Oct. 19, 2008
The Naval Academy will play its 1200th football game Saturday afternoon against SMU. Pardon the pun, but that is a boatload of games.
Most importantly, and what we honor at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium today, is the fact that over the course of those 1200 games, there has been built not only one of the school's proudest traditions but one that has earned a special place among all of college football. It stretches back to 1879 when the Naval Cadets, as they were then called, began the sport with a scoreless tie against the Baltimore Athletic Club. That was the only game that year and it was played under the prevailing rugby rules governing the fledging ten-year old sport of college football.
Three seasons later, in 1882, USNA played its second game, defeating Johns Hopkins 8-0. That marked the beginning of an uninterrupted annual schedule of games that now has stretched over more than 12 decades. Navy football teams have played in every section of the nation, including Hawaii. Its football program has won the national championship; appeared in more that a dozen post-season games, including the 1978 Holiday Bowl whose winning players will be honored on Saturday; and produced players who have been acclaimed as some of the sport's greatest stars.
More importantly, in fulfilling the overall mission of the Naval Academy, the football program has also produced men who have led the nation's fleets; many others whose extraordinary exploits in wartime have placed their names among the pantheon of Navy and Marine Corps heroes, including Richard Antrim, Harold Bauer, Allen Buchanan, Jonas Ingram, Frederick McNair Jr., and Carlton Hutchens who won the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest battle award; and some in that group are among those who will be forever honored because they have paid the ultimate sacrifice in service to their country.
The overall excellence of its football program can be seen by the 21 participants who are enshrined in College Football's Hall of Fame; the 29 who have been named to the first team of annual All-America selections (a total of 34 times), including running back Joe Bellino and quarterback Roger Staubach who also won the Heisman Trophy, the nation's greatest individual college football award; and to end Ron Beagle and lineman Bob Reifsnyder who also joined them on the list of Maxwell Trophy recipients.
No less worthy of acclaim are five players-guard Steve Eisenhauer, quarterbacks Tom Forrestal and Joe Tranchini, running back Dan Pike and linebacker Theodore Dumbauld--who achieved first team status as Academic All-Americans; halfbacks Joe Ince, Allen Roodhouse, Pike, defensive lineman Tim Harden, Dumbauld, and offensive lineman Carl Voss and Terrence Anderson who were chosen as National Football Foundation Scholar-Athletes; Francis Duborg and guard Stansfield Turner, who made full admiral's rank and later became Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, as Rhodes Scholars; and Tom Hamilton, William Lawrence and Thomas Moorer, who received the National Football Foundation's Gold Medal, its most prestigious award.
The newest symbol of Navy's football success is winning the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy, presented since 1972 to the winner of the football competition between the three major service academies-Army, Navy and Air Force-and is named in honor of the President of the United States. When there is no clear-cut winner-that has occurred four times-the trophy stays with the winner of the previous year's competition. The two-and-a-half foot tall trophy has three sides and each is engraved with an academy seal and has a reproduction of its mascot-the Army Mule, Navy Goat and Air Force Falcon-along with a plate upon which is engraved the year the trophy was won.
Navy has won the trophy the last five seasons and 13 times in all. The Air Force Academy is the all-time leader with 17.
Navy-Marine Corps Memorial stadium, site of today's game, is a centerpiece that not only represents Navy's football legacy but also its proud battle history. On each of the two upper deck façades are inscribed the names of 44 battles in which U.S. naval and Marine Corps forces were engaged since the beginning of the 20th century. The stadium's dedication plaque reads:
This stadium is dedicated to those who have served and will serve-upholders of the traditions and renown of the Navy and Marine Corps of the United States. May it be a perpetual reminder of the Navy and Marine Corps as organizations of men trained to work hard and to play hard; in war, defenders of our freedom; in peace, molders of our youth.
But the heart and soul of Navy football has always been invested in the coaches and players who brought the game alive in every era. According to a historical account written by William Maxwell (USNA, 1881), credit for birthing the sport at Annapolis goes to a naval cadet named J.H. Robinson (USNA, 1879) "for leading us into an interest in the type of football practice as we knew it to be under the early 'Association' or soccer rules."
