By BILL WAGNERCAPITAL GAZETTE |AUG 07, 2020 AT 5:00 AM
What did Scottish poet Robert Burns write about the “best-laid schemes of mice and men?”
The Midshipmen were set to host the Fighting Irish at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium over Labor Day weekend.
It was originally scheduled to be played in Dublin, Ireland. But in a concession to the realities of the coronavirus, the contest was moved to Annapolis. Both institutions intended to make it work regardless of how things developed due to the pandemic, and it was possible the game would be played without fans, or only with the Brigade of Midshipmen in attendance, or at 30 percent capacity.
Then the dominoes started falling around the college football world. The Big Ten and Pac-12 were first to announce conference-only schedules. The Big 12 unveiled a formula for nine conference contests plus one out-of-conference matchup.
Notre Dame saw its original schedule dwindle date by date. Planned games against Wisconsin, Stanford and USC all fell by the wayside. For years now, the Fighting Irish have fashioned a scheduling agreement with the Atlantic Coast Conference that worked for both parties.
For 2020, Notre Dame was slated to play six ACC opponents. So, when the Fighting Irish needed to replace the three games that were canceled, they turned to the ACC for assistance.
On July 29, the ACC announced a reworked schedule format that called for all member schools to play 10 league games along with one versus a non-conference opponent. In a year of a pandemic, that includes Notre Dame.
However, there was a special stipulation attached to the non-conference matchup: It had to be played within the state of the member school. That mandate was initially designed to salvage traditional rivalry games with Southeastern Conference schools — Florida-Florida State, Georgia-Georgia Tech, Clemson-South Carolina and Louisville-Kentucky.
It only succeeded in ending the longest, continuous, intersectional rivalry in college football history, one that lasted 93 consecutive years.
One week after the ACC announced its 10-plus-one schedule format, the SEC completely torpedoed the plan by deciding on a conference-only format.
However, the ACC still would not waiver from its demand that member schools only play non-conference contests within their respective state. Ultimately, that meant Notre Dame could not come to Maryland to play Navy.
Navy athletic director Chet Gladchuk had hoped Notre Dame would be granted some sort of exemption from that rather arbitrary mandate. After a week of uncertainty, Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick told Gladchuk it simply was not possible.
“We talked about all kinds of possibilities, but it became obvious there was no gray area. I spoke with Jack this week and learned there would be no exceptions. I had to face the reality there was no flexibility in the way Notre Dame had to operate,” Gladchuk said.
On Thursday morning, Notre Dame announced a revised schedule that removed Navy as an opponent and listed a home game against Western Michigan as the lone non-conference foe.
Gladchuk acknowledged he and Swarbrick discussed the idea of Navy going to Indiana to play at Notre Dame Stadium this season but said, “we both agreed that three in a row in South Bend didn’t make sense.”
When the news broke on Thursday morning, many Navy fans were harshly critical of Notre Dame’s decision. Some mentioned the history of the United States Navy having saved University of Notre Dame during World War II by creating the V-7 Indoctrination School and placing it on the South Bend campus.
However, Navy and Notre Dame swiftly reaffirmed their mutual commitment to continue the historic series, with a 94th meeting happening in 2021. At noon Thursday, Navy issued a press release that included news that Gladchuk and Swarbrick had agreed to extend the series contract to 2032.
Gladchuk urged fans to understand the reason for the one-year hiatus to the rivalry that had been ongoing since 1927.
“Heck, it’s a pandemic. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime, an historic event that has not happened in 100 years,” he said. “Nothing is normal. Change is expected considering the circumstances. Notre Dame’s intention is be an independent next year and into the future. The Navy-Notre Dame series will resume next season and continue for the foreseeable future.”
With the Notre Dame game finally adjudicated, it did not take long for Gladchuk to pivot. He has a long-term relationship with BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe and was aware the Provo, Utah, school was looking to rebuild a depleted football schedule.
“I got off the phone with Jack Swarbrick and 10 minutes later I was on the phone with Tom Holmoe,” Gladchuk said. “We knew BYU was available, so I grabbed that game immediately.”
Gladchuk considered several potential schools from the Football Championship Subdivision ranks. Old Dominion, which is now a member of the Sun Belt Conference, was an option on the Football Bowl Subdivision level.
“I just felt strongly that with not being able to play a program of Notre Dame’s stature, we needed to find a replacement game that was just as big coming out of the blocks,” Gladchuk said. “All things considered, I think we landed on our feet. By getting BYU to come to Annapolis, we accomplished our objective of playing at home over Labor Day weekend.”
BYU and Navy both have open dates on Sept. 12 and there was discussion about that Saturday. However, ESPN made the decision easy by offering a prime-time national television slot on Monday, Sept. 7.
Coach Ken Niumatalolo was completely onboard with Gladchuk’s reasoning. BYU football has a storied history and has produced a slew of outstanding quarterbacks that starred in the NFL, including Jim McMahon, Steve Young and Ty Detmer to name a few.
“It was definitely important to get a game, especially a home game. That said, it had to be the right game. We weren’t going to schedule any school,” Niumatalolo said. “Everything Chet and I were looking for, we felt we got [in BYU]. We’re excited to be able to play a really good football program that’s got a national brand.”
Now competing as an independent, the Cougars annually face a challenging schedule that features top-notch opponents. BYU beat Tennessee, USC and Boise State last season and was initially scheduled to play Michigan State, Arizona State, Missouri and Stanford this season.
“BYU will play anybody and everybody. They’re not afraid to play Power Five teams,” Niumatalolo said. “Believe me, they’re not afraid to come play the Midshipmen. They’ve played in some tough places over the years.”
For Niumatalolo, the most important element was finding an opponent with the resources to do regular COVID-19 testing and follow other all the safety protocols necessary to keep players and staff healthy.
Niumatalolo knew the Notre Dame game was on shaky ground, and therefore was not too surprised when told by Gladchuk on Wednesday afternoon it was definitely off, but he said “it was a real downer because it’s a big game for our program and we love playing against them.”
“My hat goes off to Chet. He worked pretty quickly to get BYU. We’re grateful to be able to play this game on national television against a really good opponent,” Niumatalolo added.
For now, the Midshipmen are content with an 11-game schedule. However, Gladchuk is not opposed to picking up an opponent for Sept. 12 to fulfill a contract with CBS Sports Television that calls for broadcasting five Navy home games.Bill WagnerCONTACT
Bill Wagner has worked for Capital Gazette Newspapers for 30 years. He served as beat writer for Navy athletics and general assignment sports reporter. He is also the sailing editor.