Staying The Course

By Bob Socci – Originally posted on navysports.com on August, 19, 2011.

Pats on the back couldn’t cure the pain in Jarred Shannon’s shoulders, but they sure helped to ease his mind.

Well before playing his way to the top of Navy’s depth chart at outside linebacker, labrum tears in both shoulders — first the left, a year later the right — left him wondering whether football was worth it.

Navy linebacker Jarred Shannon.

Shannon had his moments, like his blocked punt resulting in a touchdown against Temple.  But that was one of just four games played as a sophomore.  That fall and the following spring, there were too many hours recovering and rehabbing from surgery.

“I had to lean on a lot of teammates and family members to keep going,” Shannon said in the wake of Wednesday’s practice.  “I’ve got that fire (within me), but after a while, injury after injury, you start to second-guess yourself and doubt yourself.  But everyone was supportive of me.”

Including head coach Ken Niumatalolo.

“Coach Niumat’ was very supportive and very encouraging,” Shannon says.  “Every day in practice, he was always checking on me, seeing how I was doing and asking how my shoulder was doing.  He gave me everything I needed to get through it.”

Confronting any doubts, he could also confide in his father.  James Shannon was a talented fullback whose career was cut short by injuries.

“He understood where I was,” Jarred recalled.  “He said, `Son, this is one of those decisions I can’t (make for you)…I did what I did, but this is your opportunity.  This is something different for you.  This is your call, but whatever you do, I’m behind you.'”
To say that Shannon made the right decision to keep playing only begins to tell the rest of the story.

He returned from surgery two months earlier than expected, and held up well enough in last year’s preseason camp to earn a place on the Mids’ special teams unit.  Appearing in all 13 games, Shannon also adjusted to a full-time position change, as a former safety.

A year later, he’s in good stead to start the season opener vs. Delaware on Sept. 3.

“There’s a kid who stayed the course,” Niumatalolo says.  “(Jarred’s) a guy we were hoping would play more but because of injuries hasn’t been on the field much.  But the guy has not said a word.  He’s had two bad shoulders, and he’s just toughed it out.”

“It’s pretty much what I’ve been working for these last four years,” Shannon reflects.  “Hopefully I’ll be able to show it this year, to make plays, and when Coach (Buddy) Green puts me in different situations be able to capitalize.”

The way Green utilizes outside linebackers as Navy’s defensive coordinator, there will be no shortage of opportunities.  Shannon currently mans the Striker position, opposite fellow outside linebacker Mason Graham, a.k.a. the Raider.

“When we go against conventional offenses, my job is to deal less with linemen and more with receivers,” Shannon explains.  “We’re more coverage linebackers.”

Though not exclusively.  Green often sends the Striker on blitzes.  Therefore, Shannon is expected to be well-rounded, taking over a position responsible for a lot of game-turning plays in recent years.

In 2008 Ram Vela produced five takeaways, including three interceptions.  Last season Aaron McCauley made 10.5 tackles for loss.

As a former defensive back, Shannon has the athleticism to enjoy similar numbers.  He’s also proven himself a heavy hitter.

This is his last chance to do the former and be the latter, injury free.

“You know that all you need is one shot,” he says.

“He’s healthy now and he’s been focused and businesslike,” Niumatalolo says.  “I’m very happy for him.  I’ve been so very, very impressed with Jarred Shannon.”

SOFT SPOT FOR A HARD WORKER

There are times when Niumatalolo can be hard on the Midshipmen; namely when they lack the effort expected of them.  But really, he’s got a soft spot for his entire team, especially those for whom success doesn’t come easy and often comes late.

Of course, naming all the names of such players might make Niumatalolo sound like Deion Sanders, who thanked more than 100 people during his recent Hall of Fame induction speech.  Besides, there’s only so much space on this webpage.

Senior slot back Mike Stukel.

Nonetheless, during a recent conversation, Niumatalolo talked at length about one player he’s taken a rooting interest in this season: senior Mike Stukel.

Early in his career, Stukel rotated back and forth between slot back and quarterback.  In the spring of ’09, he was strongly considered for backing up Ricky Dobbs, only to get edged out by Kriss Proctor.

With Stukel relocated to slot, Proctor injured his knee the following fall.  Stukel briefly returned to quarterback, until Proctor recovered.  He then switched out his shoulder pads one last time.

Stukel figured to have a prominent role as a junior.  He opened with four carries vs. Maryland, had four more at Louisiana Tech, including his first career touchdown, and two at Air Force.  Four games into the season, he didn’t touch the ball again in 2010.

Midway through this preseason camp, Stukel’s last, six other names fill Navy’s first three strings.  Yet, he’s someone Niumatalolo holds in high esteem.  And has high hopes for.