Maxwell didn't stop there. He finally arranged for a game to be played by a group of cadets against the Baltimore Athletic Club on December 11, 1879, in the superintendent's cow pasture. He drilled his players before reveille and after drills and meals, often getting them excused from supper formation. Seeking a further edge, he went to William Bellis, the foremost naval uniform maker in Annapolis, to make the players sleeveless canvas jackets that could be laced in front and drawn tightly to their body contours. He knew that wet canvas was difficult to grasp, and that a muddy field coupled with body sweat, would make it difficult for the Baltimore players to grab his players. That bit of ingenuity had a two-fold benefit: while the more experienced BAC players continually kept the ball, they had difficulties throughout the game trying to grasp the cadets, resulting in an astounding scoreless tie; and Maxwell later was credited by Walter Camp, affirmed as the "Father of American football," with designing the first football uniform.
The game also provided a surge of enthusiasm for competitive athletics at the Academy, though it took three years for that to be translated into the second football game Navy ever played on November 28, 1882. The Cadets defeated a team of students from John Hopkins University, playing as the Clifton Football Club, by an 8-0 score. The teams played each other the next two years, each winning a game.
Thus was begun a football tradition that within five years was expanded to intercollegiate competition against Penn, Lehigh, Princeton, as well as St. John's College in Annapolis and John Hopkins.
Most importantly, the rivalry against Army also was begun in 1890 when a group of West Point cadets, led by Dennis Michie, challenged their naval cadet counterparts in Annapolis to come to West Point for a game. The Navy players answered the challenge and the first Army-Navy game was played on the famed Plain at West Point where Navy got a decisive 24-0 victory. The event was so significant that The New York Times ran the game story on the first page of its next day's editions. Thus was born college football's greatest rivalry-the nation's rivalry, it has been called-and has been played 108 times, with Navy holding a 52-49-7 edge, including victories in the last six games and in eight of the last nine.
When the new century dawned, teams from all over the East and the Mid-Atlantic states appeared on Navy's schedule, which often included a dozen games that were jammed into a two-month season. The newly-defined Midshipmen rang up 13 consecutive winning seasons, and from 1904-1914, had an 80-19-9 record against opponents that included Army, Georgetown, Penn State, Bucknell, Lafayette, Virginia Tech and West Virginia.
The sport produced many of the nation's naval leaders during World War II. Most notable were Emory J. Land, who played running back and end during his four-year varsity career (1898-01), and Ernest J. King, a scrawny but tenacious player who spent most of his four years of playing time with the "Hustlers," Navy's scrub team. Land was appointed chairman of the U.S. Maritime Commission shortly after World War II began and made responsible for the transport of millions of men and their supplies to battlegrounds in Europe and the Pacific. King, who so admired the grit of Navy football players that he sought them out as aides, was Chief of Naval Operations, the Navy's highest ranking officer, during World War II.
Also in that group was fullback William (Bull) Halsey who commanded the Third Fleet, the nation's most famous carrier group during the war in the Pacific. Hardly a big man at five feet, eleven inches and weighing 155 pounds, nonetheless he battled to become Navy's starting fullback in 1902-03. He often referred to himself as "the worst fullback who ever went to the Naval Academy."
Navy football got its first big boost in 1904 when Paul Dashiell was hired as a full-time coach. He had never played the sport but its every nuance captivated him and he haunted the team's daily practices until he was hired as an assistant coach in 1895. For the next 10 seasons, while also teaching in the Department of Physics and Chemistry, he assisted a series of one-term coaches who had played at Princeton and Yale. He was at constant loggerheads with them about how the game should be played and when Navy suffered consecutive losing seasons in 1902 and 1903, he convinced his superiors that they should hire him as head coach.
His three seasons produced a 25-5-4 record as part of a streak of 11 consecutive winning seasons, all of which earned him the sobriquet "Father of Navy Football." He was a very imaginative coach, unafraid to deviate from the way the game at that time was played. Hence, his teams employed the rarely used forward pass as an integral weapon.
