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Air Force noted academics, athletics and stressed its broad reach in pitch to Big 12

October 24, 2016 Updated: October 24, 2016 at 4:45 pm
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photo - Air Force Superintendent Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson wrote a brief letter to the Big 12 on Aug. 1, requesting that the academy be considered as an expansion candidate. (Mark Reis, The Gazette)
Air Force Superintendent Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson wrote a brief letter to the Big 12 on Aug. 1, requesting that the academy be considered as an expansion candidate. (Mark Reis, The Gazette) 

As early as Aug. 9, athletic director Jim Knowlton warned Air Force leadership it would have to "put the pedal to the metal" to make a competitive case for Big 12 membership.

When the academy presented a five-page informational flier to the conference it highlighted academics, leadership and integrity before entering into its athletic qualifications. The academy also boasted of the largest fan base among expansion candidates.

And though no other service academies were among those expressing interest in joining the Power Five conference, an effort was made to distance Air Force from the other two.

"Of the military academies, AFA is the winningest football team in history," Knowlton is quoted as saying in the flier. "The reality is that the Army/Navy game is often played to determine who is second best."

These details were released to The Gazette through a Freedom of Information request made in August that Air Force answered four days after the Big 12 announced it decided not to expand last week.

Most noteworthy of the findings were the timeline of events, confirmation that Air Force sought football-only status in the Big 12 and the extent to which the academy described its fan base's reach.

Air Force Superintendent Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson wrote a brief letter to the Big 12 on Aug. 1, requesting that the academy be considered as an expansion candidate. While schools like Colorado State reached out to the Big 12 as early as May, it appears that Johnson's letter launched the Falcons' relatively late exploration into a spot in the Power Five conference.

A draft of a public statement prepared Aug. 12 acknowledged that the academy had preliminarily expressed interest in joining the conference "for football" - confirming that Air Force was not seeking membership for multiple sports. The statement said the academy was "honored to be considered for membership in the Big 12, a relationship that would very likely increase the opportunities for USAFA to attract competitive men and women to lead the United States Air Force."

Wording of a statement that was released the following day was changed to a more vague explanation that Air Force would evaluate the landscape of college athletics. That was the final public comment on the matter, but behind the scenes there was a flurry of activity.

Knowlton sent a link to the online campaign launched by BYU, noting it was a "taste of what we're up against ... very powerful!"

The leadership was also kept abreast on media reports and inquiries, with a reminder sent around that information shared in correspondence could be subjected to public request.

The informational flier presented to the Big 12 shows how the Air Force felt its case was best laid out. Six subsections, in order, were:

- Air Force Academy Academics are leading the nation.

- A hard-won reputation forged by leaders.

- Integrity is in the DNA of the Air Force, and the fabric of life at AFA.

- AFA athletics program is a leader, besting the widely known expansion candidates.

- The AFA total fan base is larger than any other Big 12 candidate.

- AFA Annual Fund has grown by over 90 percent in the last two years.

"Simply put, the AFA does more, a lot more, with less," the flier noted when showing how Air Force's on-field success corresponds to its $43 million athletic budget.

Most of the cases stated were fairly predictable. In academics, an 8-to-1 student to full-time faculty ratio and the No. 3 Forbes rating were mentioned, along with a description of the course load and many academic honors earned by cadets. The academy's mission of developing leaders of character and a track athlete's 2013 NCAA Sportsmanship Award were noted. The Cadet Honor Code was discussed, and the Falcons' No. 55 finish in the 2016 Learfield Director's Cup standings were dissected.

It was under the fan base that the academy laid out perhaps its most in-depth and unique case. It noted that the Denver/Colorado Springs market ranks 11th in the nation, placing it second to Houston among expansion candidates. Beyond that, it counted the 310,000 active duty Air Force members and an additional 600,000 in reservists, civilian employees and family members among the academy's reach.

"That force is 80 percent male, an average of 31 years old, and employed, a demographic that is a sports marketer's dream," the flier stated. "About 20 percent of that demographic lives abroad, giving the Big 12 unparalleled international exposure through AFA fans."

It went on to mention the more than 2 million Department of Defense retiree fans are "predisposed to support AFA all across the nation," noting that of the 761,000 Air Force veteran retirees, 78,000 live in Texas.

Air Force, BYU, Cincinnati, Colorado State Houston, Rice, Southern Methodist, Tulane, UConn, Central Florida and South Florida were the 11 reported finalists considered by the Big 12, which opted not to expand without voting at a meeting last week in Dallas.

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