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Sources: Air Force might stay in Mountain West

November 6, 2011
photo - Air Force could stay in the Mountain West.  Photo by U.S. Air Force
Air Force could stay in the Mountain West. Photo by U.S. Air Force 

Air Force’s decision on conference realignment has been a difficult one, with many issues being considered. 

Although moving the football program to the Big East is an appealing option, sources with knowledge of academy superintendent Lt. Gen. Mike Gould’s thought process, who did not want their names used because Gould has not spoken publicly about realignment in weeks, said Gould might be leaning toward staying in the Mountain West.

That could change as Gould weighs the pros and cons of each path, and the worst-case scenarios about moving to the Big East. The issues include a lack of guarantees about television money and the stability of the Big East, as well as the perception of a service academy’s motives and loyalty.

“Air Force is diligent and they’re doing the right thing in saying, ‘Let me know all the answers to all the questions,’” Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson said. “Not everybody has done it that way. They’ve kind of gone in saying ‘We’re going, then we’ll figure it all out.’ Air Force has said, ‘No, we’ll figure it out, then we’ll decide if we’re going.’”

The biggest plus for joining the Big East has been money. If the Big East gets a television contract close what the other Bowl Championship Series leagues have, it could mean perhaps $8-10 million more per year for Air Force. That is money the Falcons could use to help fund all 27 athletic programs and make facility improvements.

Athletic director Hans Mueh was discussing the new board of directors for Air Force athletics’ newly-established a 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation – which will be able to raise funds directly - when he gave some insight into his athletic department’s financial concerns.

“The Air Force is going to have to tighten its belt for the next 10 years, because it’s almost $500 billion in cuts they will face,” said Mueh, who has declined interviews and opportunities to comment on realignment in recent weeks. “The chance for us to get any kind of increase in revenue from the Air Force … and we understand that – this is a much bigger issue than us. What it does say is we need a new funding stream.”

There could also be a concern that if Air Force joined the Big East it would be perceived as chasing money like many of the civilian schools that have switched conferences. Also, Air Force has been a loyal member of the Mountain West since its inception in 1999 and has maintained it is happy to be with the conference.

The Big East believes it will get a major increase in television money in its next contract, although that isn’t guaranteed. The Big East reportedly turned down a television contract worth more than a billion dollars this year, but that offer was made before TCU, Syracuse, Pittsburgh and West Virginia left. According to Boise State’s motion in the board of education meeting, each Big East member gets $3.7 million in television money, and Mountain West schools gets $1.4-$1.9 million from the conference. Air Force can’t be certain how much the Big East’s next television contract will be worth.  

“Is it a $3.7 million contract, as we know today, or is it a $10 million contract?” Thompson said. “You don’t know that. And you won’t know that until you get in there.”

Air Force also has had concerns about the stability of the Big East. Connecticut and Louisville have been rumored to be interested in other conferences. However, the Mountain West has its own stability issues, considering Boise State seems likely to leave the MW, and conference member San Diego State could be a target for the Big East if Air Force stays put.

There are also questions if the Big East will maintain an automatic BCS qualifier spot after the BCS contract ends after the 2013 season, and about playing on days other than Saturday as part of the new television deal. Pittsburgh and Connecticut played a Big East game on Wednesday night Oct. 26 – the same day Big East officials came to Colorado Springs to pitch their conference to a group from Air Force that included Gould and Mueh.

Before any decision is official, Gould will talk to Air Force officials in Washington, D.C. Thompson said he didn’t know if Gould had a timetable for his decision.

“I’ve appreciated and respected the conversations we’ve had, because he’s asking the right questions,” Thompson said. “He’s asking ‘What does a different TV contract look like, can you tell me what the Big East contract will look like in the future, how is that revenue distributed? Tell me about the BCS access.’ And if you say anything other than ‘The Big East has it for three years,’ you’re lying. I think he’s cognizant of the variables that are unknown, or finite to a point.”

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