Celebrations marking 50-year milestones have a very interesting component as part of their character. Not only is the calendar date commemorated, but it also occurs on the same day of the week as the original event.
Thus, on Saturday, September 26, 2009, Navy's football team is playing a home game at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium just as it did 50 years ago on Saturday, September 26, 1959 when the brand new stadium was the site of its first home game ever, a 29-2 victory over William & Mary.
The routine hasn't changed much in a half century. Navy's football team today has the same short bus ride as the 1959 team took for its first game at the stadium when it was really a bare bones facility--just two double-decked stands that stretched goal line-to-goal line and stared at each other across what is now called Jack Stephens Field.
The new stadium's seating capacity was about 27,000; and it had cost about $3 million to build, a figure that is incomprehensible in today's stadium construction industry where one seat--and a bench-type seat at that--is estimated to cost between $10-15,000. Seating capacity during three renovations over the half century of its life has been raised to about 34,000 and includes private boxes and special club seats while the facility itself is replete with all that is needed to make it a showcase for a variety of functions from football and lacrosse games on its playing field, to receptions within its hospitality rooms.
The stadium was the final link in an overall blueprint devised by Captain Tom Hamilton during his tenure as athletic director after World War II to refurbish the Academy's athletic program and its facilities. That, in turn, was also part of an overall plan to enlarge the Naval Academy's physical plant with an ambitious building program that required additional land for buildings. Some of that new space meant abandoning old Thompson Stadium, a basic facility that stood between the west end of Bancroft Hall and the Severn River. It consisted primarily of wooden bleachers that for over 50 years had been Navy's home football site.
That rickety old stadium had enjoyed a busy life during its first quarter century when, with the exception of the Army-Navy game, the Mids played all of their games at home. During the next quarter century Navy gradually expanded its road schedule and often played in big stadiums in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Washington, Cleveland and New York, and on the campuses of other major opponents that also had 30-40,000 seat stadiums. During the mid-fifties through the mid-sixties, they played an annual game in Norfolk, Virginia against Southern and later Atlantic Coast Conference teams, which was dubbed the Oyster Bowl.
Thompson Stadium's greatest claim to fame, other than being home to some of the Academy's greatest players during Navy's first half century of football, was as the site of the 1942 Army-Navy game. Last played in Annapolis in 1893, the game was ordered there by Presidential directive to serve as an example for the entire nation that gas and tire rationing by civilians was so important on the World War II home front that even an event with the magnitude to draw a crowd of 103,000 to Philadelphia's huge Municipal Stadium the year before, could be pared back to accommodate 17,000. West Point's Corps of Cadets had to stay at home and in their stead, a select group of Midshipmen represented their rooting interests. Attendees had to live within ten miles of Thompson Stadium and authorities even checked the license plates of every automobile in the parking lot to see that they conformed to the residence requirements.
When the plans for expanding the Academy were unveiled after World War II, there was no accommodation for building a football stadium within the Academy grounds. So Morris Gilmore, the treasurer of the Naval Academy Athletic Association, began to gradually acquire parcels of land in the Admiral Heights section of Annapolis, just a stone's throw from the Academy, and this became the site on which the new stadium was built, though not without opposition by many within the Navy who opposed building a stadium for financial reasons. The naysayers finally were mollified when it was agreed that no appropriated funds from the Academy would be used in constructing such a facility, and that never became an issue because all the funds were in the form of contributions or from the monies earned while playing in the Sugar, Cotton and Orange Bowls during the 1954-60 seasons.
Construction was begun in the late fifties under the direction of then-athletic director Capt. Elliott Laughlin, one of the Navy's top submarine skippers during World War II (While commanding the USS Queenfish on four combat patrols, his boat sank tens of thousands of tons of Japanese shipping and also rescued more than 30 downed Navy aviators who had been forced to ditch their planes in the Pacific Ocean.) Rowe Boulevard, providing a major access road for thousands of automobiles, which in recent years have jammed its parking lots, bordered the selected site on one side.