“I’m pulling for that kid.  He’s worked hard, he’s stayed the course, he doesn’t complain,” Niumatalolo says.  “He just comes to work everyday with a businesslike approach and is a pleasant young man to be around.  He’s nothing but positive for a team.

“It could have easily gone the other way.  Here’s a guy who at one point was the backup quarterback; he was actually competing with Proctor for that spot.  We moved him, but he never complained.  He just accepted his role and has continued to work hard.  Guys like that I pull for.  I just hope he has a great year, because he’s such a great kid.”

WHAT’S BREWIN’

Matt Brewer is another Midshipman who’s gladly paid his dues to the program.

That he’s competing for a starter’s job is both remarkable and still somewhat unsurprising at the same time.  The other three players currently listed at first- and second-string inside linebacker all have starting experience.

Last season Max Blue made five starts, Caleb King started four times and Matt Warrick was a starter against Army and San Diego State.  Meanwhile, Brewer was mainly a special teamer, totaling four tackles.

Still, he made a lasting impression that’s continued throughout the 2011 preseason.

“(Matt) was one of our best special teams players last year,” Niumatalolo said.  “He’s probably our most physical kid.  We’ve got three guys (inside) who’ve played a lot, and the one guy who didn’t is probably our most physical linebacker.”

BACK TO RETURN

Niumatalolo confirmed Thursday that sophomore speedster Marcus Thomas, a reserve slot back, will return kicks for the second straight year.  In that role the last eight games of 2010, Thomas flashed potential of becoming Navy’s most lethal return threat since Reggie Campbell took two kicks back for scores in 2007.

“No doubt,” Niumatalolo replied earlier this month, when asked if Thomas is on the verge of becoming a game breaker.  “He’s probably one of the fastest guys on our team.  He’s a guy who continues to get better.  I thought he did a great job on kickoff returns last year.”

Thomas is a product of Catholic High School, a track & field powerhouse in his native Baton Rouge, La.  Since 2002, the Bears have won five outdoor and six indoor state titles.  Contributing to five of those championships, Thomas was a member of Catholic’s All-America 4 x 100-meter relay team.

Individually, according to Louisiana Running, he posted personal bests of 10.06 seconds in the 100 meters and 6.56 seconds in the 55-meter dash.

Speed alone, however, doesn’t make a returner dangerous.

“I don’t care how fast you are, I don’t care how elusive you are or how strong you are, you’ve got to be fearless,” Niumatalolo says.  “You’ve got to hit it, you’ve got to run and you can’t dance.”

By season’s end, Thomas increasingly showed the willingness to quickly take the ball upfield in search of a seam.  Overall, he averaged 21.7 yards per runback, including a season-long 38-yarder to open the Army-Navy game.

Niumatalolo also confirmed that Gary Myers will be utilized again on punt returns.  A senior safety converted from wide receiver, Myers was the lone Mid to handle a punt last season, averaging 5.4 yards on 13 returns.  He retains his role thanks to sure hands, more than quick feet.

“Ultimately, we want a guy back there who, first and foremost, can catch the football,” Niumatalolo says.  “That’s your number one priority.  Gary did a great job last year.”

About to begin his 15th season as radio play-by-play voice of the Midshipmen, Bob writes regularly for navysports.com. He also calls Norfolk Tides baseball and is a freelance television broadcaster. To view and listen to samples of his work, please visitwww.bobsocci.com.


From Special Teams to the A-Team Defense

‘Guys who get on the field for Navy are the guys who persevere,’ just like Mason Graham.

By Bob Socci

Originally posted on http://www.navysports.com on August 18, 2011.

Ken Niumatalolo has seen it before.  How often is hard to say.  It invariably happens every fall.  Some years more than once.

A senior who spent his first three seasons as an understudy, refusing to give in to circumstance or give up on himself, will finally ascend the depth chart, saving his best for last.

“That definitely has been a trademark of our team,” says Niumatalolo, now in his 14th year overall at the Naval Academy and his fourth as its head football coach.  “Another coach here, a while back, said the guys who get on the field for Navy are the guys who persevere.”

Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo.

Two years ago he watched as Craig Schaefer, who previously toiled mostly in the near anonymity of special teams, made a name for himself at outside linebacker.  Last fall was Jerry Hauburger’s time for transformation, ironically enough as Schaefer’s successor.

No one on the 2009 Midshipmen had more tackles for loss (8.5) than Schaefer.  His team-high six sacks included the game-deciding safety in a 23-21 win at Notre Dame.  From beginning to end of 2010, Hauburger was Navy’s most improved defender.  In addition to 5.5 tackles for loss, he forced three fumbles.

Their career arcs were nearly identical.  Each slowly rose from junior varsity as a plebe to part-time duty the next two years — mainly specializing in covering kickoffs — to a full-time impact in his final go-around.

