Then, on the heels of an answer to a question about whether Army would have an advantage Saturday because it had a bye last weekend, Calhoun slid in this juicy tidbit:
“I think there’s some advantages to being independent, now. I mean really,” he said. “You look at it for a service academy, one, you have complete command of your schedule. Your byes. Now all of a sudden you can go out, and it’s something we probably need to look at big-picture wise for our school, being able to go out and secure bowl berths before a season even starts. That’s something Army did last year with the Poinsettia Bowl. Now they didn’t get to the mark, but it’s something we have done here at the academy. We played in some Liberty Bowls when we were still involved in a conference. And yet those things were done up front.”
Wow. Did he say what we thought he said?
After some questions about captains and food poisoning, the conversation was steered back toward independence.
“I’ll say this big picture – here’s something that I do think you have to be able to do. I think service academies are a little bit unique. And when it comes to vision for our football program, when it comes to scheduling, when it comes to securing bowl berths prior to a season, when it comes to being able to pinpoint byes at certain places throughout the year – if you want them, now you may not want them some years, depending on the makeup of your squad. When it comes to being able to put games in place for the long haul. We had some pretty good years where we weren’t affiliated with a conference. Now do I love being in a league? Absolutely. Unequivocally. We’re fortunate because you look at the Mountain West Conference, you get to play against some very talented football teams that are extremely well-coached. And that means something to you. … But I think it’s something that we’ve got to take a look at.”
Now, according to the Mountain West Conference office, leaving the league is “an institutional decision.” Air Force isn’t locked into the league for a five- or 10-year contract. The academy would just have to give enough notice to allow the conference to adjust (in other words, it couldn’t get out by next fall. By the next year, yes).
But shortly after Calhoun’s press conference, Air Force athletic director Hans Mueh made it clear the academy has no intention of leaving the Mountain West. He praised the conference, its commissioner, Craig Thompson, and said Air Force has had “a great, great association” with the league.
My take? I think Calhoun probably doesn’t want to leave the league (at least not yet), but he does see some obvious benefits to becoming an independent – not the least of which, as he mentioned, are having more control over the schedule and being able to arrange tie-ins to bowls.
Air Force’s annual games with Navy (always in late September) and Army (always in early November) often make for quirky schedules – last year having two byes in the first three weeks and this year having no byes. And, as Mueh pointed out, Calhoun might be getting concerned that this year’s team – even with a strong finish to the season – could miss out on a bowl game because Air Force has the reputation of not “traveling” well to away games.
But does independence make sense? Army and Navy are independent in football, as is Notre Dame. I guess there are some pros and cons. Air Force, technically, could schedule anyone it wanted. And, ostensibly, the Falcons could try to continue longtime rivalries with teams like BYU and Colorado State. Plus, some of the other academy teams that have struggled in recent years while playing in the Mountain West – baseball comes to mind – definitely could benefit.
Still, scheduling for football and basketball would be far harder than it is now. Mueh even said going independent is “a roll of the dice.”
I think what Calhoun would love to see is Air Force stay in the conference yet get some sort of additional bowl tie-in similar to what Navy has this year with the Poinsettia Bowl (six wins and the Midshipmen are in) and to what the three service academies had with the Liberty Bowl nearly 20 years ago (an outright Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy winner that is bowl eligible gets an automatic bid). That’s something Mueh said he thought was a good idea, as long as the conference was in favor of it. Conference representative Javan Hedlund said the league always is looking for ways to get its teams to bowls, but that Air Force would have to talk to Thompson about such an arrangement.
“You think of those years we went to the Independence Bowl in ‘83 and ‘84, those were done in advance,” Calhoun said. “The Liberty Bowl, in 1989, ‘90, ‘91, ‘92. Now are there a couple of bases in – I can start naming cities in this country where Air Force personnel are located in the area that I think would be attractive.”
If nothing else, it’s makes for interesting debate. So I’ll open the floor and ask what others think. Should Air Force declare independence?