by John Furgele
First off, it is not happening, but the headline is a pretty good tease, isn’t it? Last Saturday, Army was beaten soundly by 1-AA power New Hampshire 28-10. On paper, it looks like a bad loss because anytime a 1-AA team beats a 1-A team, it always looks bad. But, New Hampshire is a 1-AA power, a team capable of playing for the 1-AA championship come mid-December.
But, this is not your father’s—or grandfather’s—Army football team anymore. The Black Knights, nee Cadets, are probably more like a Division II team than they are a 1-A or even 1-AA team. New Hampshire, like most 1-AA teams, can have 63 scholarship players on its roster. Everybody who plays at Army is on scholarship because every STUDENT at the U.S. Military Academy is on government scholarship. After graduation, each cadet goes on active duty for five years, then reserve duty for three more, so there is a price to pay for going to the academy for free.
Army simply cannot recruit against other 1-A schools. If you’re a star linebacker and you’re being recruited by Rutgers and Army, where are you going to go? Rutgers, of course. Most of the players who go to Army aren’t being recruited by other 1-A schools. They’re being recruited by Army, Hofstra, Dartmouth, Bucknell, Albany, Central Connecticut, and probably a host of Division II and III schools. Most of these kids have a love of country, so they would rather go to Army, play a bit undersized rather than go to Bucknell, or even a Williams College, a division III school. Obviously, these kids have a higher calling than college football. College football is something these kids do while in college, just like joining student government is something ordinary students do.
All that said, Army cannot compete with the top 1-AA schools, let alone 1-A schools. If Army played in the 12 team 1-AA Colonial Athletic Association, they would lose to just about every school in that conference. Delaware would beat them, New Hamsphire did beat them. They would also lose to Massachusetts and James Madison, and would have the hands full with Richmond, Hofstra, and Villanova, Maine and everybody else in the CAA.
But, Army, which can’t compete in a top 1-AA conference, is playing 1-A football. A few years ago, they dropped out of Conference USA because they couldn’t compete against those schools. Now, they’re playing as an independent where they can massage the schedule to their liking. They opened up at home against Temple, for years one of the bottom feeders in 1-A football. And, Temple beat them like a drum, 35-7. Nobody massages a schedule better than Navy, which usually plays a 1-AA school and just about every bottom feeder 1-A team they can get their hands on. In 2008, Navy plays Duke, SMU, Northern Illinois, Ball State, Temple, and of course, Army.
Army took on Temple, New Hampshire, and will also face Akron, Tulane, Rice, Louisiana Tech and Eastern Michigan. They scheduled Buffalo, figuring that would be an easy win, but no more. This year, they will travel to Buffalo and they will likely have their hands handed to them. Even massaging is not easy to do as the Army is finding out.
The problem with Army football is selling tickets to 40,000 seat Michie Stadium. There has always been a loyal following by Army fans, but if the home team is no longer competitive, why go? Fans will come to games if they feel like the home team has a chance to win, and if Army played a 1-AA schedule, fans would feel that their Knights would have a chance to win.
What should Army do? They should drop down to 1-AA and play either as a 1-AA independent, or better, join the Patriot League. The Patriot League currently has seven football schools: Bucknell, Colgate, Lehigh, Lafayette, Holy Cross, Fordham, and Georgetown. At one time, every school besides Georgetown played Division I football. All of these schools have high academics, low student bodies, perfect matches for what Army brings to the table. And, with only seven schools, they would love to add an eighth member, and Army would be the perfect eighth member.
If Army played in the Patriot League, they could play seven league games and that would still leave four to five dates to schedule Navy, Air Force and two to three other nonconference games. In addition to Air Force and Navy, they could play Massachusetts, Boston College, Rutgers and perhaps a New Hampshire or Hofstra. A good balance and more importantly, a chance to be a competitive. Also in play would be a potential 1-AA playoff appearance which goes to the Patriot League champion. It makes perfect sense, but of course, it will NEVER happen. There is too much pride in the Army athletic department to admit that they can’t compete with the big boys. That would be like admitting that the real Army can’t beat Iraq, Iran or any other foreign antagonist.
They don’t fear wars, so why would they fear Akron? Or Buffalo? But, fans don’t want to come to Michie Stadium and see the Knights get creamed by the likes of the Temple Owls and New Hampshire Wildcats. They will point to the success of their arch-enemy Navy, but Navy got a bit lucky when they found and hired Paul Johnson, who ran the triple option to success in Annapolis. Now, that Johnson is gone, watch Navy drop like a stone in the future.
In sum, it’s too hard today in 1-A football for Army to succeed. They admitted that when they left Conference USA. Here’s hoping they will admit and leave 1-A for 1-AA.