Now it’s Mason Graham’s turn.  That same path, from obscurity to the outside linebacker also known as the Mids’ Raider, is about to be completed again.  It’s something Niumatalolo never tires of seeing.

“Schaefer and Hauburger were primarily special teams guys,” Niumatalolo said.  “Schaefer came in and had a great year, and then Hauburger did basically the same thing, came in and had a great year.  Mason has been one of our best special teams players, and I’m hoping it holds true for him.””That’s kind of been the mold at outside linebacker for a long time, especially at the Raider side,” says the senior Graham; he of 18 varsity appearances as a collegian.  “When I was a young gun, I remember watching (Schaefer and Hauburger) on film, always looking at their hands on pass rush and the effort that they gave.

“Whenever I got out there (in practice), whether it was with the B’s or C’s when I was younger, I would always try to model (myself) after their effort and performance.  Hopefully, it will serve me well this year.”

Graham has become an A-teamer by separating himself in a wide-open competition, stretching from April’s spring practice to August’s preseason camp.

“I looked at it like, I’m going to do everything I can,” Graham said of his offseason attitude.  “I’m going to watch film of guys in the past, whether it’s Craig or Jerry, and I’m going to do all I can in the weight room during the spring and summer.  I’m going to go a hundred miles an hour on the field, and I’m going to let the chips fall where they will.  I can’t worry about the rest, I just have to play the best I can.”

At Raider, Schaefer and Hauburger essentially enabled the Mids to vary their defensive front.  Both set up at times in a three-point stance, but also were positioned upright on the line of scrimmage.  On pass plays, they were flexible enough to rush the quarterback or drop back in coverage.

“Raider’s a position where you have to be versatile,” says Graham, a high school teammate of defensive captain Jubaree Tuani at Brentwood (Tenn.) Academy.  “You’ve got to be able to run, but at the same time you’ve got to be able to hold your own against a 300-pound offensive lineman.”

Senior Mason Graham.

That’s exactly the rational Graham used to craft his offseason regimen.

“I was trying to gain a little bit of weight, but not too much because I wanted to keep my speed,” he says, after adding roughly 10 pounds to what was a 6-foot, 205-pound frame.  “I’ve gotten stronger than I was in the spring.  I’ve (also) got to work on my footwork, and being physical at the point of attack.”

Though Graham’s special teams experience fostered the mindset of a linebacker, he must now physically adjust to the difference between appearing occasionally and playing down after down after down.

“Especially kickoffs, it’s the same mentality as linebacker,” Graham explains, metaphorically.  “You’ve got to get hyped up and go out there with an attitude that you’re going to take somebody’s head off every time you step on the field.  At linebacker, the only difference is that you’ve got to do it play after play after play.

“I’m trying to work on my stamina and stay tough, so I can take a beating at linebacker and come back to the line of scrimmage and have that same mentality that I had on special teams last year, play after play.”

Of course, it’s been done before.  And Graham, like Niumatalolo, has seen it with his own two eyes.

“This has been a recipe that has been (working) at inside and outside backer for a long time,” says Graham, a couple of weeks away from Navy’s Sept. 3 opener vs. Delaware.  “Craig Schaefer had a great senior year, and he didn’t play very much until his senior year, except special teams.  Jerry Hauburger, same thing.  So, we’re pretty confident.  I guess we’ll find out here pretty soon.”

MORE NEW RULES

Of all the individuals associated with the NCAA, it’s hard to determine who had a busier summer: investigators probing into allegations of off-field improprieties or panel members empowered to amend on-field playing rules.

The gumshoes hit the ground in Atlanta, Auburn, Columbus and Eugene, before heading for Coral Gables.  Meanwhile, rules makers did more rewrites than a room full of lawyers and politicians editing each other’s perception of reality.

As addressed in this space the last two weeks, what is officially known as the NCAA Playing Rules Oversight Panel stiffened the penalty for taunting and redefined when blocking below the waist is permissible.  Included among other measures regarding the definition and/or enforcement of infractions:

  • The defensive team will be penalized five yards if three or more players try to overwhelm a single blocker on field goals and extra points.  Essentially, it prevents `ganging up’ to knock kicks down.
  • When an offense is flagged during the final minute of a half, it can lose yardage and an additional 10 seconds off the game clock.  However, the opponent has the option of moving the offense back but declining the time runoff.  If, for example, the trailing team is on defense, it could elect to preserve those precious seconds.
  • Quarterbacks are afforded more leeway to avoid intentional grounding.  In the past, a receiver needed to have a “reasonable opportunity” to catch a pass that fell incomplete to avoid penalty.  Now, a receiver must simply be “in the area” of a throw that lands untouched.

Another new rule enables coaches to make more informed choices on whether or not to seek replay reviews of on-field calls.  Press box coaches booths can now be equipped with television monitors airing the live game broadcast.  Additional editing or recording devices are not allowed.

