TIME TO BREAK OLD HABITS

Perception can be a funny thing.

When you watch a team like Boise State or Houston rise in the polls, you can almost feel the regret from voters who rank them highly. They don’t want to. In their eyes, teams like that aren’t supposed to be any good. It’s a slow climb up the mountain if you aren’t a name-brand program, and the moment you slip up, those voters are all too eager to drop you off a cliff. Anything short of perfection, and these programs get little to no respect. History shapes our perception, making it harder for upstarts to prove their worth in the eyes of the public. The missteps of more established programs don’t cost them as much.

It’s a similar dynamic in the smaller ecosystem of service academy football, where Air Force was the dominant program for the better part of two decades. After beating Navy the last two years and winning the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy, fans and media alike were eager to hail the return of the old days. Don’t get me wrong; wins are wins, so if Air Force was called the better team those years, there isn’t much of an argument to be made against it. But because of that history and the perception that comes from it, people didn’t want to leave it at Air Force simply being the better team that year. No, this was a return to the old Air Force and the old Navy and the way things were in decades past. Navy beat Air Force for a record seven straight years, but like the Boises and Houstons in the polls, it took all of one game to tear down what those teams built. After two games, it was official: Air Force was superior once again. Troy Calhoun was the real deal. Navy was sliding back into mediocrity. Ken Niumatalolo couldn’t maintain what Paul Johnson had built. Everything was falling back into place.

Because of this, Navy’s problems this year were overblown while Air Force’s were overlooked. We all know the issues that the Mids have faced. There was the bad defense against Notre Dame, the turnovers, the penalties, and the lack of offensive production against San Jose State. We’ve heard about them non-stop, which is to be expected with a team that’s 1-3. But for some reason, Air Force got a free pass on their shortcomings. Navy was a disappointment last year, finishing 5-7. But Air Force underachieved too, going 7-6 with their most experienced team in a long time. They were only 2-2 going into Saturday, so they weren’t exactly setting the world on fire this year, either. While the teams that have defeated Navy are a combined 13-3 and include one program ranked in the top 10, Air Force lost to 1-5 UNLV. The Falcons have had every bit as much trouble fumbling the ball; until Saturday, they were just lucky enough to recover them. Air Force’s defense has had major issues, giving up 356 passing yards to Idaho State, and 292 passing yards in 3 quarters to Colorado State’s backup. Air Force was just as flawed as Navy going into Saturday. That Navy won shouldn’t be considered too much of an upset, but it was.

Nobody denies Navy’s problems from decades past. The record is there for all to see. Simply knowing the record, though, is not the same thing as understanding it. When talking about the reasons why Army failed in Conference USA, I mentioned that there was a struggle within the Army program over whether or not they were truly a legitimate Division I-A program. The truth is that the same could have been said about Navy to some extent after George Welsh left. The Mids were playing half of their schedule against James Madison, Lehigh, and Dartmouth, while playing South Carolina, Syracuse, and Pitt in the other half. Navy was trying to straddle two worlds, and the record reflected that. Air Force, on the other hand, was committed to playing top-level football. As a result, they got the lion’s share of top-level service academy players. They were a real I-A program. Navy was not. For all of his faults, this is the one thing that Charlie Weatherbie understood. His solution, unfortunately, was to remove all I-AA teams from the schedule and try to play as many BCS-caliber opponents as he could. Like most things under Weatherbie, that didn’t work either. But as the program moved on under a new coach and a new athletic director, it did so having learned from the mistakes of the past. Navy is now a committed Division I-A program, with the facilities, coaches, and recruiting that go along with it.

That’s why it’s wrong to base your expectations on the records of the past. The factors that led to those records have changed. Air Force built their reputation for service academy dominance against a Navy program that wasn’t dedicated to fielding a competitive Division I-A team. That is no longer the case, and the results reflect that. Since Navy jump-started its program in 2002, they have won 8 of 11 games against Air Force, and two of those losses were still close games. Troy Calhoun is 2-4 against Navy, and 2-3 against Ken Niumatalolo. Niumat has two wins over top 25 programs; Calhoun has none. Navy’s losing streak to Notre Dame is dead, and they’ve put together two 10-win seasons under two different head coaches in the last decade. While you can’t ignore last season’s losing record, you also shouldn’t be so quick to assume that it was anything more than an anomaly.

