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Should Army Join A Football Conference?

  • Justin Melo
  • December 8, 2022
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The Army Black Knights are one of the United States Military Academy’s oldest football institutions. Army’s storied history ties directly into their independence. They remain one of seven FBS schools whose football squad doesn’t belong to a conference. The others are Notre Dame, BYU, Liberty, New Mexico State, UConn, and UMass. Army athletic director Mike Buddie is constantly evaluating Army’s placement as an independent football team, however. 

“The realignment certainly gets your attention,” Buddie recently said. “We weigh that option every year. We value our independence so much, it just hasn’t made sense for us up to this point. But the shifting tides of conference realignment, expanded college football playoff, all those things could play a factor in re-evaluating.”

Something about Army joining a conference feels downright wrong. They should stay the course as an independent.

Sure, joining a conference would offer some additional financial support and stability. Billion-dollar media rights and television deals for the nation’s dominant conferences have become the norm, and the figures for said deals will continue increasing amid conference realignment. Financial growth would naturally follow Army to a conference.

It’s still nearly impossible to envision Army taking full advantage of those potential opportunities. The introduction of NIL has further shrunken the playing field. Top prospects are earning millions of dollars to attend powerhouse programs. Army is currently banned from offering endorsement deals, but joining a conference won’t make them an instant contender for five-star prospects that are signing six-figure deals nonetheless. Little would change in the recruitment department.

There’s another cautionary tale at play. Army shed its independence in 1998, spending seven seasons (2004) as a member of Conference USA. They captured just 13 victories throughout that time period, or 1.8 victories per campaign. They quickly learned they lacked the resources necessary to compete within the structure of a conference despite the benefits involved, even one as mildly competitive as the C-USA (sorry, but it’s not exactly the SEC). Rehashing old occurrences may be welcomed by similar results.

The landscape of college football has shifted considerably since, but it remains difficult to envision Army benefiting from constant change. Realignment will eventually shift power to even fewer conferences with the balance of competition heavily favoring the nation’s leading conferences. The Pac-12 and Big 12 will continue to suffer. Where exactly does Army fit into all this? They don’t.

Call me a traditionalist, but there’s something special and unique about Army’s independence. Tradition is what makes the annual Army-Navy showdown must-watch television. The latest iteration will occur on Saturday and several high-profile celebrities are expected to be in attendance because that game still means something. Tradition means something. The Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy, which Air Force also contends for, would lose some of its allure if Army joined a conference.

As with most standoffs involving billion-dollar decisions and elected directors, political aspects will play a role. The evidence overwhelmingly suggests Army shouldn’t join a conference. So does Army’s competitive history. Some things in football should never change, and Army’s independence tops the list.

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Justin Melo