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Why Army has struggled when Navy and Air Force have flourished (Part 1)

The United States Military Academy has been one of the worst football programs for nearly 20 years. Meanwhile their rivals in Annapolis and Colorado Springs not only continue to churn out good football teams, but seem to get better with every new class. Why has Army floundered while the other service academies have flourished?

Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports

The Black Knights of Army football have had it pretty rough over the last two decades. They've been a perennial punching bag while their rivals at Navy and Air Force have consistent football programs.

How did this all happen? Why has Army hit rock bottom while the other two service academies continue their proverbial golden ages?

In this four-part series, many aspects of the United States Military Academy and its football program will be examined as to why the Cadets have failed to match the successes of their service academy brethren.


The year is 1996. Army has a five-year winning streak over Navy, they've captured their first Commander-in-Chief's Trophy since 1988, and gave the Auburn University Tigers the fight of their lives in the Independence Bowl. After falling behind from a 32-7 deficit, Army narrowed the gap to 32-29. However, they lost out on tying the game when kicker Jay Parker a missed 27-yard field goal in the waning seconds.

Since then, Army football has never been the same.

After going 10-2, only suffering losses to Auburn and a Donovan McNabb-led Syracuse University Orangemen team, the Black Knights struggled to find an identity. Their rivals to the south, the Navy Midshipmen also hit a rough patch after their 7-4 campaign in 1997.

Both schools faced dark periods in the late 90s and early 2000s. The football programs hit rock bottom in 2000 as both teams entered their rivalry game with a combined 1-19 record. Navy wouldn't win a game in 2001 and Army went winless in 2003.

Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq made it uneasy times for both academies, but in the wake of the uncertainty Navy rebuilt their football program by hiring Paul Johnson. Since his hiring, the Midshipmen have had only two seasons of below .500 football.

The same cannot be said for the Black Knights of the Hudson. Army has managed one winning season since 1996 and it came as a result of a bowl victory over SMU after a 6-6 regular season.

Could it be that Army just missed the boat on a great option coach? Why has the program struggled to even stay a few strides behind their service academy brethren? Let's take a deeper look.

Aftermath of the 1996 Season

The 1996 season made Army a noteworthy candidate to some conferences. Rather than build upon the 10-2 campaign and make a more consistent independent program, which Army had not done since the days of Jim Young in the 80s, West Point jumped into bed with the first conference that talked to them. Army and the Big East had flirted some, but ultimately the academy moved to Conference USA even after a 4-7 1997 season.

The upper brass knew the importance of TV exposure and automatic bowl bids. Army needed some more to aid in recruiting. The move was praised initially.

But the shift would be disastrous for then-athletic director Al Vanderbush, who said the change would make the program more competitive. Instead, Army served as the C-USA punching bag as they never won more than three games as a conference member.

West Point commissioned a panel to evaluate the football program, among the members were Bill Parcells and former Nebraska head coach Tom Osbourne. The panel decided leaving C-USA was best for the program and the team declared independent status for after the 2004 season.

One important recommendation that the academy did not utilize was changing the athletic department from a government funded entity to a 501(c)3 non-profit organization. Navy's athletic department is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization and as such were able to drop $64 million into Navy-Marine Corp Memorial Stadium renovations.

This is an important change because it makes Army dependent on government funds to travel, improve training or playing facilities, and pay coaches.

Think about that for a second, how much money can Army throw out at their head coaches if they're bound to a government mandated sum? Navy doesn't have to worry about that. The Midshipmen can keep Ken Niumatalolo happy in terms of money for as long as he wants to coach in Annapolis.

Air Force is also reliant on government funds, which endangered their contest against Navy during the government shutdown in 2013. But that hasn't been a problem for the Falcons because they have had consistent coaching since the mid 1980s.

For a team like Army, who is at a loss for finding head coaches, the inability to spend more money on a coach could be a significant issue in reviving the program.

Simply put, Army can't afford immediate program changers unless they are currently under the radar. So they have to hire coaches who aren't big names or someone they hope can rebuild the program. Trouble is, it hasn't worked out that way for Army.