The point of all this is not to claim that Navy is superior. The point is that this Navy program is not the program of the past, and it’s time for perception to change. Service academy football is no longer made up of one program that knows what it’s doing while the other two are off finding themselves. Air Force should no longer be placed on a pedestal while everyone waits for Navy to fall off a cliff. It isn’t going to happen. It’s a new era of equality in service academy football, and we aren’t going back.


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24 Responses

  1. I agree with everything you said. But sadly, the non-believers will always be that way, and I think you just wasted your breath (or typing skills.)

    But that’s okay. I like being the underdog, who pulls off the upset more often than not.

    • I’m not asking anyone to believe, just to embrace the obvious.

    • I agree with the non-believers may always be that way. I listen to the people around me in NMCMS and I swear they act like we are back in the age of sux because “that’s what Navy does” type of attitude.

      I don’t know how to get people to realize that the past 10 years or so really did happen. While Navy is not Alabama or USC, we aren’t miserable despite the fact that we may have some poor outings (Tulane 2004 anyone?). This is as good of evidence as any to hopefully try to point that out.

  2. So is Army’s difficulty not getting enough of the limited number of “Service Academy” level recruits? (Which is the combination of smarts, athleticism, and potential leadership ability)

    • Two ifs…firs,t they need a new Superintendent, and two, as soon as Afghanistan is not looming in their 2/LT’s immediate future Army will be able to recruit more effectively…we need to keep the pressure on!

    • It was. I don’t think that’s the current issue. I watch the Prep teams. Navy still recruits better and much bigger on lines but Ellerson has improved Army’s recruiting. Army fans are complaining about his inability to win with what Brock left him but his recruits which started showing up 2011 (He was hired Jan 2009) are already some of his best players. Their defense will have 4 plebes starting this week. His current prep team is loaded with speed everywhere. I’m looking foward to see NAPS and USMAPS in Nov. It should be a another good game. As long as Army doesn’t do something stupid and fire Ellerson I think all these SA teams will be on equal footing soon.

  3. “as the program moved on under a new coach and a new athletic director, it did so having learned from the mistakes of the past. Navy is now a committed Division I-A program, with the facilities, coaches, and recruiting that go along with it.”

    Not to nit-pick & I know you know this, but the hiring of Chet was the turning point. I think that he had a plan that the Supe believed could work & thus hired CG despite his perceived baggage from his last job. CG fired CW mid-season amidst a lot of controversy in 2001, made a brilliant hire in PJ, had a 4-4-4 scheduling philosophy that realized who we were & how we could be successful & put it into place. The rest is history that is still being written.

    • I’m not sure how that’s nit-picking since it was pretty much my point. Not sure what baggage Chet had at Houston either.

    • John Ryan, Superintendent, knew what he was doing when he went after Chet…and he directed Chet to look at PJ.

  4. I mean nit-picking by saying that it was a new AD then a new coach.

    Not Houston, but I remember some issues at BC before Chet came to Navy. I don’t remember the specifics & can’t find them online. I just remember when he was hired having several co-workers give me a hard time to the effect of “Navy hired him after what happened at BC? Good luck with that.” I don’t even know how much he may or may not have had to do with anything, but I do remember trying to deflect the criticism of his hire back in 2001.

    • OK, you’re nit-picking. I didn’t imply chronological order.

      The football team at BC had a huge gambling scandal when Chet was AD, not that he had anything to do with it.

    • Yeah, I meant not to nit-pick because the point is still the same & I knew that you obviously know that CG came before PJ.

      Now that you refreshed my memory I think that was my generic response without knowing the details at the time of what happened at BC as “yeah, like the AD would know anything about that”. I just remember them going off about “how could Navy hire someone after that scandal” type of thing. One of those “on the surface, it may seem like you may have a point, but when you realize the details, you don’t know what you’re talking about” (“you” meaning my co-workers giving me a hard time back then).

