A League of Their Own
Sept. 27, 2011
By Bob Socci
Last Nov. 6, sometime in the 19-minute window between the end of a game at West Point, N.Y. and kickoff to another in Greenville, N.C., one college administrator called another.
Chet Gladchuk happened to be in the press box of East Carolina’s Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium when his cell phone rang. As director of athletics for the Naval Academy, he was awaiting a 3:34 p.m. encounter of the Midshipmen and Pirates.
Upon answering, Gladchcuk heard the voice of his Air Force counterpart, Dr. Hans Mueh. The call wasn’t exactly intended to wish a fellow service academy well in its upcoming game. Mueh simply wanted to arrange a pick-up.
He just watched the Falcons finish a 42-22 rout of Army at precisely 3:15 p.m. to clinch Air Force’s first Commander-In-Chief’s championship since 2002.
A month earlier, the Falcons beat Navy, 14-6, ending the longest winning streak in C.I.C. history. Fifteen straight times, opposite either Air Force or Army, the Midshipmen were triumphant.
Following the third of those victories, a 2003 win over the Black Knights resulting in the first of seven consecutive C.I.C. titles, Navy official Capt. Greg Cooper flew to Colorado Springs. His mission was to return with the C.I.C. Trophy.
Seventeen-hundred miles in a U-haul later, it was back in Annapolis for the first time since 1981.
Somewhat in disrepair -- its plates loosely affixed, the inscriptions of annual winners engraved in varying fonts and sizes -- the 2 1/2-foot, 170-pound hardware was in need of refurbishing. The Naval Academy not only restored its luster, but proudly displayed the trophy each of the next six years as well.
But with their 2010 loss to the Falcons, in which they mustered merely two field goals, the Midshipmen’s clutch on the C.I.C. Trophy was tenuous. Thereafter, Air Force needed only to beat Army to take it away.
That deed now done, Mueh dialed up Gladchuk to inform him that a truck was being dispatched to Annapolis. Mueh wanted someone from Navy to be there, to turn over the trophy so it could be driven back to Colorado Springs.
The Falcons couldn’t get their hands on the goods quickly enough. Not that you blame them; not after being left with an empty showcase for seven straight seasons.
During those years, some of what was heard was a kind of irrational rationalization about conference objectives taking precedence over C.I.C. supremacy. More than a few Falcons would have you believe that as disappointing as a loss to Navy was, their main focus was on bravely competing for Mountain West glory.
But as noted before, wins over Wyoming don’t earn you an invitation to the White House. For Air Force, Army and Navy, nothing in football is more coveted than the sport’s only title contested for solely by men sworn to serve their country.
The Falcons deserved their reward, and had every reason to celebrate what they earned. On Sunday, the day after Mueh’s call, a transfer took place and the C.I.C. Trophy headed west.
It remains the property of Air Force, until either Army or Navy sweeps the round-robin. This weekend, though, the Mids can take the first step toward reclaiming the crown jewel of academy football.
Like every other year on the first Saturday of October, the C.I.C. series comes to Annapolis. Yet it takes place at a time unlike any other in the history of the sport.
What’s described as a tectonic shift of the college football landscape, driven by television revenues, has left almost every institution outside of a few BCS Conferences at a crossroads. Uncertainty exists in every direction.
Gladchuk and Mueh have been on the phone a lot more lately, trying to sort out future options for their academies amidst various news reports. Some center on a possible merger of the Mountain West and Conference USA. Others link Navy and Air Force to the Big East for football only.
Who knows what Division I will look like in a month, much less a year. Will major college football be inhabited only by 16-team super conferences? Or can so-called ‘non AQ’s’ -- non-BCS schools -- find or create their niche to, as Gladhcuk says, remain relevant?
As answers become apparent, they will determine whether Navy keeps or sheds its football independence.
Perhaps other alternatives will arise. Maybe Division I outliers can form an alliance guaranteeing enough games (and TV money) for all, while allowing teams like the Midshipmen the flexibility to continue playing a national schedule. At least it’s something to consider, especially if efforts fail to keep Big 12 and Big East remnants in tact.
It’s almost too much to get your head around, as decades-long affiliations fracture and century-old rivalries are dissolved.
Really, as a fan, you’re almost better off not contemplating it anymore. How else can you maintain your sanity amidst such widespread insanity?
Besides, something far more meaningful is at stake on Saturday. And it has absolutely no bearing on league standings.
Like-minded individuals, taking the field only because they sacrifice so much off it, will intersect at 12:10 p.m. inside Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. In time, they’ll be called to serve the country. For the immediate future, the focus is on their sport’s most meaningful championship.
Last fall, Air Force ended its seven-year wait for another title. The 12 months since seemed so much longer for Midshipmen.
“I look back at the Air Force game and that just keeps re-running in my head,” junior slot back John Howell said this past August. “It definitely was a chip on our shoulder this summer in workouts. It’s definitely been one of our main goals this entire offseason. That’s what we’re striving for.”
“That loss did fuel this offseason a lot,” added fullback Alexander Teich, Navy’s offensive captain. “Every time you’re sitting there thinking that conditioning is getting too tough or too hard, you think about that loss and how bad you felt that day.
“In all my years of playing sports, in every sport that I’ve played, I’ve never lost a game that I felt so bad (about) afterwards. It’s still so fresh in my mind. You felt like you lost it for the seniors, for ‘The Brotherhood’, for all the guys who’ve come before you. Knowing what they represented and how long they worked to get that trophy here and keep it here, it really hurt.”
That trophy was hauled away in a truck. Bringing it back is everything to Howell, Teich and their teammates.
There’s nothing that will change the way they feel. Nor should there be anything, present or future, to affect the way we see this game, and that trophy.