What A Difference A Decade Makes

Posted on 1/8/10 at http://www.navysports.com

By Bob Socci

You know how the decade ended for the Navy Midshipmen.  Do you remember how it began?
If so, perhaps you’d rather forget.  
It’s totally understandable, especially considering how the latest of Navy’s last seven seasons – the best yet, I believe – came to end little more than a week ago in Houston.
I mean, who in the afterglow of a nationally-televised rout of Missouri, completing only the third 10-win campaign in 129 years, wants to look back on an uncomfortably hot, rainy night when the Mids could muster six measly points against Temple?
Leave it to me.  
This first week of 2010, I’ve thought a great deal about that game.  And others like it, at the turn of this century.
Memories of that first game in 2000, held in Annapolis on Sept. 2, are somewhat hazy.  Exactly as it appeared, looking through the old scratched-up and fogged-up windows of a pre-renovation Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium radio booth.
Constantly trying to keep the beads of sweat out of my eyes on an oppressively humid evening, I watched the Owls’ Tanardo Sharps – a local product – outgain the Mids by himself.  Sharps rushed for 180 yards, including 64 on a fourth-quarter scoring dash.  
Navy totaled 148 yards, incurring six sacks and failing to rush for 100 yards for the first time in six years.  A 17-6 final, it was the first of 10 straight losses and one of the Mids’ 30 in their first 33 games of the decade.
Remembering when – even when remembering isn’t much fun – is important.  Among other things, it reminds us just how good we got it.  
What was once the little team that could is now so much bigger than that.  Oh sure, Navy remains undersized by Division I standards.  And granted, one look at yours truly suggests that no one roots harder for the little guy.
But it’s time to see the present-day Mids for what they truly are: a very good football team capable of competing with anyone from the Big Ten to Big 12, Columbus to Columbia.  Small by comparison, they’ve cast some very large shadows, and inspired expectations that once would have been outsized among supporters.
For instance, however you feel about this year’s final polls, with Navy barely missing the coaches’ Top 25, do you think the Mids might be, could be, will be nationally ranked next season?  There’s little reason today to believe they can’t be.  
And is there any Navy fan not yet convinced that a healthy Ricky Dobbs, coming off his 1,000-yard double as a rusher and passer, and NCAA record 27 touchdowns as a quarterback in 2009, will merit mention in the Heisman conversation when next fall begins?  
Not if the way he ended 2009 is taken into account.  Dobbs’ closed with five straight 100-yard rushing performances, including 11 touchdowns. Despite the not-so-mild inconvenience of getting hit on virtually every play while running on a fractured right knee cap.
Too soon to begin stumping for the 2040 presidential primaries – though the Commander-In-Chief aspirant might want to start fundraising – it’s not too early to launch a “Dobbs for Heisman” campaign.
This is 2010.  As far as Navy football is concerned, what previously would have been far-fetched is now simply far-reaching.  And with apologies to Robert Browning, 61 wins the last seven years (16 over BCS members) are indisputable proof that the Mids’ grasp often exceeds their reach.
That’s how remarkably the Navy football culture changed in less than a decade.  What had been mission impossible has become matter of fact.  
New if not improved, the millennium opened with one win in two seasons under a pair of outgoing coaches, Charlie Weatherbie and his interim replacement Rick Lantz.  Lowest of lows was a 63-point margin of defeat at the hands of Georgia Tech early in 2001.
Six years later, when that same Georgia Institute of Technology needed a new head coach, it reached out to Navy’s Paul Johnson.  By then, he’d engineered one of the greatest turnarounds in college football history and prepared the Mids for a seamless transition under Ken Niumatalolo.
On Niumatalolo’s watch, the decade wound down with 18 wins the last two seasons, each of which included an upset of a Top 20 opponent.  Before 2008, the last time Navy beat a team ranked by the Associated Press was 1985.
With such success, interest and attention have coincided with changing technology and an evolving media landscape.  Early in the decade, the Mids were occasionally on TV.  Now, it’s extremely rare if they’re not on.
Where once Navy football coverage was seasonal, today it never stops; thanks to local newspaper beat writers, as well as internet sites such as GoMidshipmen.com and thebirddog.wordpress.com.  
Today alone, I’ve read a breakdown of the Mids’ 2010 schedule, a blog taking certain voters to task for omitting Navy from their final Top 25 and a profile of a running back being recruited to the Academy.
True, watching snow fall in New England, I probably should instead be reading Thoreau, if not the book my wife just gave me about parenting.  Yet, here I am, relishing Navy football’s present, contemplating its future and, as mentioned before, revisiting its past.
Some memories are of good times, others of bad.  A handful are of turning points, a few of tragic turns.
As an American, one can’t begin to think about the past decade without first remembering September 2001, and contemplating the wars that followed.  As an associate of Navy football, such reflection demands remembrance of fallen heroes like J.P. Blecksmith and Ron Winchester.  
With sadness, I can’t help but think of others – older members of the Navy family, yet taken from us too soon during the last decade.  Men like Tom Bates, Joe Duff, Steve Belichick and Frank Oslislo.  If you knew any one of them, you know what I mean.
