those three annually will only add to an already high degree of difficulty, trying to contend in conference. It’s especially hard to imagine any other contest, whatever its league implications, demanding as much emotionally as an academy rivalry.
But those are games that must go on. As we’re reminded daily, conference allegiances are impermanent. What binds academies is immutable.
The Army-Navy game is currently college football’s regular-season finale, held a week after conference championships. So long as its outcome has no bearing on league standings, there’s no reason it can’t continue on a stand-alone Saturday, the second weekend of December.
But if, hypothetically, the Black Knights join the Mids someday in the Big East, particularly if the league stages a championship game, the Army-Navy date -- like nearly all else in life -- becomes subject to change.
For now, it’s reassuring to know it will continue to serve as the saving grace to each season; a refuge, if you will, from the turbulence of modern-day college football.
Meanwhile, the Midshipmen are bracing for a gathering storm on the sport’s horizon. Academy leaders have thought long and hard, and are confident they’ve found the shelter they seek in the Big East.
Ironically, getting there requires them to take a plunge into previously uncharted waters.