Dashiell's tenure jump-started Navy as a dominant force in college football as it reeled off 11-consecutive winning seasons to 1914, including an unbeaten streak of 21 games from the end of the 1909 season until the first game of the 1912. The 1910 team, coached by Frank Berrien, is the only Navy team ever to shut out every opponent when it produced an 8-0-1 record. The 1911 team, coached By Doug Howard, was almost as good. It allowed just two opponents to score 11 points while producing a 6-0-3 record. Its roster included future Hall of Fame players Jack Dalton and John (Babe) Brown, each of whom produced game-winning field goals in three victories over Army. Brown was the first Navy played inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
Navy's success continued into the 1920s under coach Bob Folwell and reached a crescendo in 1926 when the Mids won their only national championship with a 9-0-1 record. The team was coached by "Navy Bill" Ingram, whose brother Jonas was the Academy's athletic director. Both are enshrined in the Football Hall of Fame. So are two members of that national championship team, tackle Frank Wickhorst and running back Tom Hamilton.
Ingram's 1926 team was the best Navy team until those put together in 1943-45 during World War II. Its greatest moment was a pulsating 21-21 tie against Army in the dedication game of Chicago's Soldier Field. More than 115,000 spectators, including the Brigade of Midshipmen and Corps of Cadets, both of which made the three-day round trip in a caravan of trains on three major railroads, were jammed into the huge lakefront arena for one of the greatest games in Army-Navy rivalry.
Navy fell behind 21-14 early in the second half until fullback Alan Shapley ended an 11-play drive with a touchdown four minutes into the final quarter and Hamilton drop-kicked the tying extra point. Navy's defense shut down the great Army tandem of Harry Wilson and Red Cagle for the rest of the game. Afterward, Navy, with its 8-0-1 record, claimed the national championship and an engraved football rests in its trophy case testifying to that fact.
Bill Ingram's close friendship with famed Notre Dame head coach Knute Rockne helped to start the Navy-Notre Dame series on October 15, 1927 when some 53,000 persons jammed their way into Baltimore's Venable Stadium and watched the Mids give up an early lead and lose 20-6. The next year, 1928, an estimated 122,000 fans-the largest crowd ever to watch a college football game-were at Soldier Field to see Notre Dame turn a poor third quarter punt by Navy into the game's only touchdown for a 7-0 victory. It took Navy eight years to beat the Irish with back-to-back wins in 1934-35. The series currently stands at 70-10-1, and Navy's most recent victory was a 46-44, three-overtime thriller last year to snap a record-setting 43-game losing streak.
But three of those early victories over the Irish occurred during a four-year period from 1933-37 when Navy also took a run at the 1934 national championship. Throughout that decade, Navy football showcased such backfield stars as Hawaiian-born Gordon Chung-Hoon; Fred (Buzz) Borries, the best running back in Navy history until Joe Bellino came along in 1958-60 and won the Heisman Trophy; Bill Clark; Sneed Schmidt; Bill Ingram II; and linemen Slade Cutter and Robert (Dusty) Dornin.
The Borries-Cutter-Dornin troika was at its zenith when the 28-year old Hamilton returned to Annapolis as head coach. He produced a 19-8 record. His first team in 1934 won its first seven games, including a 10-6 victory over Notre Dame. A 31-7 loss to Pitt the week after the Notre Dame victory cost Navy the national championship and it finished the season with an 8-1 record and ranked No. 3.
Cutter was a tremendous athlete who played as a center, linebacker, punter and kicker during his Navy career. He is best remembered as a player for kicking a 30-yard field goal during a rainstorm that produced a 3-0 season-ending victory against Army in 1934. He and Dornin, who played next to him at end, later became two of the navy's most successful submarine skippers during World War II.
Navy's football team was unspectacular for the rest of the 1930's, but coach Emory (Swede) Larson, a lean, tough Marine captain, changed all of that when he became head coach in 1939 and produced a 16-8-3 record in three years as head coach. His tenure kicked off one of the greatest eras in Navy's football history, one that included six future Hall of Fame players to help produce a 39-12-3 record from 1940-45; won the Lambert Trophy as the East's top team in 1943; and twice played Army for the national championship in 1944 and 1945.