      Regardless, I think history has shown that to be a brilliant hire by Navy.

    • CG is the best think to happen to USNA Sports ever, to the chagrin of the posters on LP. Look at all his other tremendous coaching hires that have had positive results: Kostacopoulos, DeChellis, Pemper, Sowell, Timchall, Brandt, Puryear, Bock…. I believe that we have some of the best coaches in to country all across the board.

  5. Mike,

    Well done. Not many articles I read on sports or other topics force me to consider an entirely different perspective . You accomplish that routinely. Thanks.

  6. Love the meme.

  7. Mike,
    You hit it on the head.

  8. Spot on analysis….as usual. Chet was a great hire. He came with boundless energy and a well-defined vision for success. He knew that it all started with football and that we HAD to succeed there. What he accomplished with NMCMS is nothing short of miraculous. I remember telling him it was hopeless. He told me “wait and see”. He was right. When PJ took our job I knew we were going to be OK. He’d been at Navy and, as a hot-running 1-AA coach, he knew he’d only get one shot on the big stage if he didn’t win. He wouldn’t have taken the job if he didn’t believe in Chet and the Academy’s commitment to winning. When PJ left Chet had a plan and executed it almost overnight. The elevation of KN and the retention of most of the assistants allowed us to continue to succeed. Chet’s also made a series of great hires for our other sports. I’m sure he’d like to have the Billy Lange one back, but no one’s perfect. If you look at the overall health of our athletic program writ large it’s never been better. Even the weak programs like volleyball are on their way back to success. Gotta love it.

  9. great opinion piece. When one takes the long view, it’s hard to get worked up by a few bumps in the road. Your article should give all Navy fans a sharpened perspective.
    Bolivia 71

  10. Mike,

    Thanks for this kick in the butt. Definitely needed to snap out of my recent glass half-empty view on Navy football, and you always manage to remind me (and I think the rest of us) not to get caught up in all the “real time” hype and doomsday talk. On the straight and narrow once again, sir… Please forgive my brief departure from the faithful.

    • I want to be clear here… I’m seeing a lot of words like “believers” and “faithful” being tossed around. I’m not asking anyone to have faith. I’m just pointing out that today’s program is not the same as the Navy program of 20-30 years ago, something we all probably realize but don’t necessarily appreciate. Unlike the dark ages, Navy and Air Force are on equal footing now. Nobody is going to run away with the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy anymore the way Air Force used to. It seemed to me like a lot of people felt like that was happening again.

  11. other than us winning 7 in a row :)

  12. A very good piece that highlights a “dark side” of the Navy fan culture. Like it or not, the dismal post-Welsh decades created a culture of “expect the worst” that many of the longer-term fans (myself included) find difficult to get past. I agree that Navy and AIr Force are now at parity on a year-to-year basis. What causes people fail to see this is probably that our wins over AF since 2003 are all close (1 TD or less) and don’t inlcude any smack-downs like AF occasionally administered to Navy (e.g. 94, 98, and 02). Unfortunately, the teams performance in the first four games of 2012 (including the 1st half of VMI) made it easy for the “expect the worst” fears to come out. It wasn’t just losing to teams like PSU or ND, it was how we looked losing. Seeing the offense stumble so badly against SJSU (despite how good their defense may be) reminded many of the bad old days.

    Your piece provides a good and timely perspective.

  13. To sum up, If the winner wears baggy pants everyone wants to wear baggy pants. If looser wears baggy pants no one wants to wear baggy pants.

  14. Would be nice if more AF fans would recognize this but your analysis is undeniable. Had a conversation with an AF grad a day after the game, who missed it on TV, but assumed they simply choked. After all “Navy stinks this year”. When pressed to support his statement, all he could muster is the assumption that “order was returning to SA football”. Many of the points in my response were similar to ones you more eloquently made. Whether they stuck or not is another issue.

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