A lot of different factors have been weighed as to why Army football has been so terrible in the last two decades. Many of the previous factors have come from outside the scope of football.
This last factor ties directly to the game itself. The higher-ups at West Point have been considering the notion of becoming a FCS football program for years now. But the idea has never had much weight. Navy and Air Force have thrived at the FBS level. So why can't Army?
Perhaps it is simply a problem of not allowing the program to build any confidence or momentum. When you constantly schedule superior programs, losing is inevitable. But is there a blueprint to follow that can help the Black Knights? Yes, there is. And it was utilized by someone who revived their bitter rivals.
One thing Paul Johnson did while he was at Navy is provide a clear scheduling plan for a rebuilding program.
The idea is to split the schedule into three categories: games that you're favored in, bubbles games that could go either way, and games that the opposing team is favored.
After 2002, Navy began replacing tougher opponents on their schedule with more teams on the Midshipmen's level. Boston College, Northwestern, and Duke were replaced with Eastern Michigan, Central Michigan, and bringing on multiple FCS teams. Those changes resulted in more wins in 2003 for Navy.
This scheduling helped give the program some confidence. The very next year (2004) saw the Middies win 10 games while turning usual losses to Air Force, Rutgers, and Rice into victories.
Navy would then even the schedule out among the three categories thus giving Navy a straight path to bowl eligibility while still challenging the program. This type of scheduling allowed Navy to become a "Power Five" beater posting one of the best victory totals against BCS schools.
It was tough for Army to follow that plan while serving as a member of Conference USA. However, when the school left the conference, for whatever reason, it had some delusions of grandeur.
Army scheduled way too many BCS schools in 2005, some of which were ranked. A few is a good idea, but with Army football struggling one or two would suffice at testing the team's merit.
Not only that, but playing the bigger profile schools has been hazardous to the players' health. Some games have resulted in losing key talent that would have aided Army in games against teams more on par with the academy's level.
Army's only over .500 record came in a season when they played practically no one but Group-of-Five schools or lower echelon programs.
The 2010 season saw Army's biggest tests as Notre Dame, Air Force, Rutgers, and Navy. Which is the way the Black Knights should schedule their games. Their two toughest games are already built in with Air Force and Navy.
All West Point has to do is add a mid tier football program like Rutgers. Then add a team such as the Fighting Irish and fill out the rest with teams more on par or below Army's stature.
The problem is Army took the 7-6 campaign as too good of a sign and started scheduling more challenging schools too quickly again.
Army scheduled the best teams the MAC had to offer in Northern Illinois and Ball State, while bringing on San Diego State from the Mountain West. These teams easily dispatched the Cadets in the next few seasons.
Just like that, the Cadets were back to 2-10 by 2012 while losing to the supposed built-in wins Stony Brook (a FCS school), Eastern Michigan, and Kent State.
This is when Army should have hit the reset button on their schedule and added a second FCS team and gone back to a 2010-level schedule. They didn't.
West Point came to a two year agreement to play the newly revamped Stanford University program. To the Black Knights' credit, they hung on against the Cardinal but at the cost of a few key players which impacted the entire 2013 season.
Army finally caught on and scheduled two FCS teams last season (losing to Yale and beating Fordham) and scheduled some lighter teams like Buffalo and UCONN (UCONN was last on the Black Knights' schedule in 2006 as a Big East member).
West Point has to learn, just like Annapolis did, that while losing to FCS schools isn't ideal, it will happen. The point is to make a schedule that builds confidence within the program. Then add a little more and a little more after that until the program is legitimately competitive. Navy used this model during the Johnson era and Army needs to adhere to that plan.
Three key events have led to the United States Military Academy's downfall in football.
Joining Conference USA.
Hiring Todd Berry - and therefore not hiring Paul Johnson.
Remaining a government funded entity in lieu of becoming a nonprofit organization.
These events, and nonevents, put Army at a disadvantage in terms of scheduling, bringing the program up to speed with its most bitter rival while incidentally bringing about their resurgence, and forgoing any sort of realistic vision for the program.
Essentially, these three bullet points have resulted in Army becoming unable to overcome some of the lesser rationales (the Army Standard, Foreign Wars). They've kept Army from keeping abreast with Air Force and Navy, and perhaps surpassing Navy as the Midshipmen never would have hired Paul Johnson if Army had.
The listed issues have prevented Army from hiring more possibly more productive or stable coaches who could potentially fix the program. Instead, West Point had to search the bargain bid.
Some of which forced Army to have sporadic scheduling that have resulted in the program's inability to build any form of confidence and excitement from within.
And what do all of these events have in common? They're all athletic director decisions. Decisions that three different ADs made in very different times for the academy.
In essence, this is why Navy and Air Force have flourished during wartime while Army has floundered. Paul Johnson and Chet Gladchuk provided a vision that is still being continued by Ken Niumatalolo and the still present AD. Air Force has been a solid program since joining the Western Athletic Conference in 1980 and Fisher DeBerry was hired in 1984.
Both Navy and Air Force have leadership that has continued to follow a winning vision and adding more so the program doesn't become stagnant.
What Army has become is a result of being unable to create a vision and quickly becoming stagnant.
The West Point football program has lacked stability and any realistic plan for the future. Any step forward has immediately led to overreactions that would ruin any and all momentum the program was building.
Army's issues stem from poor fundamental leadership and decision-making from the very top of the athletic department.
This isn't a matter of just beating Navy or capturing the first Commander-in-Chief's Trophy since the 1996 season, which to Army fans seems like it happened in the 50s. It's about correcting core issues within the program that no amount of victories over Navy can correct.
It seems the school may be trapped by its own traditions, but those customs need not hold West Point back. They don't in Annapolis or Colorado Springs. Army just needs to think forward not backward.
Until they find someone who can think progressively, they'll continue to pile up losing seasons and question if Division I football is right for the program.
How can Army possibly move forward when it periodically questions if they're even good enough to compete in the FBS?
Army football can and will get better. It just needs a shift in the proper direction. One that doesn't question whether its standards and traditions are a detriment, but finds the perfect blend of forward thinking and tradition.
Army can resurrect its football program. Their rivals are proof that service academies can not only survive, but thrive.