The expansion of the Atlantic Coast Conference has sparked a chain reaction that could lead Navy to join one of three football leagues, although the academy appears in no rush to abandon its position as one of the nation's few remaining independent programs.
Navy athletic director Chet Gladchuk is talking with officials from the Big East, Conference USA and the Mid-American Conference about the possibility of the Midshipmen's uniting with one of the groups.
Sources familiar with Navy's situation said the academy is being approached more aggressively by the MAC and Conference USA, while the Big East is fading as a potential dance partner with the Mids.
Navy is one of four independents left in Division I football, with Notre Dame, Connecticut (which will join the Big East next season) and Troy State being the others. Gladchuk, who pointed to such current advantages as scheduling control and an already favorable financial picture, said he likes the status quo but will remain open to the idea of linking up with a conference.
Gladchuk said the academy's football program, driven by its television contracts, annual games against Notre Dame and Army, road guarantees and corporate sponsorships, generates more than $8 million annually.
"We're actually very comfortable where we are as an independent. Football drives about 65 percent of our [athletics] budget. Right now, we can control our destiny. We're not compelled to be knee-jerk and jump into anything," Gladchuk said.
"I also want to make sure that, although we're in safe harbor, we have to be astute enough to see where we want to be [in the future]. What's going on now is fact-finding, superficial talks. You're dealing with speculative, exploratory what-ifs. Having Navy as part of those what-ifs makes sense."
Navy, which is trying to complete its first winning season since 1997 and earn its first bowl invitation since 1996, has had discussions with the MAC dating to last year and has listened increasingly to Conference USA this fall, Gladchuk said.
Neither Rick Chryst nor Britton Banowsky, the respective commissioners of the MAC and Conference USA, returned phone calls.
Navy became a more popular target after the ACC increased its membership from nine schools to 12 this year by luring Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College from the Big East.
That created a domino effect. Published reports indicate the Big East, now down to five football members (six next season with Connecticut), is planning next week to extend formal invitations to Conference USA schools Louisville, Cincinnati and South Florida.
That would create a void that Conference USA -- which also stands to lose Army as a member after the 2004 season -- plans to fill by adding, among other schools, current MAC members Marshall and Central Florida, according to The Tampa Tribune. In that light, the MAC has opened a potential door to Navy.
A source familiar with the Navy talks said Conference USA has laid out a possible scenario under which the Mids could join as a modified member, meaning Navy could retain some scheduling control and bowl-game eligibility by playing a limited number of conference games.
Navy and the Big East have had brief discussions along the same line, although one source said, "I don't sense it's going to happen."
"A lot of our people play [Navy]. We know everything about the Naval Academy. They're from the Northeast footprint," said Mike Tranghese, the Big East commissioner. "We're really focused on our full football members. [Navy] is one of those issues that's been on the back burner."
Gladchuk said Conference USA and the MAC have been "very cordial and very encouraging" to Navy, but added he needs to study a host of angles before seriously considering any kind of move or presenting a proposal to the academy administration.
"There are a myriad of issues to consider, issues that aren't even part of the discussion yet," Gladchuk said. "Is there a conference championship game? What about revenue sharing, bowl slots, television exposure? Is there an entry fee? Would they expect a portion of our TV revenue? When you get into a conference, you get into things that are controlled by the package.
"Right now, we can manage our schedule. We're budgeted through 2008 with a very reasonable schedule and we're scheduled through 2010. A lot of conference commissioners are having anxiety attacks because so many leagues don't even know who they are or what they are right now. There's no anxiety here."