Access to the same replays seen by viewers at home should make a big difference, particularly for road teams.  Whereas stadium video boards have long replayed controversial calls against home teams, visitors were previously at a disadvantage.

For them, there was no further review before asking the officials for one.  But this season, they’ll enjoy equal-opportunity viewing.  At Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, where every game is televised, TV’s will be installed in both coaches booths.

That doesn’t necessarily make the choice to challenge easy.  For starters, the head coach on the sideline has to first decide which assistants in the booth will advise him.  Will he, like some in the NFL, assign one person to be his eyes in the sky?  Or seek consensus from everyone in the booth?

We might have to find a guy, but I’m not sure right now,” Niumatalolo said.  “I don’t know if we’ll truly have the luxury of just having one guy look at it.  I know in the NFL, you can hire somebody to look at it.  It’s definitely something we’ll address as a staff.”

Either way, there’s very little time for deliberation, especially if the Mids are on defense.  Almost always, when an offense benefits from a questionable call, it will hurry to run the next play before a review can be requested by either the replay official or opposing coach.

“We have a fast procedure,” Niumatalolo says.  “We practice it all the time.”

About to begin his 15th season as radio play-by-play voice of the Midshipmen, Bob writes regularly for navysports.com. He also calls Norfolk Tides baseball and is a freelance television broadcaster. To view and listen to samples of his work, please visit www.bobsocci.com.

Dancing With The Stars

Navy junior Bo Snelson takes over Ricky Dobbs’s old number and is poised for some fancy footwork on the field.

By Bob Socci

Originally posted on http://www.navysports.com on August 8, 2011.

Where else would one of the smallest guys on the field ask to fill the biggest jersey?

And who else could seem the perfect fit for the number called more than any other the last two years, despite barely scratching 5-foot-7 and totaling just 13 offensive touches in those same seasons?

Only at the Naval Academy. And only Bo Snelson.

In two seasons wearing Nos. 41 and 23 at slot back, Snelson had a dozen carries — one as a freshman and none as a sophomore, until the ninth game of 2010 — and one pass reception.

Navy's 5-foot-7, 180-pound junior Bo Snelson.

Meanwhile, Ricky Dobbs, as much as anyone in recent memory, made himself the face of Navy’s program by stretching the No. 4 over his shoulder pads and consistently delivering under the weight of great expectations.

In 2009, he set a record for Division I quarterbacks with 27 rushing touchdowns. In 2010, he passed for 13 scores to establish a new Academy standard. At season’s end, after concluding his career with 2,730 yards rushing and a school-record 49 TD, Dobbs hung up his uniform.

Initially, Dobbs’s old number was reassigned to sophomore cornerback Eric Graham for spring practice. But before nameplates could be sewn on this fall, Snelson sought to swap shirts.

“All through high school in the Houston, Texas area, I wore number 4,” Snelson explained last Friday. “And for various reasons, I’ve become pretty fond of it. Then I got here and it was Ricky’s number.”

Actually, Snelson has several thousand reasons for the switch. According to maxpreps.com, he gained more than 2,200 yards and scored 31 touchdowns as a junior tailback at Pasadena Memorial High School. The following fall, after moving to quarterback, he rushed for 1,900 yards and 24 scores.

Coached by his father, John, Snelson was twice named his district’s most valuable player, as well as the Old Spice `Red Zone’ Player of the Year.

If there’s any inherent pressure inheriting Dobbs’s `4′, it’s superseded by superstition.

“I asked Coached `Niumat’ if I get my old (numeral) back,” Snelson said in his Texas Twang, referring to a preseason conversation with head coach Ken Niumatalolo. “He asked if it would help me play a little better. I said, `Yes, sir, it will.’ So he let me have it.

“I feel a little more comfortable wearing number 4. There are a couple of things that I’m superstitious about. I feel like, as far as superstitions go, this is going to be a better move for me.”

It helped that Niumatalolo is more than a tad superstitious, even when judged by the extreme standards of the ritual-obsessed wide world of sports. It also didn’t hurt that whatever jersey he wears, heart alone should enable the undersized Snelson to overstuff it.

Snelson was a two-time district MVP at Pasadena Memorial High School (Houston Chronicle).
In a Dec. 2008 profile in the Houston Chronicle, Steven Thomson wrote that Snelson patterned his running style after NFL Hall of Famers Walter Payton and Earl Campbell. Keep in mind, Snelson is about four inches shorter and 50 pounds lighter than Campbell in the prime of his playing days.

Or, perhaps better yet, Snelson’s waist is about as thick as either of the bruising Campbell’s thighs.

“When I was in eighth grade, my dad sat me down to talk about my goals,” Snelson told Thomson. “He said I would never be the tallest and probably not the fastest or the strongest. So I had to work the hardest and be the toughest. That’s the mentality that I’ve always had.”