Of course, Navy football is buoyed on a steady flow of pride and patriotism; evident always on game day, and embodied forever by those who play the games.  Among my favorite images of the last decade is the repeated scene of the Midshipmen charging onto the field, led by a player or two carrying the Stars and Stripes.
Unforgettable still is the sight of Andy Michalowicz waving the flag at the 2003 Houston Bowl.  And for that matter, the thought of Cameron Marshall doing the same in the same stadium, six years later, at the 2009 Texas Bowl.
During the last decade, as the program’s transformation mirrored the renovation of Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, we were treated to so many wonderful on-field moments and performances.
Most you’ll easily recall.  
They include Craig Candeto’s six-pack of scores in the 58-12 rout of Army that ended Johnson’s inaugural season as head coach and ignited a still-active 15-game winning streak against academy rivals. There were Reggie Campbell’s five touchdowns opposite Colorado State at the 2005 Poinsettia Bowl and Shun White’s 348 yards rushing vs. Towson in 2008 opener.
No doubt, you too recall all those game-winning kicks; none more impressive, or important, than Joey Bullen’s 46-yarder, off a sprint from the sidelines, in the rain, to down Air Force in 2005.
Of the milestones that marked the decade, there were epic achievements; like the 26-play, 14 ½-minute march that secured victory in the 2004 Emerald Bowl; and the one last stand, in the third-and-final overtime at Notre Dame in 2007.
Every so often, a bolt of lightning produced a twist of fate.  In 2008, it struck twice at Air Force, where a pair of blocked punts resulted in Navy touchdowns.  A month later, it struck again.  This time in the form of a nothing-short-of-miraculous fumble return against Temple.
Perhaps there were other highlights that more personally affected you as well.
For me, the-not-so-obvious include the night of Aug. 31, 2002, and the celebration touched off long after pregame fireworks set fire to a hill in the south end zone of SMU’s Ford Stadium.  It was Johnson’s debut as head coach, and Navy defeated the Mustangs, 38-7.
The Mids’ first victory since Dec. 2, 2000, it led to a joyous trip back to BWI on a plane that was loud with laughter. Finally, after so many chartered returns in the silent darkness of defeat.
Even though Navy wouldn’t celebrate another triumph until that December, you could see and hear that Johnson’s hiring meant “Expect to Win” would become a mantra more than a slogan.
To this day, I’m convinced that no win the last seven seasons was more significant than the 28-25 decision over Air Force in October 2003.  The Mids entered at 2-2, winless against the Falcons since 1996.  Air Force was unbeaten and ranked in the coaches’ poll.  Things haven’t been the same in academy football since.
Fullback Kyle Eckel was the star that day, steamrolling defenders at FedEx Field in Landover.  But the unsung hero, wielding the symbol that became the stuff of legend, was linebacker Bobby McClarin.  
Athletic trainer Dr. Jeff Fair essentially wrapped a boxing glove in rolls of tape to allow McClarin to play despite a broken hand.  Fair’s invention became known as ‘The Club’ and, dare one write, it came in handy when McClarin batted down a potential touchdown pass during an early goal-line stand.
Following Navy’s win, The Drydock Restaurant at the Academy’s Dahlgren Hall, introduced The Club sandwich.  In time, it was dropped from the menu.  As for The Club itself, it lives on.  
It’s funny – and it’s what makes Navy football such a pleasure to cover – to think of how someone like McClarin made such an impact.  Here he was a 21st-century player, who kept a black-and-white photo of Chuck Bednarik, the last of the NFL’s 60-minute men, inside his locker.
Old school, and blue collar, McClarin was, like so many Midshipmen, a cliché come to life in his blue-and-gold uniform, right down to his number 51.
As much as anything, he made the most of his football talent, and the time he had in Annapolis.  Yes, there’ve been all-stars at the Academy in recent seasons; Dobbs being an example.  But success in recent years has been driven and sustained by everyone who found a way – his way – to maximize whatever he could contribute.  
Those who come to mind include players like former special teamers Matt Williams, Anthony Piccioni and T.J. Costello. Most of the time, they were backups.  But whenever they took the field – in the split-second of a long snap, or during the downfield rush of covering a kickoff – each in his own right was All-America.  
On this year’s Mids, the same could be said of Greg Zingler, regularly holding for PAT’s and field goals; Kevin Campbell, entering once as a lead blocker for a Dobbs’ TD; or Jack Hatcher, enduring all those scout team reps for a once-in-a-lifetime carry against Missouri.
Or any number of others.
That’s what, as coaches routinely remind us, separates football.  In every phase, there are 11 players.  A few might be standouts.  There may even be a playmaker capable of turning nothing into something special on any given snap.  But success over a game, a season, a decade, hinges on all 11. Everyone has a role that must be fulfilled.  
Such teamwork defined the better part of the last 10 years for the Midshipmen.  Expecting it to continue – and given no reason to think otherwise – it’s why we can envision, more than dream, even bigger and better things down the road.  
It’s why suggesting a preseason ranking or proposing a Heisman candidacy isn’t out of the question.  And it’s why we’re likely to continue experiencing nights like Sept. 2, 2000 only in our memories.

Author: Bob Socci

Play-by-play broadcaster for the New England Patriots and 98.5 The Sports Hub in Boston.

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