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Navy football prepares for uncertain future in American Athletic Conference

There are a lot of reasons why the Army-Navy game is one of the great spectacles in American sports. Among the best-known is that its traditions rarely change from year to year. From the pregame march-on to the postgame singing of both schools' alma maters, the event's pageantry is as vivid now as it has always been.

There are a lot of reasons why the Army-Navy game is one of the great spectacles in American sports. Among the best-known is that its traditions rarely change from year to year. From the pregame march-on to the postgame singing of both schools' alma maters, the event's pageantry is as vivid now as it has always been.

But behind the scenes, a major change is about to take place. Beginning in 2015, Navy's football team will do something it has never done in its history: join a conference.

Since the team was founded in 1879, Navy football has been an independent program. In the modern era of college football, the Midshipmen have competed at the Division I level, in what is now known as the Football Bowl Subdivision.

After next season, Navy football will join the American Athletic Conference. When the deal was signed in January of 2012, the conference was under the Big East banner. Now the AAC is a hodgepodge of old Big East and Conference USA schools, including Temple.

There will be plenty of benefits to joining the AAC, not least increased revenue from television contracts. But being locked into a conference schedule for the first time will be a major change to Navy football's culture.

Indeed, Navy athletic director Chet Gladchuk said life in Annapolis already has changed in some ways.

"We've been gearing up for the American for two years now, [after] our original commitment to the Big East," he said. "In anticipation of joining a conference, we've been involved with a significant influx of new resources, staffing, facilities - the way we do our business, and making sure we're comparable in the way we do our business with the teams we'll be competing against on a regular basis."

The rest of Navy's athletic teams have been in conferences for a long time. Since 1991, the Midshipmen have been in the Patriot League. Before then, they were in the Colonial Athletic Association, which was founded in 1979 as an offshoot of the Eastern College Athletic Conference.

Navy football never had that kind of experience, though. Now it will.

In some ways, the AAC will feel familiar. Since 2001, Navy has played many present and future teams from the league, including Temple, Tulane, East Carolina, Southern Methodist and Connecticut.

And the Midshipmen will be able to maintain their signature rivalries against Army, Air Force and Notre Dame. The Army game will continue to be at the end of the regular season, on the second Saturday of December.

But in 2015, instead of playing those teams when they want to, Navy will do so within the confines of a conference schedule. Gladchuk said that might not be such a bad thing.

"The opportunities for an independent to schedule with as much flexibility as we have over the years is going away," he said, mainly because of the nature of conference realignment. One of the consequences of all those moves is that Navy's opponents won't have the space in October and November to play the Midshipmen anymore.

Losing that flexibility in scheduling raises what might be the biggest question hanging over Navy's move to the AAC.

The program's ability to create its own schedule has been a significant factor - intentionally or not - in having become one of the most successful teams outside the BCS over the last decade. Between current coach Ken Niumatalolo and his predecessor, Paul Johnson, Navy has played in a bowl game every year but once since 2003. The Armed Forces Bowl on December 30 will be Navy's 10th bowl appearance in the last 11 years.

Service academies are always attractive to bowl promoters, as they sell lots of tickets and bring prestige. But Navy, Army and Air Force still have to win six games in a season to qualify, just like every other FBS school. The Black Knights are certainly well aware of that, having made just one bowl appearance since 1996.

Will Niumatalolo and the Midshipmen be able to keep their run of success going when they have to play seven AAC games each season?

"It's a great question," Niumatalolo said.

The Hawai'i native gave a philosophical answer, at least to what it will take for him to succeed as a coach.

"Our approach has been [before]: We're the Naval Academy, everybody has been bigger and stronger and faster than us," he said. "We've got to work our butts off to have a chance. And if we ever think differently, if we ever start coming out like we've arrived..."

Niumatalolo gestured sharply downward.

As to the greater question of what being in a conference will do to Navy's place on the college football landscape, Niumatalolo has clearly spent some time thinking about that too.

"I think the one thing about playing different schools [as an independent] is people don't really get too familiar with us," he said. "When you play in a conference, people are going to play you year in and year out."

Niumatalolo acknowledged that "we're going to have our hands full" in the AAC with teams such as Central Florida and Houston.