“I told Bo (about) some of the obstacles that would be in his way,” John Snelson said at the time. “He set his mind to it. He’s a hard worker and a tough-minded kid.”

Up against Class 5A competition, as a genuine 48-minute man — high school quarters are 12 minutes — Snelson occupied both offensive and defensive backfields and appeared on special teams; yet he never missed a game or practice due to injury.

Highlights of him with the ball in his hands are a collage of long sprints down the sideline, high leaps over the line and disappearing acts, in and out of piles of defenders.

So far at Navy, as noted, such opportunities have been limited. Snelson did return four kickoffs as a plebe, but registered just a single carry his first 19 collegiate games overall. By November of last year, though, he cracked the Mids’ rotation at slot back and scored his first touchdown on a six-yard run at East Carolina.

True to his Pasadena Memorial Maverick roots, Snelson is somewhat of a non-conformist when it comes to football stereotypes. An English major who was a three-time high school class president, he proudly professes a love of ballroom dancing.

“That’s actually a hundred percent true,” Snelson confirms. “Being from Houston, where we have a large Hispanic population, I was involved in a lot of what are called la quinceañera celebrations (traditionally marking a Latina’s transition from childhood to womanhood).

“I was dancing the merengue, cumbia and waltz at a young age,” says Snelson, who also did the salsa at the Academy’s International Ball. “That’s something that I’ve always really enjoyed doing. It’s just presented itself at different opportunities, throughout my life. It’s always something that I’ve jumped at and tried to take advantage of.”

Now that Snelson has taken after Dobbs and looks to take on an expanded role on the field, his next logical steps on the floor would seem to be taking on the tango.

“I do know how to tango, but I’ve never actually had to perform that before,” he laughs. “But, hey, if the opportunity comes about, I might have to do that, yes sir.”

EXTRA POINT

Late last month, as he was about to embark on his 46th season as head coach of Penn State, Joe Paterno told reporters at Big Ten Media Day in Chicago that he’s “looking at four or five (more) years” overseeing the Nittany Lions.

84-year-old Joe Paterno.

Then, on Sunday, the 84-year-old Paterno was hospitalized following a collision with a wide receiver who was running a pass route in practice.

“I expect to be back at practice soon,” Paterno said in a statement, after undergoing tests on his right arm and hip. “I’m doing fine; tell everyone not to worry about me.”

Assuming health allows, Paterno should continue coaching as long as he likes. Born on Dec. 21, 1926, he could still be on the sidelines, coaching in a bowl game, after his 90th birthday.

Let’s hope he’s still knotting his tie, rolling up his shirt sleeves and pant cuffs and leading Penn State when Navy visits Happy Valley in 2012. If so, he’ll be revisiting a crossroads in his unparalleled coaching career.

Paterno opened his second season in charge of Penn State on Sept. 23, 1967 in Annapolis. The Nittany Lions entered with just five of their now record 401 all-time wins under Paterno; they also had five losses.

With less than a minute left, Rob Taylor made his Academy-record 10th catch of the day, hauling in a 16-yard touchdown pass to give the Midshipmen a 23-22 victory. Paterno’s record as a head coach was 5-6.

In his book The Lion in Autumn (published in 2005), author Frank Fitzpatrick wrote of Paterno’s fragile state of mind in the aftermath of that loss, on a long, quiet bus ride back to State College, Pa.:

“One of the few times when anyone can recall the coach being silent for an extended period also marked the moment when he might have come closest to abandoning his profession…all the plans and dreams he had formulated in sixteen seasons as Rip Engle’s assistant were evaporating in a haze of mediocrity. His best coaching attributes — competitiveness, a fierce drive, a need to excel — had turned inward and were devouring him.”

Paterno admitted to “having my doubts” after seeing Navy consume 489 yards of total offense at Penn State’s expense.

Any doubts — save for those related to age and its effects — were removed decades ago.

Get well and stay forever young, coach. See you next September.

About to begin his 15th season as radio play-by-play voice of the Midshipmen, Bob writes regularly for navysports.com. He also calls Norfolk Tides baseball and is a freelance television broadcaster. To view and listen to samples of his work, please visit www.bobsocci.com.

Navy Captains Look to Seize The Day

Alexander Teich and Jabaree Tuani lead the Midshipmen into the 2011 season.

By Bob Socci

Originally posted on http://www.navysports.com on July 29, 2011.

If your summertime reading includes college football annuals, you’re likely sensing a return to what Navy fans knew as the norm for most of the last eight years.

Virtually all of those seasons, amounting to a modern-day renaissance for the Midshipmen, began with relatively little national fanfare. Expectations rose only gradually, as Navy kept extending its ongoing streak of winning records and bowl games.