Larson never experienced a losing game against Army, as player or coach. His 1941 team had an 8-1-1 record, its only loss to Notre Dame, and it was invited to play in the Cotton Bowl. But the Naval Academy officials declined the offer because the school had begun an accelerated three-year wartime schedule-the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor eight days after the Mids defeated Army in the season's final game--and some seniors on the team would have graduated before the game was played.
Billick Whelchel succeeded Larson and turned in a 13-5 record during the 1942-43 seasons. The 1942 team was 5-4 despite losing 15 eligible players.
Whelchel and Oscar Hagberg, his successor in 1944-45, adjusted to the new eligibility rules during the remaining war years and they built arguably the best Navy teams ever when many of the nation's best college football players transferred to the Naval Academy and became commissioned officers in the Navy and Marine Corps.
The 1943 team included transfers such as All-America tackle Don Whitmire and running back Bobby Jenkins from the Alabama team that had won the Orange Bowl the previous January; future NFL linemen Ed Sprinkle and Jack Martin; guard John (Bo) Coppedge who had played two years at VMI and who, after retiring from active duty, became the distinguished athletic director at the Naval Academy for 20 years; running backs Jim Pettit from Stanford and Bill Barron from Vanderbilt. They joined holdovers Hal Hamberg, a running back; ends Ben Martin and Ben Chase; guard George Brown; and end Dick Duden. Duden, Whitmire and Brown are enshrined in the Hall of Fame.
The result was an 8-1 record and the Lambert Trophy, emblematic of Eastern supremacy. The Mids lost only to Notre Dame and upset Army, 13-0.
The war also affected the Army-Navy game, forcing it by presidential decree to be played at each academy in 1942 and 1943. This was to serve as a model for curbing automobile travel and conserving gas and tires, which were rationed. Game tickets were limited to those who lived within 10 miles of each stadium and ticket purchasers had to prove that their residences were within those limits. Neither student body traveled to the game, but half of each academy wore white covers on their caps and were ordered to learn their rivals cheers to support them.
Whelchel left for sea duty after the 1943 season and was succeeded by Hagberg, who had played under Bill Ingram and Rip Miller. He had distinguished himself earlier in the war as a top submarine skipper. Transfers on his 1944 team included Notre Dame stars Fred Earley, a kicker; guard Jim Carrington, and running back Bob Kelly; plus All-America running backs Tony Minisi from Penn, Bob (Hunchy) Hoernschmeyer of Indiana and Clyde (Smackover) Scott from Arkansas. They helped to produce a 6-3 record in 1944 and a 7-1-1 record in 1945. The hallmark of those teams was arguably having the best group of linemen in college football.
West Point used the same standards to enrich its football teams, and in 1944-45 Army and Navy had the two best college teams in the nation. Their annual game decided the national championship, won in both years by Army, which continued its policy of extending eligibility for players from other schools and won a third straight national title in 1946. Navy ended such permissions in 1946 and its football program was shaved to a bare minimum.
Nonetheless, the 1946 Navy team produced one of the greatest Army-Navy games ever. The great Army backfield tandem of Glenn Davis and Doc Blanchard had not lost a game in three years and was playing its final game. Navy, winner of just one game in 1946, was a 19-point underdog but trailed just 21-18 with 92 seconds to play. The Mids had no time outs left and the game clock continued to run as Army's defense stopped two Navy running plays.
Thousands of spectators had streamed onto the sidelines and obliterated the sideline markings as Navy took an illegal time out, incurring a five-yard penalty back to the seven-yard line. Coach Tom Hamilton disdained a possible tying field goal with about 30 seconds to play-no Army-Navy game is ever played to gain a tie-and called a sweep by Pete Williams around right end. Barney Poole, Army's All-America end, stayed with Williams and forced him wider and wider as he desperately tried to reach the end zone. Poole tackled Williams as the two players were swallowed up by the crowd. Officials ruled that the play did not go out of bounds and time expired before Navy could run another play, just a few seconds and three yards away from becoming one of the greatest upsets of all time. Films were inconclusive as to whether Williams ever went out of bounds so the upset that didn't occur is still a great moment in Navy's football history.
