Monday, November 9, 2009

Navy Winning In South Bend -- Getting Chills Again Just Writing About It

One of the reasons I consider myself lucky is that I’m still passionate about sports. I’ve been around games for my entire life, I’ve had the chance to cover just about every major sporting event and a lot of not-so-major ones that I found just as intriguing or thrilling in their own way and I still care.

But I don’t get EMOTIONAL, choked up, teary-eyed very often at this point although the McLean Mustangs winning the fifth-to-eighth grade league championship in girls volleyball last month was pretty cool.

Saturday was different. You see I wasn’t there two years ago when Navy beat Notre Dame for the first time in 43 years. I was in my house screaming profanities at the TV set when the official threw the bogus pass interference flag in the third overtime and then completely losing my mind when Navy got the stop a moment later on the two point conversion to win the game, 46-44.

I’ve been around Navy football since I first went to work at The Washington Post. The first Navy football game I ever covered was in 1978 when the Mids play at Connecticut. The late Tom Bates was the SID back then, a truly great man. When I called Tom to tell him I was going to be covering the game he said to me, ‘aren’t you about 14-years-old?’ I told him I was 22. “Listen,” he said. “This is important. Don’t screw it up.”

Since I was actually on The Metro staff at the time and had almost gotten arrested at the scene of a quadruple-murder drug-deal-gone-bad (the cops weren’t too happy when I started asking two suspects in handcuffs questions) earlier that week I thought I could handle the pressure of Navy-UConn football.

Years later, I wrote ‘A Civil War,’ and I’ve done Navy radio the last 13 years. So, I’m absolutely, totally biased when it comes to Navy and, for that matter, Army. I also root for Air Force, even though I don’t know the people out there as well as I know the people at Army and Navy.

I drive people crazy constantly telling them just how HARD it is to play football and play it well at the Division 1-A level at the academies. Doing the book, I not only came to like the kids I was writing about but also to admire them. I feel that way perhaps even more strongly today because the young men at the schools today signed up in the middle of a war.

What Navy has accomplished the last seven years is, well, just about impossible. In the three year prior to 2003, the Mids were 3-30, two of those wins coming in 2002, Paul Johnson’s first year as head coach. Most of the losses weren’t close. I still remember Georgia Tech scoring 70 and North Carolina State 65, neither opposing coach caring very much about how humiliating the final score might be. Those were some long broadcasts.

Johnson turned it around with his option offense, his remarkable offensive mind and his sheer chutzpah. He believes he’s the best coach going, he sells that to his players in recruiting and on the practice field and they buy in. He also hired a truly GREAT defensive coordinator in Buddy Green, a move that has been critical to Navy’s success.

The Mids have now gone to seven straight bowls. They have beaten Air Force (which dominated them for years) seven times in a row and Army seven times in a row—NONE of those games close. And, in 2007, they finally, finally beat Notre Dame.

There had been other close calls during the losing streak, notably 1999 when a line judge named Perry Hudspeth absolutely blew a spot—moving the ball up a full yard—to give Notre Dame a first down by an inch when Navy should have gotten the ball back on down at that point with a four point lead, a minute to go and Notre Dame out of time outs. At halftime this past Saturday a friend of mine left a message on my cell phone: “I just hope Perry Hudspeth isn’t in the stadium today,” the message said.

People ask me why I won’t forgive Hudspeth ten years later. Here’s my answer: the day he admits he screwed up is the day I’ll forgive him.

Last Saturday, I finally made it back to Notre Dame after boycotting the games out there for years, partly because I knew Navy was going to lose one way or the other. If the Irish didn’t beat them, the officials would. Plus, the weather was always terrible—“it’s just lake effect snow,” they always told us as if that didn’t count—and Navy had to stay in a dreary motel in Michigan because the South Bend hotels will only give you a room if you guarantee a two night stay on Notre Dame football weekends. So, I took a pass on a long trip, a bumpy plane ride and an almost certain Navy loss.

That’s why I missed the win in ’07. I was okay with it—they won the game, I was thrilled. This year though, when I accepted the speaking engagement in Phoenix and saw Notre Dame on the calendar two days later, I decided to go. I flew to Chicago and drove from there to South Bend.

Amazingly, the weather was spectacular on Saturday—the temperature in the mid-60s in bright sunshine. I got to campus early enough to walk around, buy a very good hamburger on the quad (Notre Dame for all its NBC millions serves only hot dogs in the press box and I don’t like hot dogs at any hour, much less 11:30 in the morning) and sort of revel in all those fired up Irish fans. Everyone was very nice, even though I had on a Navy shirt although I did get a glare from one couple when they heard me explain to a friend on the phone that I thought a helicopter passing overhead was delivering Charlie Weis's ego to the stadium.