Generally, even the most optimistic projections only went so far. Written outlooks typically read like weather forecasts calling for partly sunny skies: Winning the Commander-In-Chief’s Trophy is a definite possibility. There’s a good chance of returning to the postseason. If things break right, this just might be an eight-win team.

Fullback Alexander Teich rushed for 210 yards last year vs. Notre Dame (Nick Laham/Getty Images).

That seemed the consensus every August. Invariably, by late October, the Mids would turn up on the radar, on their way to at least eight wins. Seven Decembers in a row, they were crowned CIC champions. Perennially, people eventually noticed: The Little Team That Could had done it again.

All that changed last summer.

So-called insiders outside of Annapolis looked at Navy differently. Ten victories in 2009, following a narrow loss at Ohio State and capped by a Texas Bowl rout of Missouri, convinced some prognosticators to foresee the potential for an unbeaten finish to 2010. Those same pundits hailed quarterback Ricky Dobbs as a Heisman Trophy candidate.

They weren’t the only ones entertaining visions of Navy grandeur.

“We want to have a perfect season,” Dobbs admitted to Steward Mandel of SI.com.

“Top 25, undefeated, BCS bowl game — that’s all that is left. That’s what the next level is,” said fellow co-captain Wyatt Middleton in an Associated Press story.

Such talk about and, frankly, from Midshipmen was unfamiliar. As we soon learned, it was also unrealistic. And unfair. Unable to meet such outsized expectations, Navy still managed nine wins and reached another bowl. Imperfect as it was, that’s still a damn good year.

Turning the pages of periodicals to see what’s written in 2011, there’s concern on paper about significant roster turnover and what figures to be a very strenuous schedule. The Mids are ranked as high as the mid-50s (Lindy’s and Athlon) and as low as the mid-80s (Phil Steele’s).

To senior fullback Alexander Teich, they’re right where they want to be. For now.

“At times last year, we’d get caught up in what was going to happen down the road,” Teich said earlier in the offseason. “We got a little too full of ourselves early on. That’s not the Navy way. If we get attention, we’ll take it. But we’re not going to go out and seek it.”

As Dobbs’s successor in the role of offensive captain, Teich is focused on the finer details. And concentrating only on the immediate future.

“Win the game every day,” he says of this year’s overriding objective. “In the weight room, win the day. In practice, have a better day than the previous day.”

Throughout their eight-year run from 2003-10 — resulting in a 70-33 (.680) record — the Mids were at their best when carrying a chip on their shoulder pads. The playing field was their proving ground.

They must see it the same way in 2011. Head coach Ken Niumatalolo puts it this way: “We can’t forget who we are.”

It’s his constant reminder that although Navy’s program is populated by “tough, smart kids,” as Niumatalolo says, they “have to play harder than everyone else.” Or else.

No doubt, he’ll be repeating that point from Wednesday’s practice — the first of the preseason — right up to the afternoon of the Sept. 3 opener vs. Delaware. So will Teich and fellow co-captain Jabaree Tuani.

Perhaps, one more emotionally than the other.

“I wear my emotions on my sleeve,” admits Teich, who doesn’t plan to temper them as elected leader of the Mids’ offense. “I’ve been the same person all along. I’m still full of energy and a vocal person. I think people feed off that energy. People react that way, when I’m more fired up on the sideline.”

Whereas Teich’s unit is experienced, Tuani’s is exactly the opposite.

The offense returns eight starters and features a well-established heir apparent to Dobbs in senior Kriss Proctor. The defense lost eight starters and welcomes back only two of its top six tacklers from 2010.

Jabaree Tuani (98) started 35 of the last 36 games (Hunter Martin/Getty Images).

“I’m definitely trying to be more of a vocal leader,” says Tuani, a starter in 35 of the last 36 games. “I’m trying to help people mature. We need guys to come out of their shell and reach their potential.”

And how.

There’s a month to resolve considerable personnel issues, particularly on the back end. Absent from the secondary are safety Middleton and cornerback Kevin Edwards, who graduated with a combined 80 starts. No longer at linebacker are Tyler Simmons, Aaron McCauley and Jerry Hauburger; three of last year’s top four in tackles.

What’s more, the first test for their successors is against a Delaware team coming off an appearance in the FCS Championship game. Featuring All-America running back Andrew Pierce, the Blue Hens seek their third win in Annapolis since 2003.

Two weeks later, the degree of difficulty increases exponentially at South Carolina, a favorite in the SEC East. Steve Spurrier’s Gamecocks only happen to have, arguably, the nation’s premier running back (Marcus Lattimore) and wide receiver (Alshon Jeffrey).

With no margin for error, there’s little time to grow up.

“We really need (everyone) to focus, and be on their keys,” Tuani says, echoing Teich’s call for an everyday sense of urgency. “Take our (offseason) `Fourth Quarter’ (conditioning) drills. Nobody really wants to be out there. But come game time, like Coach says, `You play like you practice.’