It wasn't until 1952, in the third season under coach Eddie Erdelatz, that Navy began to flourish with a 6-2-1 record, and it remained a winning program for the next dozen years under Erdelatz and his successor, Wayne Hardin. Erdelatz' teams compiled a 50-26-8 record during his nine-season tenure; had seven straight winning seasons (1952-58); were ranked among the nation's top 20 teams five times; and won the 1955 Sugar Bowl and 1958 Cotton Bowl with some of Navy's greatest players.
Erdelatz established his credentials in his first season (1950) as head coach when his 2-6 team and quarterback Bob Zastrow upset second-ranked Army, 14-2. Three seasons later, in 1952, Navy had its first winning team (6-2-1) since 1945. His breakout season came in 1954 when the famed Team Named Desire compiled an 8-2 record and upset Mississippi in the 1955 Sugar Bowl.
The 1954 team was led by 5-9, 164-pound quarterback George Welsh who was a genius in running Navy's split-T offense. Its offensive stars also included end Ron Beagle, who won the 1954 Maxwell Award, running back Joe Gattuso and tackle John Hopkins. The 1954 team captain was running back Phil Monahan.
"He gave us 30 minutes of playing time, but he gave us 100 years of leadership," Erdelatz said of Monahan's role in 1954. Monahan later became a much-decorated Marine officer during the war in Viet Nam and as a major general, he commanded the famed First Marine Division.
Early in the 1954 season, the Mids upset heavily-favored Stanford 25-0 on the West Coast, where the "Team Named Desire" tag was born when Erdelatz said, "This team has more will to win than any of the five squads I have coached at the Academy."
Navy wanted a bowl opponent with the highest poll ranking and the Sugar Bowl named fifth-ranked Mississippi as its host team. Navy's "no bowl" policy had forced it to decline invitations to the Orange Bowl after the two previous seasons. But this team had captured so much national attention that all bowl invitations were considered under the category of "special exceptions," the "exception" being "at least" $160,000 as its share of appearance money needed to supplement the fund-raising drive to construct a new football stadium; plus much-needed exposure that could raise the school's public visibility and stem a decline of student congressional appointments.
Navy had two advantages going into the game. The Mississippi players later admitted they didn't think the Mids offered much of a challenge as they watched them on film and were stunned when they discovered that the "team named desire" was reality. Welsh also called a perfect game, running his split-T offense like a magician and adding enough passing-8 of 15 for 78 yards-to keep Ole Miss' defense off balance. Gattuso played fullback for the first time since early in the season. He gained 111 yards, scored two touchdowns and was named the game's most valuable player in a 21-0 victory.
Navy declined bowl invitations after its 6-2-1 season in 1955 and a fine 6-1-2 season in 1956 because it did not beat Army (16-6 loss in '55 and a 7-7 tie in '56). But the fifth-ranked 1957 team, which many considered better than its three predecessors, earned a bid to the 1958 Cotton Bowl after an 8-1-1 season and smothered eighth-ranked Rice 20-7, earning $175,000 for its new stadium fund.
Hardin, just 32 years old, replaced Erdelatz as head coach in 1959. He did all that he was asked on the field, leading Navy to winning seasons in five of his six years as head coach, and produced a 38-22-2 record that included appearances in the Orange and Cotton Bowls while also producing Navy's only Heisman Trophy winners, running back Joe Bellino in 1960 and quarterback Roger Staubach in 1963.
In 1960, Hardin's second season, Bellino was the key to Navy's 9-1 record, and a trip to the Orange Bowl where the Mids eventually lost to Missouri, 21-14. Bellino, 5-9, 187-pounds, had tremendous power in his legs, great speed, mobility and great peripheral vision that made him a fearsome runner in the open field. When his career ended, he held the Academy's career rushing mark of 1,664 yards among a number of other career and season records.
That same year, a young quarterback from Cincinnati, Ohio named Roger Staubach had been named a junior college All-America at New Mexico Institute. He resisted offers from Notre Dame, Purdue and Ohio State and committed himself to the Naval Academy where he became the greatest player in Navy's football history.
Roger was a great all-around athlete. He also lettered in basketball and baseball and won the both the Thompson Trophy Cup and the Navy Athletic Association Sword, the two highest athletic awards at the Naval Academy.
