Navy athletic director Chet Gladchuk has worked at schools in big conferences, such as Syracuse, and has spent the past decade helping bring the football program in Annapolis back to national prominence as one of the few independents remaining in the country.
As much as Gladchuk sees "a lot of panic, a lot of shuffling and a lot of speculation" among conferences such as the Big East, he says that Navy is in a "safe harbor" when it comes to television deals and bowl contracts as well as scheduling big-name opponents for the next eight years.
But in an interview Thursday, Gladchuk said he can see the day when the Midshipmen set sail for a new destination — the Big East.
Though Gladchuk said that Navy hasn't been offered a spot to replace either Syracuse or Pittsburgh, the schools that announced Sunday they were leaving the Big East for the Atlantic Coast Conference, the likelihood seems strong that one will be tendered in the near future.
"We've had very legitimate discussions with the Big East regarding the possibility of membership," Gladchuk said.
Big East commissioner John Marinatto declined to comment, but the Associated Press has reported that Navy and Air Force are the top choices to join the league, according to a source with knowledge of the discussions.
"My concern is not about today or tomorrow or the next five, six, seven years, my concern is where do we need to be, where can we be, eight or nine years down the road," Gladchuk said. "If this evolves into a situation that would potentially exclude Navy, then that's a concern of mine. We don't want this program ever to become irrelevant. We have every intention to play at the highest level and to be well-respected nationally."
Gladchuk said that the Big East and other conferences have reached out to Navy before the last few months, when leagues such as the Pac-10 and Big Ten have expanded to 12 teams and when leagues such as the Southeastern Conference flirted with becoming a 16-team superpower.
Those conversations with the Big East started again late last week, when word got out that Syracuse and Pittsburgh were leaving.
"The Big East got blindsided a few days ago, and the Big East's mission today is to recalibrate what they are, who's committed, who's in, who's going to be a part of the Big East over the long haul," Gladchuk said. "Once they get their infrastructure in place, they'll be looking for members. I think we're in a pretty strong position based on what we have in place to be patient to make certain the Big East is a possibility and is practical for Navy, so we would be getting involved with a group that is committed to what the Big East needs to be."
Gladchuk said that giving up status as an independent might not be as easy as moving from one league to another.
"When you've been an independent for 10 years, there are some square pegs and round holes and vice versa," said Gladchuk, who came to Navy, which has always held independent status, during the 2001 season. "The good news is that we have a very firm foundation in place. There's no crisis management here right now."
Gladchuk said that he won't predict where Navy will be in a few years.
"That's like asking, 'Is Connecticut going to be in the Big East tomorrow? Who knows?,' " he said. "We've enjoyed independence. It's been wonderful. We're holding our own in Division I football. But down the road, I really believe that the future is most likely about conference affiliation. The strength is in numbers. When Walmart moves into the neighborhood, it shuts down a lot of the smaller stores. They just can't compete. The same thing happens with conferences, they can absolutely control all the TV, all the bowls, the road to the BCS and the schedules. We can easily get shut out."
That thought hasn't eluded Navy's coach.
"Obviously we've got our biggest game of the year, so we can't lose focus on that," said Ken Niumatalolo, whose 2-1 Midshipmen are getting ready for their Oct. 1 meeting with Air Force in Annapolis. "But we"ve got our eye on what's out there."
Niumatalolo said that even with the relative stability of the Navy program, there's almost a false sense of security.
"We're in a house eating and we've got to feed our kids right now but there's a fire outside the house that's about to burn it down, so we've got to take care of both," he said.
Big East to lose UConn?
The subject of Connecticut joining the Atlantic Coast Conference was raised in meetings with representatives of ACC schools prior to last Sunday's announcement that Pittsburgh and Syracuse were joining, according to an official of one of the member schools.
The official said there is a faction that favors adding Connecticut and Rutgers because they would further enhance the ACC's presence in the New York City area and the East Coast generally. But the representative, who declined to be named because the issue remains unsettled, said there was some preliminary opposition to Connecticut among a few unnamed members and that UConn's entry was not a slam dunk. He said no decision was imminent.
One member school, Florida State, has indicated its interest in making sure whatever conference it is in — including a revamped ACC — has a high enough football profile. Florida State has formed a committee to examine its options.