“I always try to think about this: everybody should (think) like a senior, because a senior always remembers his last game. You don’t want to let anyone down who came before you.”

Of course, if teammates can play remotely as well as their senior co-captains, it won’t be long before Navy gets noticed again.

Both are healthy, after battling injuries much of last season, and enter their final campaign considered among the best at their respective positions. Teich was `watch-listed’ for the Doak Walker Award; Tuani for the Rotary Lombardi Award.

A year ago, Teich rushed 147 times for 863 yards and five touchdowns. His signature performance and play helped the Mids beat Notre Dame, 35-17. Twenty-six carries against the Fighting Irish consumed 210 yards; a record for Navy fullbacks and most by a Mid in the 84-game series.

On Navy’s third play, Teich blasted through the middle for 54 yards. On its sixth, he wandered into the left flat, reached back with his right hand for a lob from Dobbs, batted the ball to himself and took off running. Thirty-one yards past the line of scrimmage, he launched himself — head over heels — into the end zone.

Similarly, Tuani showed near reckless regard for his already-banged-up body in the singular moment that sums up his first three seasons. Fighting off a block behind the play, late in a tight encounter with SMU, he lost his helmet. Unrelenting, he still tracked down the ballcarrier to make a crucial stop in a seven-point win.

Niumatalolo was so inspired on the spot, watching Tuani’s helmet-less tackle, he introduced a new team honor. He called it the `Warrior Award.’ Naturally, Tuani was its inaugural recipient.

“Luckily, the tackle wasn’t head on head,” Tuani joked, before reflecting. “I hope it showed that I would put anything on the line to help the team. There was no way I was going to pull up. It shows the devotion I have for the team.”

Should the 2011 Mids devote themselves to winning the day, from today thru December, they can prove once again, with Navy, what you see isn’t what you get.

“We’re not the biggest. We’re not the strongest,” says a representative Tuani, who defies the usual parameters of Division I, as a 6-foot-1, 265-pound lineman. “But playing us is going to be 60 minutes of hell.”

Bob has enjoyed a 15-year association with the Naval Academy. In addition to his current role as radio voice of Navy football, he calls Norfolk Tides baseball and is a freelance television broadcaster. To view and listen to samples of his work, please visit www.bobsocci.com.

The Difference Between Fashion and Style

In a team sport that showcases individual expression, it’s style born of substance that truly endures.

By Bob Socci

If these are truly my son’s formative years, there are a few things I hope he’s erased from memory. Starting with the second time he ever ventured near a ball field.

I only excused the first because I’m quite confident that he never bothered to take note of that experience. It occurred around the end of his ninth month, when Dad decided to steer his stroller toward the diamond of a nearby prep school.

Teething at the time, the “G-Man” was less enamored with the game unfolding before us than with the idea of sinking his gums into a fence post. We lasted a half inning of mostly swings and misses, thankfully saving his synapses from being overloaded by pings of aluminum.

About a month later on another guys’ day out, we were at a neighborhood park, where my youngster was happily swinging away on the playground. Soon enough, sounds from an adjacent field caught our attention.

Regrettably, like many contemporaries, Pablo Sandoval's sunglasses rest atop his visor, upside down.

Pop. Pop. Pop. It was the unmistakable drumbeat of balls meeting gloves. Kids were playing catch. A game was about to get underway.

“G” and I headed in that direction; I pushing his stroller uphill toward the outfield fence. We would have made it for the first pitch, but we couldn’t beat nap time. So, parked in some shade beyond the right-field corner, the “Little Man” got some shuteye.

I can only hope that what he saw upon awakening that day struck him as a bad dream, to be erased from memory as quickly as possible.

It wasn’t so much the sight of the Dodgers playing eight-on-nine against the Phillies that sounded an alarm. Shorthanded for whatever reason, they still managed to cover the outfield with just two players — one positioned in left-center and the other in right-center.

If fact, I tried to use it as a teaching moment. I explained how my childhood friends and I used to solve similar dilemmas in pick-up games. We simply closed off right or left field, depending on the batter. Any opposite-field hit was an automatic out. And if we were short of infielders, pitcher’s mound was designated “as good as first base” on force plays.

Other than rain, I said to my son, we never had a reason not to play ball. If there were three of us, we played “hot box” or, as some prefer to call it, “pickle.” If there were two, we had a catch. And if it was me alone, I played “wall ball.” Uninspired, he just munched away on a Baby Mum-Mum rice cake.

I also laughed over the irony of the Dodgers of all teams playing a man down, considering the state of their major-league namesakes. Obviously, I joked, they couldn’t afford to pay a third outfielder. Unimpressed, my boy held out his hand, hoping for another Mum-Mum to chew on.

