I’m off to Philadelphia today for Army-Navy.
If there is one day every year I truly look forward to it is Army-Navy. At this point I’ve said and written about a million times that there is nothing like Army-Navy. Every time I say it there are people who roll their eyes and say, ‘come on it can’t be like Ohio State-Michigan; Alabama-Auburn; USC-UCLA or any of the other traditional rivalries that involved teams that often play for the national championship or at least high national rankings.’
They’re right: Army-Navy isn’t like any of the others. That’s why I enjoy it so much. It’s unique. Almost none of the players in this game will ever even think about playing in the NFL or, for that matter, the UFL. They will be wearing uniforms next fall: Army uniforms; Navy uniforms; Marine uniforms. All of them committed to the academies in the middle of two wars and all of them re-committed again at the end of their sophomore years. Any cadet or midshipmen can leave after two years without any penalty. Once their junior year begins they are legally committed to the armed forced for five years after graduation.
I’ve had the good fortune to know a lot of football players from Army and Navy dating back to covering Navy in the 1980s and to a lengthy piece I wrote for The National Sports Daily in 1990 on the rivalry. Since I wrote “A Civil War,” in 1995 and then started broadcasting Navy games in 1997, I have gotten close to a lot of players and coaches at both schools and many others connected to the two schools.
Every year, this is a week during which everyone is looking for the story that explains why this rivalry is so special and it is often a story about a non-star whose attitude defines the kind of people who play in this game. My friend Camille Powell at The Washington Post is working on a story for Saturday’s paper about a senior at Navy who has NEVER played in a game but has stayed with the team because he would never quit on his teammates. There are stories like that every year on both sides. Often those are the guys who go on to be three-star generals or neuro-surgeons or just very important people in the world beyond football.
The players aren’t the only people in this rivalry who are special. When I first began researching “A Civil War,” two of the first people I met at Army were Tim Kelly—the head trainer—and Dick Hall—the equipment manager. While a number of the coaches (on both sides) weren’t initially thrilled with the presence of a reporter in the locker room, on the sidelines, on the team busses or in the team meetings, the players—and guys like Tim and Dick—went out of their way from the beginning to make me feel welcome.
Tim is a quiet Midwesterner, an Iowa graduate with a sharp, low-key sense of humor. He rarely shows emotion on the sidelines, which is hard to do when you are as closely connected to the players as he is. When an Army player gets hurt, the first person he looks to for help is Tim Kelly. The same is true at Navy with Jeff Fair, who has been there for almost as long as Tim has been at Army—though not quite.
Tim loves to tell the story about the night I lost it on the sideline at Rutgers. It was during the second year of the disastrous reign of Todd Berry. Navy had the week off so I drove up to see Army play and stood on the sideline as I had done throughout the book and whenever I had the chance to see an Army game with Tim and Dick Hall and Dean Taylor, who had replaced the great Bob Arciero as team doctor when Bob retired from the Army.
Midway through the second quarter, Rutgers was ahead something like 31-0. It was VERY evident to me that Berry was leading Army down a path to nowhere with the ridiculous spread offense he had put in. What was worse, my sense was the players had given up. You can’t fool smart kids: they knew they had no chance. I pretty much lost it, screaming at Tim, Dick and Dean, “What the hell is going on here? Who hired this guy? (Rick Greenspan, the worst Athletic Director hire in history) They’ve given up! How can Army players give up!”
Tim put his arm around me and kind of walked me down the sideline to calm me down. Later he told me, “I knew you were right, that just wasn’t the time to announce it to the world.”
Of course he was right.
On another occasion in Michie Stadium when the officials clearly missed a fumble that Army recovered, I stood about five feet from the side judge and said, “how can 40,000 people see something clearly and ALL SEVEN of you missed it?” This time it was Dick’s turn to walk me away. Bobby Ross was the coach at the time and I doubt he would have liked it if the side judge had thought I was a coach or something and threw a flag. (I did once have a basketball referee threaten to tee me up during a Bucknell-Penn State game when I was researching ‘The Last Amateurs.’ I was sitting on the Bucknell bench and during a time out I said, “You know there’s nothing in the rules that REQUIRES you guys to be sure The Big Ten team wins.” It was an official I know pretty well and I didn’t think he’d get that angry. He didn’t seem to see the humor in the comment and said, “There’s also nothing in the rules that REQUIRES me to NOT tee you up since you’re sitting on the damn bench.” I shut up).
Let me tell you some more about Dick Hall. He grew up near West Point and fought in Vietnam. He has been at Army since 1975 and has had a close relationship with just about every Army football player since then. Bob Sutton, who coached at Army as an assistant and as the head coach for 17 years used to say, “When our ex-players come back, some of them make it by the football office to say hello. They ALL make it by the equipment room to see Dick.”
Soon after Sutton was gracelessly fired on a Philadelphia street corner by the graceless Greensapan, Dick had a bout with depression brought on by 9-11. He kept having recurring dreams about firefights he’d taken part in during Vietnam and also worried constantly that his players who were overseas fighting were going to die. During the period that he was out of work players streamed by Dick’s house to see him. Most of West Point went to see him. Neither Todd Berry nor Rick Greenspan ever contacted him. In fact, their response was to bring in Berry’s equipment manager from Illinois State and push Dick out of his job.
Dick of course never batted an eye and never complained. He came back to his new role working with football and some of the other sports and acted as if nothing had ever happened. A lot of us were upset, including many ex-players, but there was nothing to be done while the Greenspan/Berry circus was still in town. Next year Dick will celebrate his 35th year working at Army. They should throw him a big party. I guarantee you a lot of people will be there if they do.
As for the game itself, it’s nice that both teams have a lot at stake. Navy’s trying to win a seventh straight Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy and Army is trying to get to a bowl game for the first time since 1996 and break a seven game losing streak to Navy. The Midshipmen have totally dominated for seven straight years, winning by an AVERAGE margin of 39-10. Last year it was 34-0 and really not that close.
I’m glad Army finally has the right coach in place. After the Berry disaster (5-35, topped by an 0-13 when he was finally fired midseason) Army hired Bobby Ross, a superb coach in his prime but a coach past his prime at 67. Then came Stan Brock who was an offensive line coach in a head coach’s headset. Rich Ellerson is none of the above. He gets Army—which is critical—because his father and two brothers are graduates. He gets option offense: first learned it from Paul Johnson while both were on the staff at Hawaii. He’s innovative—he moved Ali Villaneuva, a 6-10, 300 pound tackle to WIDE RECEIVER—and he’s smart. He will bring balance back to the rivalry, which is good.
I know the Navy people have loved the last seven years and why not? But for a rivalry to be a rivalry the games need to end with tears on both sides. That will start happening again with Ellerson at Army and Kenny Niumatalolo picking up where Johnson left off at Navy—which he’s done.
Some time shortly after dark on Saturday when the game’s over the players on both teams will stand at attention together for the playing of the alma maters. Regardless of who wins there will be 70,000 people standing with them, knowing what the seniors on the field—and in the stands—will face in a few months.
That’s just one more reason why there's nothing like Army-Navy. It isn't a football game, it's an experience. One I love being a tiny part of every year.