Many of his football skills couldn't be coached because they were so natural. He ran with long powerful strides and was at his best when he was seemingly trapped because his deceptive speed and quickness afoot fooled defenders and enabled him to scramble out of trouble. Staubach threw very accurately when worked from pocket, on the run or even when he was backing up.
He got his first break in the fourth game of the 1962 season, replacing an injured Ron Klemick in the first quarter against Cornell and led Navy to a 41-0 victory. He got his first start the following week against Boston College and completed 14 of 20 passes for 165 yards and two touchdowns in a 28-6 victory. Millions watched his incredible performance later that season in a nationally televised 34-14 victory against Army. He scored two touchdowns, passed for two more, completed 11 of 13 passes for 188 yards and was Navy's leading rusher with his great scrambling ability.
All of that was just a prelude to his junior season in 1963 when the Mids finished the season ranked second in the nation with a 9-1 record. He became the toast of the college football world with his amazing performances that ended with his becoming only the second junior ever to win the Heisman Trophy. The milestone games that season were victories over Michigan, Pitt and Notre Dame. The team's only loss was 32-28 against Southern Methodist when Staubach was sidelined with a separated shoulder.
The season's final game against Army had to be postponed a week after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and Navy barely defeated the Cadets 21-15 in one of the greatest games ever played in that historic series. Though ranked second nationally and an overwhelming favorite, Navy's team had been crushed emotionally by the death of Kennedy who that season had very quietly "adopted" them. Before leaving on his last fateful trip to Texas, he had sent a note to the team saying that he looked forward to seeing them play against Army and hoped he would be on the winning sideline at game's end, knowing all the while that he would be sitting on Navy side of the field in the second half.
Navy barely escaped an astounding upset. The Cadets had the ball at Navy's seven-yard line in the final 98 seconds but had no time outs. The noise from the 100,000 fans in Philadelphia Stadium was so deafening that several times Army quarterback Rollie Stichweh stepped back from center, claiming his team could not hear his signals. Each time, referee Barney Finn stopped the clock until the noise subsided and Army ran a play. Three runs got Army to the one-yard line with 22 seconds to play, enough time for one last play.
Army was lined up ready to run a play, but again the noise reached fever pitch. Stichweh got another clock stoppage from Finn and instead of running a play when it subsided, he huddled his team. He and his players seemed unaware that Finn had restarted the clock as they huddled, until the huge crowd began screaming, "The clock! The clock!" There were eight seconds left as they hurriedly lined up for the fourth down play. Again, the unbearable noise caused Stichweh to back away from center and seek a clock stoppage from Finn. But the official ignored him and the final seconds ticked off before Army could run its final play.
In a replay of Army's miraculous finish in the 1946 game, Navy had won 21-15 and saved its trip to the Cotton Bowl to play No. 1 Texas for the national championship. But they lost 28-6 in their worst performance of the season.
Many expected the same kind of ride by Staubach and Navy in 1964 but during a 21-8 opening victory at Penn State, Roger badly sprained his ankle and Achilles tendon, one of some 40 injuries that plagued the team that season, and he played only intermittently as Navy slipped to 3-6-1. Staubach's final home game was a classic as he set a Navy single game yardage record of 308 yards in a 27-14 victory over Duke.
When Staubach graduated there followed a dozen sub par seasons during which Navy had just one winning season, 1967, when the Mids were 5-4-1 under coach Bill Elias. Navy finally turned to one of its heroes from the Team Named Desire and signed George Welsh as head coach in 1973. In his nine seasons as head coach, his 55-46-1record is the best in school history.
Welsh did not produce instant success as four of his first five teams had losing seasons. But starting in 1978, with running back Eddie Meyers smashing Navy rushing records, his teams had four straight winning seasons, and appeared in three post-season games. His best team, in 1978, was led by Meyers, then a plebe, wide receiver Phil McConkey, and quarterback Bob Leszcynski, and produced a 9-3 record, including a 28-0 win against Army and a hair-raising 23-16 victory over Brigham Young in the Holiday Bowl in San Diego.
