Army football has tried conference play before. Lured by financial benefits, schedule stability and other perks, Army gave up its independence and spent seven seasons in Conference USA.
The military has never been worse.
Army won just 13 games from 1998 to 2004, and only twice in the game that mattered most, the annual showdown with Navy. The move was a failure and the army, whose storied history dates back to 1890, retreated back to life as an independent.
Nearly two decades later, college football — college sports in general — has exploded with change, with players having more opportunities to make money than ever before and more power to determine where they play. Billion-dollar media rights deals for the major leagues amid realignment have become a benchmark.
The question at Army at the end of each season: Will the move to a conference and the chance for greater financial stability and exposure the program can use again be worth losing its independence?
“The realignment certainly gets your attention,” Army athletic director Mike Buddy said. “We weigh this option every year. We value our independence so much that it just didn’t make sense to us until now. But the changing ebb and flow of conference realignment, an expanded College Football Playoff, all of those things could play a factor in the reevaluation.”
The Black Knights (5-6) have righted the ship under coach Jeff Monken. He has five winning streaks in nine seasons — including 10 wins in 2017, 11 in 2018 — five bowl games and two seasons with weeks spent in the AP Top 25.
Monken also halted Navy’s 14-game hitting streak and led the Black Knights to three straight series wins from 2016-2018. Army last won the series — which resumes Saturday at Lincoln Financial Field, home of the Philadelphia Eagles — in 2020.
Monken, 55, was a strong candidate last season at Kansas and has been a leading name in the rumor mill — Purdue is free right now — to take a higher-level job each of the last few years.
Army plays what is considered a national program. Yes, games against Navy and Air Force will never go away, but the Black Knights have played as many different teams this season as Villanova to nationally ranked Wake Forest. Monken understands the challenges that come with coaching at a service academy as well as anyone, and that the evolving state of the sport could force the Army’s hand at some point.
“I like the fact that we get to play a few different teams every year and that the schedule changes,” he said. “We can play teams from all over the country and we have the flexibility to play Power Five teams. I think there is value in that. But at some point it may be inevitable. I like where we are at the moment.”
Other Army sports programs, such as basketball, play in the Patriot League. Air Force hasn’t been an independent since 1979 and plays in the Mountain West. Navy (4-7) joined the American Athletic Conference in 2015 and had mixed success.
“If you look at why we joined a conference, it works,” Navy athletic director Chet Gladchuk said. “We have access to bowl game qualifiers, we have a great television package, we get a huge share of conference revenue, we have a voice in government with NCAA legislation. It brought us so many opportunities and opened so many doors for us.”
The Army, Navy and Air Force are prohibited from offering endorsement deals to their athletes, and most recruits at those schools aren’t in the market for them anyway. Buddie, a former major league pitcher, said NIL deals — payment for the use of an athlete’s name, image or likeness — have had a “minor impact” on the program compared to other looming threats.
“We’re still taking kids who have virtually no other Division I offers other than Navy and Air Force, potentially,” Buddy said. “They don’t get ANY discussions from other schools. Most of them have the perspective to realize that a degree from West Point is worth a lot more than $4,500 for a free pizza. Now what is reflected is the ability of some of our opponents to improve very quickly. More transfer portal from NIL. So that makes it more of a challenge for us.”
But in significant ways, Army has matched the big boys of college football.
The Army invested significant money in overdue renovations to Michie Stadium, located on the campus of West Point, New York. Work will begin this summer on the removal of the existing east stands, which will be replaced with a new 160,000-square-foot structure that includes premium club-level seating, a variety of hospitality options, a new fan shop, improved concessions and amenities and improved stadium accessibility. Although Army will not be displaced for home games, major renovations to the stadium will not be completed until the start of the 2025 season.
Michi’s vintage charm only goes so far in the modern world.
“That’s part of what makes it romantic,” Buddy said. “But we also want running water in the winter.”
The Black Knights also have a big NFL prospect in cornerback Andre Carter II. Carter had 15.5 sacks last season and was the program’s first AP All-America selection since 1990. He was touted as a possible first-round pick in the 2023 draft, but injuries limited his production this season. Buddy said the Army will essentially defer Carter’s military duties until his professional career is over.
“We just want him to do it after a couple of Pro Bowls,” Buddie said.
The 6-foot-7, 260-pound Carter could become just the third Army player selected since 1969.
“I believe he will have a chance to play football after college,” Monken said. “Where that will put him in the draft, I don’t know. Hopefully he’ll continue to be high on people’s list and they’ll feel compelled to want to take him as a really high draft pick. It’s going to be great for him, great for us.”
So, for now, life as a freelancer.
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