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Move after 2004 made to gain schedule flexibility

Associated Press

WEST POINT, N.Y. -- Army's football team will leave Conference USA after the 2004 season to play as an independent again.

The U.S. Military Academy is making the move, in part, to have more scheduling flexibility, superintendent Lt. Gen. William Lennox Jr. said Thursday.

"We are committed to building a competitive football program at the highest level," Lennox said.

Army joined the conference as its sole football-only member in 1998 after having been an independent since the sport began at the academy in 1890. The departure will leave Conference USA with 10 football schools.

"We are not surprised," commissioner Britton Banowsky said. "We have the greatest respect for the academy, its leadership, and we know this decision was not an easy one for them."

Conference officials voted Wednesday to enforce a bylaw preventing member schools from leaving before June 30, 2005. They said the move would not keep a school from leaving but shows the league is prepared to fight to maintain its membership.

Army athletic director Rick Greenspan said the academy must pay a $400,000 penalty to leave the conference after two more seasons.

Lennox said the decision was based on information provided by a panel commissioned to evaluate the football program and propose ways to improve it. That panel included Dallas Cowboys coach Bill Parcells, who was an assistant coach at Army in the late 1960s, and former Nebraska coach Tom Osborne.

"In no way should today's announcement be construed as a signal to downgrade the football program," Greenspan said. "Our goals remain strongly fixed to go in the opposite direction. We're looking to be as successful as we can. And absolutely, unequivocally, in no way will we not be a Division I-A program."

Army football has been mired in mediocrity since the Black Knights began playing in Conference USA. Army, whose other athletic teams compete in the Patriot League, is 7-27 in five seasons in Conference USA.

The Black Knights finished 1-11 in 2002 -- losing 58-12 to Navy in the season finale -- and are 5-29 in three years under coach Todd Berry.

Army's scheduling options have been limited. With eight conference games and the inter-service games against Navy and Air Force, the Black Knights have only one or two other games to schedule.

Because of conference obligations, this year Army has just one home game at Michie Stadium in October, traditionally the peak month for attendance when the fall foliage is in its fullest splendor.

Before joining the conference, Army regularly scheduled at least two Division I-AA teams each season and sometimes as many as four because of the rigorous demands of cadet life.

Greenspan said future schedules likely would feature Division I-AA teams Army used to play regularly, such as Harvard, Yale and Colgate, as well as Division I-A Boston College, a fixture on the schedule from 1975-97. The teams failed to meet only one year during that span but have played just twice since Army joined the conference.

"We want to play a mix, a proper blend that gives us recruiting opportunities." Greenspan said.

Greenspan also said the academy was intent on being an independent and had not spoken with any other conference, but he did not rule out a future affiliation.

"We want to monitor the landscape," he said. "We're not going to put our head in the sand."

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