After close to a century of sharing independent status, the football programs at West Point and the Naval Academy took divergent paths this year and the consequences will be weighed carefully following their season-ending 99th meeting in Philadelphia starting at noon tomorrow.
Army chose to join southern-based Conference USA, but Navy remains one of six independent Division I-A schools.
That select group could suffer a major blow if Notre Dame, as rumored, chooses to join the Big Ten. The Fighting Irish can afford to ponder the move since they enjoy an exclusive, five-year, $45 million television contract with NBC.
With conference ties guaranteeing extra revenue and automatic postseason bowl bids, there is added pressure on the Navy brass to seek an alliance in which the competition would not prove overwhelming.
As things now stand, even in a winning season, Navy's bowl options are severely limited.
"We look at different conferences every year," said Navy athletic director Jack Lengyel. "It's a process we've been doing for the past decade.
"Certainly, we're keeping an eye on what Notre Dame does. I think that could have a domino effect on a number of conferences and cause another major shuffle."
Lengyel noted how the unwieldy, 16-team Western Athletic Conference recently broke in half into regions that made competition more cost effective and geographically attractive.
He also believes that the Atlantic Coast Conference could be looking to add Miami, Boston College and Syracuse to form a super-conference and attract a contract from a major network.
More important, Lengyel envisions an end to the current system of using inexact polls to determine national rankings and seedings in the Bowl Championship Series, which is worth an estimated $11 million to $12 million a team.
"I do believe in a few years that we'll have national playoffs like college basketball to decide who is the No. 1 college football team," he said.
Lengyel, of course, does not have the power to decide if Navy will end its independent status. Recommendations are made each spring by the Naval Academy Athletic Board of Control.
But the ultimate decision rests with the academy superintendent. Vice Admiral John Ryan is in his first year in that capacity.
If Navy coach Charlie Weatherbie had a vote, he has made it clear he would opt to join a conference.
"It gives you a chance to play for something other than competing with Army and Air Force for the Commander in Chief's Trophy," said Weatherbie, who saw his team's record drop to 3-7 this year following consecutive winning seasons.
"Having the opportunity to play for a conference championship and an automatic bowl bid definitely helps in recruiting.
"If we weren't a national team, I think the decision to join a conference would be a lot easier."
Al Vanderbush, serving his final year as Army's athletic director, is certain his school made the right decision, despite finishing 2-4 in its first year of competing in Conference USA.
"We were getting criticism for playing a couple of Division I-AA schools, and other schools were using it to recruit against us," Vanderbush told the New York Times.
"This makes us more competitive. When we made the decision, we got hundreds of responses, and 85 percent were favorable."
There were also the financial inducements, with Army reaping $300,000 from conference participation.
Tulane, the unbeaten conference champion, will earn over $1 million participating in the Liberty Bowl. Southern Mississippi will play in the Humanitarian Bowl, and Louisville will participate in the Motor City Bowl.
There is also an outside chance that 6-5 East Carolina could play in the Aloha or Las Vegas bowls.
Army coach Bob Sutton strongly favors the new conference alliance.
"It gives added significance to every game on our schedule," he said.
"The players enjoy the better competition, and also have the added incentive of earning all-conference honors. Plus, we got to play on TV seven times this year.
"Personally," Sutton added, "it's great for recruiting. We've always recruited heavily in the Texas area, and now we're playing schools from there and in areas close by. It's got to help in the long run."
The Cadets seem to have enjoyed the new challenge despite little success.
"Teams always think Army teams are slower and weaker," said senior halfback Bobby Williams. "So every week it's like a David and Goliath matchup for us. I love that. Everybody on this team loves that competition."
Next for Navy
Site: Veterans Stadium, Philadelphia
When: Tomorrow, noon
TV/Radio: Chs. 13, 9/WNAV (1430 AM)
Line: Army by 6
Pub Date: 12/04/98