"We try to play off the intangibles of toughness and discipline, but it's going to be hard in that league," he said. "It would be hard in a higher league, but it's going to be hard in that league."

Gladchuk is convinced Navy can win in the AAC. Indeed, he said, the Midshipmen can "be a champion" in the league - and the fracturing of the old Big East is a major reason why.

"We're going to have our work cut out for us, no question, and there's no predictions on my end," Gladchuk said. "But it won't be quite as hard a landing, playing against teams we would have played as an independent, as it would have been had the Big East stayed intact."

Gladchuk clearly does not need any advice on the project he is overseeing. But just in case he does, he can look at the histories of Navy's service academy brethren, Air Force and Army.

Air Force was an independent from the football team's founding in 1956 until 1980, when it joined the Western Athletic Conference. The Falcons left the WAC to become a charter member of the Mountain West conference in 1999, and have been there ever since.

Army has been an independent for almost all of its history. The Black Knights joined Conference USA in 1998, when it was similar to what the AAC is now. But they returned to independence again in 2004, in part because of a lack of success on the field. Army never won more than three games in a season while in the league.

Army athletic director Boo Corrigan wasn't at West Point in the Conference USA era. He came to the program in 2011. But before doing so, he worked at Navy and Duke. So he understands the issues facing the Midshipmen.

"I don't have any advice for them," Corrigan said. "They have done a great job scheduling football games and doing what they do, and they are doing what's in the best interest of the United States Naval Academy - just as we're doing what's in the interest of the United States Military Academy."

Corrigan is comfortable not just with being an independent, but also with playing at a Division I level that's below the nation's elite.

"When you look at the physicality that some of those teams offer, it's awful tough for us, week over week - with our training regimen, with our sleep regimen, with our class schedule, with everything that we have - to physically be able to be at our peak," he said. "Would we love to have the resources of $20 million and a TV contract? A hundred percent. But I don't know that the $20 million is going to enable us to do anything within the structure of the institution to become more competitive."

Gladchuk was asked whether Navy can learn anything from Army's experience in Conference USA. He said the college sports landscape back then was "a different planet."

He didn't mean it derisively, just as a statement of fact.

"They weren't even close to the configuration [of the AAC now] with regard to revenue distributions, scheduling requirements, bowl opportunities," Gladchuk said. "There's really no point of comparison in my mind at all."

Gladchuk and Corrigan both said separately that they do not see a day coming when it would become a problem to play football in one conference and non-revenue sports in another conference.

Navy, Gladchuk said, made sure it was written into their contract with the then-Big East that they would never be required to join the conference for other sports. Any such move would have to be the Academy's decision.

"We feel like we're in a pretty safe harbor right now," he added. "That's not a issue that I'll have to deal with in my tenure, nor should the next athletic director as well."

Navy's non-revenue sports, Gladchuk said, "philosophically seem to be very much in line with what the Patriot League represents, and that's the home they should stay in."

Corrigan noted that not offering athletic scholarships is another key factor in how the academies see themselves. In addition to being a matter of principle, it helps keep budgets in line.

"We're able to concentrate on operations and salaries and those types of things, versus having to worry about paying a scholarship bill," Corrigan said.

Corrigan called the Patriot League "a great place for us to be" for Army's non-revenue sports, "with like-minded institutions." But he acknowledged that even at the service academy level, football "drives the boat."

"Absolutely it does," he said. "Does Army-Navy help? Absolutely it does. But that's no different than any other Olympic sports at any other school in the country."

Gladchuk has worked hard to get Navy into a financially healthy place as an independent. Now, he said, joining the AAC will serve as the icing on the cake. It's a different situation from schools who look to join a bigger conference as a way of building a foundation.

"We've put together a business model over the last 10 years that has gotten us very close to being a fiscally self-sustaining operation for 33 varsity sports," he said. "Ninety-four percent of our entire budget for the 33 varsity supports is generated externally. That extra six percent that represents some government support will be something we are looking to eliminate, and [joining] the conference should be able to do that."

In the end, Gladchuk said he has no doubt that Navy is making the right decision for its present and future.

"We've weighed the independence against the conference affiliation over the last couple of years, and there's just no question in our minds," he said. "Looking forward, either you're in or your out, and we'd prefer to be in with a group of schools that not only we can compete with, but we respect as well."