McConkey, who later became a New York Giants Super Bowl hero when the team won the 1986 NFL title, previewed some of that magic in the Holiday Bowl victory as Navy came from a 16-3 deficit in the second half and scored 20 unanswered points for a 23-16 victory. Leszcynski completed seven of 13 passes for 123 yards, including a spectacular 65-yard touchdown pass to McConkey, his second TD catch in the game.
Meyers was Navy's all-time leading rusher when he finished his career in 1981 with 2,935 yards and a record five yards per carry. That career rushing mark was bettered four years later by Napoleon McCallum, the Mids all-time rusher with 4,179 yards from 1981-85.
There were lean times in the Yard for the next two decades, just three winning seasons from 1982-2002. Two of those came back-to-back under coach Charlie Weatherbie in 1996-97, and included a nail-biting 42-38 victory over California in the 1996 Aloha Bowl that capped a 9-3 season.
Relief from this disastrous record finally arrived in the person of coach Paul Johnson in 2002, and during his six years as head coach through the 2007 regular season, Navy football reached a pinnacle not seen since the Erdelatz-Hardin-Welsh years-a 45-29 won-loss record that included five consecutive winning seasons; six consecutive wins against arch-rival Army and five against the Air Force Academy to win the Commander-in-Chief Trophy; and a school record five consecutive post-season bowl appearances.
Johnson first came to Navy as offensive coordinator in 1995 and unveiled a spread offense that set a flurry of offensive records. The following year he helped Navy snap a 13-season losing record when the Mids, led by Chris McCoy, went 9-3, including the Aloha Bowl win. He became head coach at Georgia Southern, a Division 1-AA school, where in five years he twice won the 1-AA national championship.
Navy's athletic director Chet Gladchuk hired him as head coach in 2002. It took a 2-10 record that year to establish a program that has been consistently successful with its use of an option offense, once so popular in college football during the 60s and 70s. It disappeared when coaches preferred systems that featured more passing. Since it was little used, Navy had an edge over civilian schools, which outmanned them physically and in overall talent because they had problems trying to establish a special defense against it for just one game.
Once the new offense was installed and mastered, Navy's rushing offense led all of Division I football in four of five seasons from 2003-2007, and was the first 1-A team to be No. 1 for three straight years (2005-07), thanks to such players as Craig Candeto, Kyle Eckel, Adam Ballard, Aaron Polanco, Reggie Campbell and Eric Kettani.
Aside from the victories against Army and Air Force, the most memorable moment of the Johnson era was the aforementioned 46-44 three-overtime victory against Notre Dame at Notre Dame Stadium in 2007. It was the first win over the Irish since 1963-a span of 44 games. The victory was not assured until linebacker Irv Spencer and defensive end Michael Walsh led a rush of tacklers who smothered Notre Dame's Travis Thomas behind the line of scrimmage when he attempted a two-point conversion in the game's third overtime period. Just minutes earlier, Mids quarterback Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada threw a 25-yard touchdown pass and the subsequent two-point conversion pass to Reggie Campbell for the winning points.
There were other highlights during Johnson's tenure. A week after its 2007 victory over Notre Dame, Navy defeated North Texas 74-62 in the highest scoring game in NCAA history. In the 34-19 victory over New Mexico in the 2004 Emerald Bowl, the Mids also set NCAA records by running 26 plays over a span of 14:26 for its final touchdown late in the game. The following year, Campbell tied an NCAA bowl game record when he scored five touchdowns-three while rushing for 116 yards--in Navy's 51-30 victory over Colorado State in the 2005 Poinsettia Bowl.
Navy's appearance in the 2007 Poinsettia Bowl also marked the debut of Ken Niumatalolo as Navy's 38th head football coach after Johnson resigned to become head coach at Georgia Tech. With victories early in the 2008 season over ranked Wake Forest, plus Rutgers and Air Force, it would appear that he has set a straight and true course to continue Navy's success.
(Jack Clary, an award winning free-lance author of 67 books, has written NAVY FOOTBALL, a history of the sport at the Naval Academy, and two histories of the Army-Navy series. For most of the past quarter century, he has been an annual contributor to the Army-Navy Game's program.)