That’s about when, suddenly, I had to grind my own teeth; taken aback by the appearance of one of the Phillies. Resting atop the bill of his red cap and shading the white “P” on this beautifully sunny late afternoon was a pair of wrap-around sunglasses.

Ex-infielder Tito Fuentes was one of his era's most flamboyant showboats.

Right here, right now, one of my all-time biggest pet peeves from pro ball was infiltrating the youth level. And threatening to corrupt my first born’s idea of how the game should be played.

Still fearing the implications, weeks later I was tempted to wake him late on a Sunday night, when I heard commentator Bobby Valentine calling out the otherwise lovable Pablo Sandoval of the San Francisco Giants. Sunglasses resting on his visor? Upside down, no less? What purpose can they possibly serve?

My point, exactly! And one I’ve repeatedly stressed; often after watching a fielder struggle to see a pop-up with his naked eyes because his tinted lenses were instead shielding the club logo.

It strikes me solely as a fashion statement — and a silly one at that. Far more practical and, I believe, infinitely cooler looking on a fielder are old-fashioned flip-downs.

Seriously, think about it as you picture a runner on third with less than two outs. A ball is lifted to the outfield, medium-deep. The outfielder instinctively flicks at his lenses. Eyes now shaded, he lines up behind the ball, so that momentum is moving forward when he makes the catch and unleashes his throw.

It’s that immediate reaction, the actual flipping down, that says — no, shouts! — “I got it!” all the way. So substantive, yet so stylish.

Performance, not panache, made Rickey Henderson a Hall of Famer.

Now, before going any further, in fairness to the junior Phillie, I must confess to indiscretions of my own youth. I was a kid who devoted hours trying to imitate ex-Giant and Padre Tito Fuentes, who had this remarkable knack of bouncing the handle of his bat off home plate and catching it as the bat recoiled toward his body.

Of similar effect in later years, I took my base on balls a la Lee Mazzilli, then a matinee idol with the Mets. Starting up the first-base line, just like Maz, I would toss the bat aside with one hand while chopping down on it with the other hand. Doing so sent the bat spiraling into foul territory, spinning like the tail rotor of a helicopter.

Occasionally, I was smart enough to emulate someone who simply cut the mustard. For my debut in organized ball as an 8-year old, mine was a mirror-image stance of future Hall of Famer Joe Morgan; my right elbow flapping like a chicken wing, as I waited on the pitch.

But unfortunately, I mostly patterned myself after hot dogs — usually, to the point of a fashion faux-pas. At age 11, I demanded that Mom stitch elastic to my stirrups so that I could stretch them from shoe tops to knee caps. By my teens, I was wearing the same Saranac triangle on my batting gloves and wristbands as the major leaguers I saw every night on TV.

I once even excused myself from English class when a sporting goods rep visited our high school: I just had to — had to — have cleats that matched our uniforms. Much to my present-day chagrin, I skipped a discussion on Thornton Wilder’s Our Town that afternoon for a pair of ill-fitting, maroon Mizunos. They were, after all, just like the ones worn by Pete Rose.

Before refining my tastes, I wanted to wear colorful Mizuno spikes just like Pete Rose.

Every kid is impressionable; no one more than I was.

Eventually, I hung up those spikes — which, as it turns out, weren’t exactly the same as Rose’s hitting shoes — and found “work” in the game I was no longer good enough to play. With time, I developed a different understanding of what really makes a ballplayer look good.

It is, in essence, that difference between individual fashion and style. One is fleeting; the other enduring.

Take the act of — and reaction to — hitting a home run. Today you’ll find hitters who find it fashionable to flip their bats and/or Cadillac around the bases. You won’t find many, particularly opposing pitchers, who consider such antics tactful, much less artful.

Back in the eighties, Jeffrey Leonard was known as The Hackman and known for his self-described “one flap down.” After going deep, he slowly made his way on the bases, hanging one arm motionless at his side.

His contemporary Mel Hall had his own distinctive way of celebrating the long ball and insulting the opposition. He did it by stuffing his back pockets with extra batting gloves, so that their dangling fingers waved “bye-bye” on his home run trots.

Leonard and Hall totaled 27 seasons in the majors. Yet, by making such crass actions trademarks of their time, they made themselves laughable figures for years to come.

In sharp contrast, though his legacy needed no enriching, an all-time great like Mickey Mantle is celebrated for the way he humbly ambled on the base paths after all 536 of his lifetime homers. In eulogizing The Mick, broadcaster Bob Costas described how he and others of his generation imitated their boyhood baseball hero.

They ran like Mantle, Costas remarked with reverence, “head down, elbows up.” Mantle’s bat meeting ball was resounding enough. There was no need for a fashion statement.

"Head down, elbows up," Mickey Mantle humbly ambled around the bases after his 536 homers.

Oh sure, there are plenty in baseball history who packaged performance with panache. No one did it quite like Rickey Henderson. But for all his swagger, