Friday, January 27, 2006

Go Army! Beat Someone!

From time to time on this blog, I address a situation in sports that I would like to see changed. I guess that’s the aspect of the blog that I like the most. I can take my frustrations, put them into cyberspace and then pretend that all of the important people that have a say in the injustice will eventually come upon my thoughts and right the wrongs. That was the case for my post on the need for a college football playoff and the need for the Pistons get rid of Larry Brown just to name a few. Although, I’m pretty certain nobody within an earshot of anyone important (other than my faithful readers of course) read those posts. I can still hope I guess. This post will be along the same lines. I’ll be pointing out something that I think is haywire and then proposing an idea that would easily fix the problem. As I mentioned above, these are definitely the posts I enjoy the most.

For the longest time, Army and Navy were two of the premier college football programs in the country. They have three National Championships and five Heisman Trophy winners between them. Despite those tangible numbers, the Army and Navy football programs today have more in common with the lost city of Atlantis than they do with the rich history that used to define these programs. Army has been to one bowl game since 1989. Before Paul Johnson arrived at Annapolis in 2002, Navy had been to one bowl game since 1982. Johnson has since righted the Navy ship somewhat but don’t let Johnson’s record fool you. Navy’s program succeeds today because Navy is an independent which gives them the power to schedule the worst teams in college football. Army left Conference USA for the same reason after the 2004 season. The Army athletic department realized that the Black Knights could not consistently win by playing the best teams that a conference has to offer even if that conference was the lowly Conference USA. So, Army followed Navy’s model of success and moved into a position where it could schedule the worst teams in college football. Sadly, that is the only way these once great programs can even remotely taste success in college football today.

For those of you that are unfamiliar with the success and subsequent drop-off of the Army and Navy football programs, here is a brief comparison of then and now:

----------Year------Record----Winning %-------
Army 1890-1973 489-208-45 (70%) 3 National Titles; 3 Heisman Winners
Army 1974-2004 135-207-6 (40%) 0 National Titles; 0 Heisman Winners

Navy 1879-1964 428-252-52 (64%) 2 Heisman Winners
Navy 1965-2004 172-266-5 (39%) 0 Heisman Winners

If we could somehow get a hold of Marty McFly’s De Lorean and go back to the beginning, we may have been able to predict Army and Navy’s colossal decline from the college football elite. My grandpa went to Iowa Pre-Flight back when that school was a national football power. As a kid, I remember looking in the record books and wondering what the heck Iowa Pre-Flight was. It sounded like a made up school to me. My grandpa assured me that Iowa Pre-Flight was real and the football team was a force to be reckoned with. He qualified that statement by giving me a little background into the college football landscape at the time. Since the country was engaged in a number of military conflicts in the first half of the 20th century, the academies were often seeing potential students going off to war that had initially shown interest in attending the academies. After a number of years in the war, these veterans would then come back to the schools and enroll as they had previously intended on doing a number of years before. As a result, many of the athletes at the academies were significantly older than the athletes at other schools. The difference between a 27 year old and an 18 year old in football can clearly be seen by taking a quick look at the NFL. 18, 19, and 20 year olds are nowhere to be found in the NFL because they are not physically mature enough to compete with the average 27 year old. Army, Navy, and Iowa Pre-Flight had that advantage back in the early days of college football.

As the US’s involvement in large military affairs died down a bit and the manner in which people signed up and served in the military changed a bit, the advantage of having an older, more mature athlete went away. The academies were then forced to compete against the other schools with athletes that were the same age. At the same time, the “dream” of playing in the NFL became realistic for many of the top college football players. Since the academies required their students to serve in the military for a number of years, the “dream” of playing in the NFL was not compatible with the academies. That brings us to the current state of the academies in the college football world. The same effects occurred with other academy sports like basketball.

Army, Navy, and Air Force have virtually no chance of recruiting any players that are good enough to play in the NFL or NBA. Since the top 500 high school football players all have a decent or realistic shot at playing in the NFL, the academies don’t even get a sniff from those players. As if that weren’t difficult enough, the academies have stringent academic standards that deplete the potential talent pool down even further. The resulting affect is that the academies have to run “gimmick” offenses just to lose gracefully against most D-1 schools. The biggest discrepancies between the academy football teams and other D-1 football teams are the size differentials on the offensive and defensive lines and the speed differential at the skill positions. Every once a while, these schools will find a gem under a rock as was the case with David Robinson and Napoleon McCallum at Navy. Any athlete that desires to play professionally in the NFL or NBA has to fulfill their military obligation before they can move on. The Navy let David Robinson out of his five year military commitment two years early so he could enter the NBA. Robinson’s case was unique though. At 7’1, Robinson’s height made it difficult for him to do much of anything in a naval capacity. McCallum’s path was more indicative of what a current academy athlete would have to follow. He graduated from the Naval Academy in 1986. He then spent five years in the Navy before being able to continue on with his football career for the Raiders in 1991. So, even the most highly touted college football prospect that an academy has seen in recent memory had to wait five years before playing professionally. That is a deal-breaker for virtually any highly-skilled football or basketball recruit.

The good news and the aspect that I have the biggest qualm with is the fact that the academies can fix all of this. There is no question that a college football program is just a small sub-group of a University. However, the amount of positive exposure that a football or basketball program can give a University is unquantifiable not to mention the potential monetary benefits that go along with that exposure. I can vouch for this personally. When I was seven years old, I became a big Michigan fan. By the time I was 18, I had seen so many Michigan football games and worn so many Michigan sweatshirts that I might as well have sent in my application at eight years old. I applied to one college out of high school and it was probably never going to be any different. The academies are missing out on that kind of exposure. I wanted to go to Michigan because I had developed an affiliation before I ever became a rational thinker. Nobody develops that kind of relationship with the academies in this day and age. The academies look to find the best and brightest minds that America has to offer. That pool of bright minds could increase exponentially if younger kids could develop an affinity for the academies. The only way that affinity would be available to young sports fans is if the academies became consistent winning programs. I’m not talking about beating up on the worst teams that D-1 has to offer. I’m talking about competing for National Championships and sending players to the pros.

The only way the academies could contend on a national level in college football is to do away with the locked in five-year commitment ONLY for players that are offered a contract in the NBA or NFL. The amount of positive exposure that a top 50 high school athlete could give to West Point or Annapolis as a viable option for America’s youth is considerably more productive than the amount of physical labor that same athlete could do serving in the military. The academies need to be resourceful. They need to understand the best way to use their athletic programs. There would have to be some thought put into waiving the commitments. The academies wouldn’t even necessarily have to waive the five-year commitment. They could move the exempted athlete to the reserves to serve the remainder of the commitment. The academies are smart. They could come up with a fair system. The waiver would probably have to be limited to football and basketball simply because those are the only two sports that have a). the national exposure that could benefit the academies to a degree in which adding the exemption would be worthwhile to the cause of the academy and b). the professional options that could trump what the graduate would have available as an officer. The academies wouldn’t have to change their acceptance standards. Notre Dame is a perfect example of a school that can recruit nationally without compromising the academic requirements of attending that school.

Navy and Army still command respect among college football fans even if it’s just from their once proud histories. My guess is that if the academy leadership amended the commitments for athletes that could move on to the pros, made that amendment public, and then hired a big-time football coach; these academies would be National Championship contenders within five years. The same success could be reached by the basketball programs as well. In fact, the parity in college basketball today would make it much easier for the academy basketball programs to compete. Once upon a time, Bobby Knight and Coach K were on the same coaching staff at West Point. That history, along with the rich football history at West Point, should be celebrated and honored. Those histories could be used as springboards for future success. Instead, people say, “really?” with a confused look on their faces when they find out that Army actually won National Championships or that Army had a coaching staff that featured two of the great college basketball coaches of all-time. Notre Dame certainly hasn’t compromised its legacy by being competitive in football and basketball. Notre Dame embraces its history and uses it as a recruiting tool for its overall student population. Army and Navy should be no different. Do you really think a Notre Dame graduate looks down on his/her degree because the football team is winning and sending superior athletes to the NFL? Next time you run into a Notre Dame alum, they can answer that question for you.

I want to make something clear before I say anything else. For many high school athletes today, being an officer in the military is an excellent fallback option if a professional sports career is not attainable. If a high school player signs up at West Point, completes his four years of football, and finds out that the NFL is not interested for one reason or another, that player could hardly find a better job that combines a fair wage and a resume enhancing job experience than as an officer in the military. My suggestion is not to let all academy athletes out of their commitments. That would be unfair to the non-athletes at these schools. My suggestion is to market the academy sports programs to the best athletes in America by giving them an unbeatable 1-2 option. Once you graduate, if you are good enough to play professionally in the NFL or NBA, you will be permitted to move on and fine tune your craft at the professional level. If you don’t have professional options, you will take one of the most honorable jobs available combined with a more than fair salary. That has to be so much more marketable to elite college athletes than, “if you are good enough to play in the NFL, too bad, you’ll have to wait five years while having virtually no exposure to the rigors of your sport before you can give it a try.”

