Can Army Football Be A Wild Card Again?

Two of the most enjoyable reads this past fall were Mark Beech’s book on the last undefeated team at West Point and Joe Drape’s work on some of the recent squads. Both pointed to the personalities, the hard work, the dedication and the sacrifice that goes into being a student-athlete at West Point and the great value that those leaders have beyond the gridiron.

As conference leaders go through the latest shuffle, with more to come as the remaining members of the Big East look west to solidify their conference members for their TV deal, the question of what could The Black Knights of the Hudson bring to the table becomes an interesting one, and one that albeit a gamble, could make for an interesting wild card play down the road, especially if the other two service academies who have been successful in football, Navy and Air Force, decide to work together in the not too distant future.

Why would Army make sense? Here are a few reasons.

Geography. University of Central Florida head football coach George O’Leary recently pointed out the schools are more intriguing now because of location than success. The ability to have a school even on the outskirts of a major TV market becomes a pill, which is one of the key things that brought Rutgers to the Big 10.  If Rutgers were in Albany, no matter how successful, the Scarlet Knight would not be heading to their new partners. Army, 40 miles from Manhattan, is the only other BCS school in the New York market. Even better is that they can go into New York on a yearly basis and fill one of the larger stadia like few other schools. Army in Yankee Stadium is 40,000 easily. Met Life, same thing. They fit the demo of pulling in the market, especially if successful.

Funding.  While Universities public and private still need to look to local government for funding, the Academies have a built in funding system that covers their great infrastructure. No need to go to taxpayers even more locally to fund stadium upgrades or travel, the raising is already done.

National Footprint.  With the exception of Notre Dame and maybe now BYU, there are no more truly national schools that the Academies. They draw wherever they play, whomever they play. They will not shy from matchups and even on their worst years will still attract a casual fan.

Sponsors support. There are few Universities that draw national attention for brands when positioned correctly than the Academies. Why? Yes there is the association of supporting a cause larger than football. However there are also large government contractors from every field who will support their commercial efforts by putting brand value toward the Academies. If you put Army into the mix, you now have a major annual draw in the New York area to entertain and activate against, which is an intriguing advantage that Big 10 schools and brands will use to their advantage with Rutgers as well. Add in one of the most attractive settings in the country for college football every fall, in a state of the art facility, and you have an attractive package at West Point.

Leadership and Tradition: The matchups for the Commander In Chief Trophy every year remains a hidden gem for support in collegiate athletics. Brands are able to align themselves with the Academies as they compete head to head, and with those matchups come the ideal of fair play, longstanding traditions and sacrifice. The tradition can pay even bigger dividends for brands down the line, as military families are NASCAR-like in brand support as they advance through their careers. There is little doubt that the cradle of future leadership, along with a long line of tradition, still has its seat in the academies.

Now are there issues? Yes. Navy and Air Force have found ways to be successful in football in recent years by finding a caliber of athlete that is gifted and is intrigued by the sciences and the lure of air and sea that West Point may bot have. Their campuses year-round are among the most picturesque anywhere, in Annapolis and Colorado Springs respectively. West Point, although beautiful in the spring, summer and fall, can be bleak in the dead of winter, and the offer of sailing the sea or flying thought the air following a service commitment is probably more desirable that what West Point will offer a recruit. It is no less valuable, but it does change the pool just a bit.

Also the lack of football success in terms of wins and losses can have a desultory effect on a conference position overall, which can offset the ability to draw TV viewers and those in the stands. If coach Rich Ellerson can continue his work to turn around the program, the value rises. A win over Boston College this fall helps, but it does not help as much as avoiding losses to a school like Stony Brook.  So while Air Force and Navy (which still has a commitment to the Big East for 2015 in football) remain in the mix for big conference expansion, Army is still on the fringe. Could it change not just for football but for all sports? Hard to say, but an uptick to competitiveness makes the Black Knights very intriguing as an addition.

So as 2012 comes to a close can Army find its way into the mix, especially if the other two academies align? Would conference talk help raise the Army football profile? Maybe. However for the right reasons…location, tradition, brand draw, passion…a successful Army football program would raise the profile of any conference, especially as the mixing continues into early 2013. West Point is not that far from Madison Avenue after all.