The stadium, after three reincarnations, is a comfortable, modern 34,000-seat facility still built around that same gridiron that now is known as Jack Stephens Field.
Fund raising loomed as a major problem, though in today's atmosphere it may be difficult to envision how raising $3 million could be difficult. Part of the problem was solved when the Naval Academy Athletic Association contributed a million dollars.
Laughlin then asked the Academy's superintendent, Rear Admiral William R. Smedberg III, to appoint his close friend and a fellow submariner, Capt. Eugene Fluckey then chairman of the Academy's Electrical Engineering Department, to head the overall stadium fund raising drive.
Fluckey, a member of the Class of 1935, had asked for the job and he turned out to be a splendid choice. He had been awarded the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military decoration, and four Navy Crosses, the highest award for gallantry given by the Navy, for his heroism while logging eleven World War II patrols aboard the submarine, USS Barb which sank 95,000 tons of Japanese shipping. He was highly respected within the Navy; and on a personal level, he was one of Laughlin's closest friends. They had made three patrols together, commanding their boats as part of a deadly submarine wolfpack that decimated Japanese shipping during the war's last two years.
"I just thought that Gene Fluckey was one of the most outstanding naval officers I've seen, if not the most outstanding," Laughlin said when the fund-raising drive successfully ended. "I knew that if he took it, he would succeed because he had such a wealth of good, innovative ideas."
One of those was organizing fund raising competition between the Navy's active duty fleets around the world. Ships with the greatest levels of participation got special liberty privileges, though it took all of Smedberg's persuasive powers to get the Secretary of the Navy, Thomas Gates, to agree to that stipulation.
Building the stadium posed other problems as well. Laughlin, who left the Academy in 1958, a year before the stadium opened to command the USS Mississinewa, and Fluckey both wanted it built according to the original specifications, and wanted Gilmore to supervise the project.
But they also had differences about its physical dimensions. Fluckey wanted a stadium that seated 60-65,000 spectators to account for the then-booming population explosion in the areas adjacent to Annapolis and Anne Arundel County. Laughlin said that if there were years when Navy fielded a weak team, attendance for games would be in the 15-20,000 range and those thousands of empty seats would bring no value. He said if Navy outgrew the stadium's seating capacity during its successful years, or if it wanted to schedule high profile attractions like Notre Dame or some perennial top ten schools, the games could be shifted to Baltimore. Navy already had an agreement with the city for playing games in its stadium that was also used by the NFL's Baltimore Colts, stipulating that the pros could not play five days before Navy's scheduled game, nor one day after Navy had used the facility.
In the end, Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium was built pretty much as it was originally designed, and as noted earlier, it has grown through three reincarnations. Navy's recent success has brought a constant string of sellouts and the only home games not played there are the Army-Navy game and Notre Dame's bi-annual visits when the game is played in Baltimore's M&T Bank Stadium, or occasionally at Giants Stadium in New Jersey or Philadelphia's == Lincoln Financial Field.
Before a game had even been played in the new stadium, Navy's football world was turned upside down when head coach Eddie Erdelatz, at that time the winningest coach in the Mids gridiron history, was dismissed after spring drills in 1959 and replaced by his top offensive assistant, 32-year old Wayne Hardin. So the new season was filled with an aura of uncertainty that happily disappeared when the Mids went up to Boston College and won handily, 24-8. A week later, on September 26, 1959, they opened Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium for the first time with a gritty 29-2 victory.
It was clear that Hardin's job was made easier because he built his offense around running back Joe Bellino, who became the Academy's first Heisman Trophy winner in 1960. Bellino played just four games in the new stadium during his last two seasons and helped his team win all of them. With President Dwight D. Eisenhower watching Navy's 41-7 victory over Villanova in 1960, he dominated the playing field scoring two of the Mids six touchdowns. When President Eisenhower returned for an encore performance later that season in a 41-6 win over Virginia, he became the first Navy player ever to score four touchdowns in one game, on runs of 39 and 90 yards, an eight-yard pass from quarterback Hal Spooner and a one-yard plunge.