You see, I LIKE Notre Dame. I respect the school and I have a lot of friends from there, including Roger Valdiserri—the man who turned being an SID into an art-form years ago—who is one of the world’s all time good people; John Heisler, his successor, who is now one of those senior, associate, senior again AD’s; Digger Phelps (who still lives in South Bend) and current basketball coach Mike Brey. I love the fight song (who doesn’t) although I don’t need the long-winded PA guy to say, “the greatest fight song of them all," when the band comes on the field. Let the music speak for itself pal.

I don’t like Charlie Weis. I think he’s a preening, blow hard and not a very good coach. He’s got a top ten draft pick at quarterback (Jimmy Clausen up-close is VERY impressive) and two wide receivers who are a lock first rounder (Michael Floyd) and a possible first rounder (Golden Tate). Five years in, he still has a mediocre defense and firing coordinators hasn’t made them better.

Honestly, I don’t care if he’s fired. As a Notre Dame friend said after the game Saturday, “Navy may beat us quite a few more times if this guy (Weis) is still the coach.”

What matters is that Navy won Saturday and I was right there to see it. It was a great, back-and-forth game, the Navy kids making plays when they absolutely had to. Ram Vela, the 5-foot-9, 193 pounds linebacker (seriously, that’s how big he is) recovered a fumble and had an interception. Quarterback Ricky Dobbs and the two Navy fullbacks ran wild. Weis made some weird calls in the red zone and, after the usual almost four hours thanks to the endless NBC commercials, Navy WON 23-21.

“All I want to say,” I said on the air when it was over, “is that I’m very glad I lived to see this.”

Bob Socci, my co-partner on-air along with Omar Nelson said, “Your heart held up well.”

It did—barely in that final minute. Watching the Navy kids belting out ‘blue-and-gold,’ I had chills. I will say one more time that people can’t possibly understand how remarkable it is for Navy to compete against Notre Dame, much less win in Notre Dame Stadium.

And this time I got to see it. Wow. I’ve got chills again just writing about it.

16 comments:

Dave Berman said...

John, I was there two years ago, and I was there this weekend, and the sheer joy of winning in South Bend doesn't diminish the second time. I think that Ram Vela, though, said it best after the game when he said that winning there in 07 made them believe that they could beat Notre Dame again. What an amazing senior class - 4 wins against Air Force, 4 bowl games, 2 wins against Notre Dame, and, hopefully, 4 wins against Army.

In the stands, I refused to get too excited until the Mids recovered that second on side kick. You see, I've been there every game since 1995, and I've seen Notre Dame, sometimes with the help of officials, pull out some squeakers. It may take me a few more Navy wins in South Bend before I wait until the final gun to take a breath.

Glad you made it out to the game, this time.

Jim- said...

It was a great game to watch -- compelling even though it was ND! I love the analysis after the game, I either read it or heard it on tv, that said the Navy staff was betting that ND would use the same defensive alignment and strategy that held Navy's ground attack this year, and adjusted accordingly.

Turns out Navy guessed right, ND had ZERO new adjustments, and as a casual fan, looked like they STILL had no adjustments after halftime. Kudos to Navy, and those kids.

Ed O. said...

I heard that on their next road game, the ND players asked to walk from the hotel to the stadium. They have a phobia about buses because they are so used to their coach throwing them under it.

Mike said...

Lake-effect, not affect, though the title "Great Lake" could make the snow pretentious.

Dave said...

In 1978 I was a First Class (senior) at USNA. The team was 7-0, ranked and would go on to win the Holiday Bowl. I rode a bus for what seemed like days to watch the ND game in Cleveland. On the first play Navy ran for about 30 yards. We cheered, loudly but no obscenities. An ND fan in a blue blazer and tie, stood up, turned around, shook his pipe at us and screamed "All of you shut up. The team can't hear you, and you are bothering me." Tells you something about the "we are entitled to win" mindset. Unfortunately, Joe Montana shut us up, 27-7. That guy still sticks in my craw and I would have given anything to have seen him bleeping little pipe Saturday.

Laura's Husband said...

I turned down the sound on the NBC broadcast and turned up John & Co. on the radio...even though the TV pictures were well behind the radio descriptions. John, I loved your line about how fitting it was that Navy went to the "kneel down" at the home of "Touch Down Jesus"... especially since Catholics genuflect before they enter their pew at mass. I guess Navy had gone to the "genuflect offense".

