Air Force will be without backup quarterback Isaiah Sanders on Saturday for reasons both “amazing” and tragic.
Sanders will spend the day interviewing for a Rhodes scholarship, an arrangement the Palmer Ridge graduate made when this was supposed to be an open week in the Falcons' schedule.
Once a Rhodes interview is set, there is no wiggle room .
The same is generally true for a college football schedule, but circumstances changed.
On the morning of Nov. 5, 21-year-old New Mexico junior defensive lineman Nahje Flowers was found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The Lobos were supposed to host the Falcons four days later.
New Mexico asked the Mountain West to delay the game until Nov. 23, when both teams had an opening in the schedule. Air Force asked that the game go on as scheduled, keeping with what it pointed out was precedent in similar situations when teams played following the deaths of players.
Mountain West policy gives the commissioner “sole authority to declare a contest canceled, postponed, rescheduled or terminated,” and commissioner Craig Thompson made the call to move the game.
“As is often the case given the inherent difference in perspectives during these situations, not everyone agrees with decisions of the conference office,” deputy commissioner Bret Gilliland said in an emailed response to The Gazette.
Air Force athletic director Nathan Pine issued a statement when the postponement was announced, saying “while Air Force has been disadvantaged by the decision, it pales in comparison to the loss New Mexico experienced.”
Pine reiterated a week later that he stood by that statement, which added that the Falcons would adhere to the conference's decision. But he also explained to The Gazette what disadvantages the postponement presented to the academy.
First among the complications was Sanders, who wrangled with the decision to travel to Albuquerque or stay behind for an opportunity to become a Rhodes Scholar in a year that has already seen him honored as a semifinalist for the Jason Witten Collegiate Man of the Year and the Wuerffel Trophy and a first-team spot on the Allstate AFCA Good Works Team.
Sanders carries a 3.98 GPA and holds a number of leadership positions at the academy.
Air Force has no issues with depth at quarterback. Donald Hammond III played the full game at Colorado State on Saturday, and third-string senior Mike Schmidt earned conference player of the week honors for his relief performance in a 56-26 victory at Hawaii on Oct. 19.
Still, the dilemma was reportedly difficult for Sanders, who declined comment to The Gazette.
Another complication for the Falcons was the loss of a television broadcast for the contest at New Mexico. The game was slated to air on AT&T Sports Net, but will now be shown by the online-only ESPN3 after a conflict with the rescheduled time. Facebook holds the rights to the Nov. 30 finale against Wyoming. As Air Force (8-2) rides a five-game winning streak down the stretch and could play its way into a postseason game beyond the Mountain West’s bowl package — potentially bringing a financial windfall shared by conference teams — Pine feels the lack of exposure will hurt.
“Just as we start getting appropriate national attention, it’s a shame (Air Force football) will have no linear TV coverage for either of the final 2 games,” Pine tweeted Monday. “This team is fun to watch and still in the hunt for a MWC division & title and quality bowl invite.”
Also, Air Force was going to have a bye week to prepare for its season finale against Wyoming (6-4), which by all computer rankings was the most difficult of the final three opponents.
Instead, the Falcons had a truncated bye week — not learning about it until Wednesday afternoon before the scheduled game Saturday — before a game at Colorado State that Air Force won 38-21.
Not all players agreed that the change in schedule hurt the Falcons, who took the extra weekend off with three games remaining instead of only the finale.
“I’d rather rest with a few more games to go,” said kicker Jake Koehnke, a Lou Groza Award semifinalist.
Air Force argued that defensive lineman Jordan Jackson, who was supposed to miss the first half at New Mexico after a targeting penalty against Army, should have been allowed to serve that against the Lobos because it was the next scheduled game. That appeal gained no traction, and Jackson sat against Colorado State in a first half that saw the Falcons fall behind 14-10 before storming back and outscoring the Rams 28-7 in the second half.
Travel logistics also arose for Air Force coaches, players and players’ families.
Coach Troy Calhoun said assistants were in North Carolina and Texas in the days after the postponement after expediting arrangements.
“We still had a chance to see some games,” Calhoun said, noting that the pool of recruits to see was actually greater at that point because playoffs in many states hadn’t yet progressed to the later rounds.
Those short-notice flights cost more money, but Pine said that wasn’t a factor.
“At the end of the day, we’re investing in football,” Pine said. “And we’ve got the ability to make those adjustments we need to make. We’re going to get out and recruit. Yes, it’s going to cost us a little more to make a last-minute flight change, but we’re going to do what we have to do to be successful.”
Players and their families do not have access to those funds, however. Some families had to cancel planned trips to New Mexico or pay fees to change flights. Many players had to forgo their plans to go home over the bye week. This represented the only opportunity for many to return home this semester, as the team will play during Thanksgiving break.
But, again, the Falcons stressed that they understood the circumstances. Flowers had been a member of the Lobos since the 2016 season.
“There’s things in life that are more important than just football,” senior Mosese Fifita said. “Football means a lot to me, and I love this game, but any way we could have helped out New Mexico I feel happy that if it helped their team and family in any way, I’m glad we could do that.”
Pine said he intends to revisit the Mountain West’s policies regarding postponements or cancellations.
“We’ll use it as an opportunity to re-look at our processes,” said Pine, who took over at Air Force in early 2019. “But we’re 19 years in as a conference — we shouldn’t be starting from scratch on processes.”
Gilliland said the Mountain West’s board of directors confirmed the commissioner’s empowerment to make determination in February 2018 when basketball games between Air Force and Fresno State were canceled by the federal government shutdown. He said the board reaffirmed that authority in June.
“It is certainly within the board’s purview to revisit the policy if it deems appropriate,” Gilliland said.
As for Sanders’ decision to miss the game, his teammates offered full support.
“It’s amazing what he’s been doing in the community and in school,” starting quarterback Hammond said. “I’m proud of that guy. If he has to miss a game for that, that’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Not many people can say they are Rhodes scholars. That’s amazing.”