Bellino left the stage in 1960, but he still played a role in Navy's greater successes during the Roger Staubach era. He was one of Roger's freshman coaches in 1961 and Staubach has always given him the credit for preparing him to handle the pressures that came with his position. With Navy's offense sputtering early in the 1962 season, Hardin tabbed Staubach to start the fourth game against Cornell at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. He was brilliant; completing nine of 11 passes for 99 yards, and exhibiting his Roger the Dodger running magic with eight runs for 89 yards and two touchdowns.
Roger surpassed that performance in a highly touted late October game at home against Pitt in 1963. Pitt was unbeaten and ranked third in the nation while Navy, with one loss, was further down in the polls. All the pundits agreed that the winner could proclaim themselves champions of the East. The game was televised to more than half the nation and Staubach permanently affixed his reputation as one of college football's greatest players by completing 14-of-19 passes, seven to end Jim Campbell, and also ran for a touchdown in a convincing 24-12 victory that soon landed Navy as the No. 2 ranked team in the country.
Staubach had one more memorable appearance on Navy's home field--against Duke in his final game of an injury-plagued senior season. Navy had won its first two games but then a cascade of injuries mowed down its best players. But Roger was brilliant in his final game, eventually breaking his own single game yardage record with a 308-yard performance. Wanting him to enjoy one last hurrah from his home fans, Hardin removed him from the game in the fourth quarter as thousands of spectators gave him a thunderous ovation.
But Hardin didn't realize that Roger still needed ten yards to break his existing mark. Navy's sports information director, L. Budd Thalman had kept a yardage tally and told the Navy coaches in their coaches booth that Roger needed more yards. They told Hardin, who then sent Staubach back into the game where he finally set the record. Then for a second time, Roger again trotted off the field while the crowd at Navy-Maine Corps Memorial gave him another thunderous ovation as a final farewell.
There have been many other significant moments on the stadium's playing field over the past 50 years, many by other great Navy performers and opponents alike:
Sept. 23, 1967 - Navy receiver Rob Taylor sets school records for most catches (10) and most yards receiving (140) in a game, as Navy beats Penn State, 23-22, when Taylor catches a 16-yard TD pass with 57 seconds left.
Oct. 23, 1976 - Tony Dorsett becomes the NCAA's all-time career rushing leader when he runs for 180 yards and three TDs in Pitt's win.
Nov. 12, 1977 - Navy beats Georgia Tech, 20-12, as Naval Academy alumnus President Jimmy Carter watches.
Sept. 12, 1981 - Navy defeats The Citadel for its 500th all-time win.
Nov. 7, 1981 - Eddie Meyers sets a Navy record for most rushing yardage in a game with 298 yards and four touchdowns in the Mids' 35-23 win over Syracuse.
Nov. 17, 1984 - Navy defeats second-ranked South Carolina, 38-21, in one of the biggest upsets ever for the Mids. It marks only the third time Navy has beaten an opponent ranked this high.
Nov. 9, 1985 - Navy quarterback Bill Byrne sets school records for passing yardage (399), pass attempts (52) and pass completions (37) in a single game, but the Mids lose to Syracuse, 24-20.
Sept. 22, 1990 - Alton Grizzard becomes Navy's all-time career total offense leader in a 23-21 win over Villanova.
Nov. 23, 1991 - Jim Kubiak, a Plebe, sets a school record with his 406 yards passing against Wake Forest. He completed 37-of-54 passes that day in Navy's 52-24 loss.
Oct. 5, 1996 - The Mids explode for 64 points to top Duke, 64-27, on Homecoming.
Nov. 9, 1996 - Navy clinches its first winning season since 1982 with a 30-14 victory over Delaware.
Nov. 16, 1996 - Chris McCoy sets a school record with 44 rushing attempts vs. Tulane. McCoy finished with 214 yards rushing as the Mids cruise to their seventh win of the season.