Randy Bogle said...

John,
You may not remember me. I was Commandant at Navy during the time you were writing “A Civil War”. I just had to send you a note to say how much I appreciate your comments on a weekly basis but I REALLY appreciate this article. So many other sports folks just don’t get it and don’t give the academies any credit for competing at this level with the talent they have. Thank you very much for doing just that. I will be in Annapolis this Saturday for the Delaware game and witnessed the Ohio State game in person to open the season. Great coaches, great young men! Thanks again for your biased support…I love it! All the best and with great respect, Randy

Randy Bogle
Vice President, Training
L-3 Communications/D.P. Associates Inc.
7420 Mission Valley Road
San Diego, CA 92108
(619) 278-2335, Work
(619) 923-2845, Fax
(619) 804-5712, Cell

Anonymous said...

I'm glad you understand why Navy is rightly the underdog to ND every year. I'm a Navy alum and am proud of how they played ND.

But give a little credit to USAFA and how they have performed much better against ND than we have. The Zoomies don't play ND every year, but they beat ND in '07, '96, '85, '84, '83, & '82.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, John, for such nice words about my brother, Tom Bates. The only sad part about the day is that he wasn't here to thrill to the victory. But hoperfully, there is Navy info in heaven. And you are right - he was great man.

Sincerely,
Kitty Bates Dilley

KSW67 said...

John,

Heard you during the broadcast...I agree we need to play ND in Navy-Marine Corps Stadium in 2014.

Wormo said...

John
Just listened to you on Rome's show. Great comments! You are one of my favorites in all you do. I wish you were on The Sports Reporters every Sunday. Your thoughts about the Notre Dame program and Weis are dead on!

David Worthington
Kennewick Wa.

Rick Renner said...

John,
Another great story! Thanks!

My brother-in-law and I read your 'Civil War' at the same time and thoroughly enjoyed the read. He is former Army and I Navy, so we have a great time nudging each other on the first Saturday in December (albeit not this year).

With many friends who are grads of USMA I get tix to WP, and I love cheering for Army (just not on that first Sat in Dec) and we all have cheered for years for Navy to beat ND. Our wishes were granted in 2007 and again this year. I was happy to have unlimited phone minutes then.

I, like you, will NEVER forgive that robber Perry Hudspeth for his obvious cheating. It was so blatant! Moving past that, everyone at Navy came to play this year. The coaches had great plans and had the team prepared to win. The team played and executed well.

A great day for Navy!

usmc53 said...

To dovetail on what John said in his post and Randy reiterated above, I wish that the talking heads in the sports world would talk about how remarkable Navy's team and coaches are, rather than asking "What's wrong with ND (or whoever else)?" when Navy beats someone. How about a little credit to Navy, rather than just acting like losing to Navy is the ultimate embarrassment.

It's an insult to our guys. As Chet (Navy's AD) said after Saturday's game, "We're legit."

dcsooner said...

John,

For the history of questionable referee decisions you cited, I couldn't watch the game on TV, choosing instead to flip between the PSU and Bama games while listening to Navy on the radio feed in Arlington.

I loved hearing your constant jabs at the refs only reviewing calls that might help the Irish, and especially your digs (via tortured tangents) at the local NFL owner in DC.

Did I really hear you say something about the irony of a Navy kneel down at the feet of Touchdown Jesus? Nice!

I'm good friends with my wife's cousin, Brigade Commander at USNA '91, and he was pleased as punch when I called to congratulate him.

Rob in Arlington

P.S. You really have put the color "blue" into color commentary! LOL

Bo Smolka said...

John -- Great column. I especially love the story about Batesy and the UConn game. I can practically hear him saying that now ... I was left screaming at the TV afte rboth wins ... Two regrets from my SID days ... 1) That I was no longer the SID when Bucknell beat Kansas; and 2) That I didn't get a Navy win over ND, though I only had a few chances in my time in Annapolis.

BURL said...

John,
I read A Civil War with a flashlight past Taps as a Plebe in '97, listened to countless Jim Rome interviews (I was listening during the infamous Bridgett!!! episode), and followed your Washington Post articles whenever I could get to a computer over the course of three deployments to Iraq. This article is something special, however, because your feelings are something I shared along with my best friends, classmates, and family and you expressed them perfectly. You are the best in the business and are one of the few that capture the essence of sport. I'm happy to hear you're healthy and that your heart survived Saturday. Semper Fi and BEAT ARMY!
RSB USMC, USNA '01