I realize that the argument that an Academy graduate would make against exempting athletes with a realistic professional career is that it would somehow take away from the greatness of the academies. It would somehow damage the integrity of the academy and consequently cheapen the experience and the degree to have some graduates rewarded with an exemption. While I can understand academy graduates not wanting to look worse, I highly doubt that would be the case at all. On any given roster of a top 25 college football team, there are at most 25 players that will get a contract in the NFL. That would be the case for the top schools like USC or Miami (FL). The number would probably be less for the academies even if they returned to prominence. So, we’re talking about exemptions for 1/6 of the football team at the most. Every other member of the team would have to honor their five year commitment. That would mean close to 15 exemptions for the entire team and maybe three or four per year. In any given year, there are roughly 1,000 graduates from each academy. That would mean that only .4% of the graduates would get an exemption. The number could rise slightly if there are players that could garner a professional contract in basketball. A degree or experience gets cheapened if that degree no longer has the same value in the real world. If every member of the academy is either honoring their commitment to the military or playing in the NFL or NBA (which is the only way they would get the exemption), then I don’t see how that cheapens the academy education or experience. In order to make in the NFL, athletes have to be the best of the best in terms of dedication and commitment. Only the hardest working athletes get a chance to play professionally. That sounds like something that the academies could be proud of. It’s not like the athletes will be getting “off” or “out of their” commitments in the normal sense. I know from first hand experiences that, on average, athletes in the NFL have to work longer and harder than the average military officer from an academy. That’s not a knock on the officers or the academies. That just shows how hard a professional athlete has to work to make it.

The bigger benefit of revitalizing the academy football programs would be the effects this would have on the army and navy as a whole. Academy graduates make up an infinitesimally small amount of the overall force. Yet, West Point, Navy, and Air Force represent each member of their respective forces. When Army does well in football, an army sergeant in Iraq can stick his/her chest out a little farther. Over the last thirty years, the academy football programs have done very little in facilitating pride in the services. The Sgt. Slaughters of the world have no idea what it’s like to see the academy representing his/her specific service accomplish great things in sports. I’m not trying to say that sports are the end all. But, don’t discount the positive effects it has as well. The sports world helped many Americans get back to their everyday lives after 9-11. The same distraction from the everyday grind could be given to hundreds of thousands of service members across the world. Sports gives people something to believe in. I take pride in the accomplishments of my alma mater just as a simple fan. One could only imagine the pride that a service member could have in watching the Army or Navy dominate in an athletic venue. I wouldn’t be surprised if academy graduates were against exemptions for professional athletes but I think it would be somewhat single-minded to do so. There are hundreds of thousands of service members, and millions of sports fans that could experience remarkable highs from watching the academies compete with the best the college sporting world has to offer as they once did. All this could be achieved for exempting as little as three or four graduates per year. That seems like an awfully small price to pay for the potential benefits.

A sports program at a collegiate institution is a recruiting tool for the overall University. It’s a method of exposing your institution to the masses. The University of Michigan doesn’t exist because of football. It doesn’t exist to produce volleyball players or baseball players. Michigan exists for the primary purpose of educating people. Likewise, the academies don’t exist for football. However, Michigan uses its football program to shed the University in an extremely positive light (for the most part anyways). The academies would get the same benefit. A good program will shed your institution in a positive light. A bad program will do nothing for you efforts. It’s a tool. The academies should do everything in their power to use it. The unintended benefits would be the revitalization of a group of football programs that used to run the college football world. The intended benefits would be a much larger pool of highly-qualified potential officers to choose from as well as a morale boost for countless service members. It’s a no-lose situation for everyone involved.


Anonymous said...

I agree with you in principle. However, I don't think exemption is a fair approach. Once we start exempting people for their atheletic ability, then how about intellectural ability, or entertainment ability?

I think an approach along the line of delayed enrollment is probably more appropriate. Once you graduate, if you are good enough to play in NFL or NBA, you have a choice to enroll in the military within the next, say, 20 years. The average career for an NFL QB is probably only 5-10 years? Players in NBA probably has longer career life. The whole idea is that you still satisfy the military requirement, but you don't have to do it during the period when you are best suited for the sport.

Jake said...

You're definitely on to something as far as being "fair". The only issue I have with that is that if you put in as a requirement that an NBA or NFL player would have to eventually serve the five year committment, then that probably won't do anything to attract better athletes with would make it irrelevant. The basis for my post was to increase the competiveness of the programs by giving star athletes a reason to come. My guess is that delaying the committment wouldn't bring any better players than they already have. I see the problem that would inevitably arise from giving exemptions to only two sports. However, if that's a problem, then Army and Navy would be better off dropping to D-2 where they could compete for National titles. There's nothing glorious about getting pounded on an unequal playing field which is what happens every week the way things are now.

My guess is that making the committment either a National Guard or Reserves committment may bring a slightly better crop of athletes but there's really no wa of knowing.

It's a sticky situation either way.

Take care,



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