Sept. 13, 1997 - Chris McCoy ties an NCAA record by rushing for three touchdowns on consecutive carries, as Navy defeated Rutgers, 36-7.
Oct. 18, 1997 - Gerald Wilson returns an interception 95 yards for a touchdown, as Navy defeats VMI, 42-7. The 95-yard interception return is a stadium record and second longest in school history.
Nov. 8, 1997 - Chris McCoy rushes for two touchdowns, giving him a school-record 36 for his career, as Navy defeats Temple, 49-17.
Nov. 22, 1997 -Pat McGrew had a 91-yard touchdown run, second longest in school history and longest in stadium history, as Navy rolls over Kent State, 62-29.
Aug. 30, 2003 - Kyle Eckel rushed for 129 yards and two touchdowns, while Craig Candeto rushed for 96 yards and two scores as Navy defeated VMI, 37-10. The win was the first by Navy at home in four years.
Nov. 22, 2003 - Quarterback Craig Candeto directed touchdown drives on all eight possessions he played as Navy destroyed Central Michigan, 63-34, in front of a Senior Day crowd of 29,527. Candeto, who rushed for 100 yards in the first quarter, finished with 150 yards rushing and three touchdowns and 105 yards passing and one touchdown. The win made Navy bowl eligible for the first time since 1996.
Nov. 20, 2004 - Seniors Kyle Eckel, Aaron Polanco and Eric Roberts rushed for two touchdowns apiece as Navy routed Rutgers, 54-21, in front of a Senior Day crowd of 33,615. Navy, which scored 47-consecutive points in the game, rushed for 476 yards and 613 yards of total offense. The victory gave the Mids an undefeated record at home for the first time since 1996.
Oct. 8, 2005 - On a day that was already special because of the rededication of Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, sophomore Joey Bullen made it even more memorable by drilling a 46-yard field goal with four-tenths of a second remaining to give Navy a thrilling 27-24 comeback victory over Air Force and the inside track to its third-straight Commander-In-Chief's Trophy.
Sept. 22, 2007 - Joey Bullen's 44-yard field goal as time expired gave Navy a thrilling 46-43 come from behind victory over Duke. The Mids, led by back-up quarterback Jarod Bryant, scored 14 points over the final 8:07 to rally for the victory.
Sept. 29, 2007 - Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada's 78-yard touchdown run with 9:18 left in the contest provided the final nail in the Air Force coffin as the Midshipmen beat the Falcons for a record fifth-straight time, 31-20, in front of a stadium record crowd of 37,616 fans. Kaheaku-Enhada rushed for 101 yards and two touchdowns on 15 carries and completed four of his seven pass attempts for 79 yards.
Aug. 30, 2008 - Shun White rushed for a school-record 348 yards and three touchdowns on just 19 carries to lead Navy to a season-opening 41-13 victory over Towson.
Sept. 20, 2008 - Matt Harmon's 24-yard field goal with 2:06 remaining gave Navy a 23-21 lead and Ross Pospisil's interception two plays later put the game away, as the Midshipmen rallied for a thrilling 23-21 victory over Rutgers in front of a then stadium-record crowd of 37,821.
Oct. 25, 2008 - Third-string quarterback Ricky Dobbs came off the bench to rush for 224 yards and four touchdowns on 42 carries to lead Navy to a 34-7 rout of SMU at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
Nov. 1, 2008 - Linebacker Clint Sovie's 42-yard fumble return for a touchdown with 37 seconds left in regulation capped a 20-point rally in the final 9:16 to send the game into overtime and QB Ricky Dobbs' one-yard run in overtime gave Navy a miraculous 33-27 overtime victory over Temple.
Big question: What memorable events at this historic shrine/stadium will become part of Navy's football legacy during the next half century?
(Award-winning author and football historian Jack Clary is a frequent contributor to Navy football programs. He has written four books about Navy football and the Army-Navy game.)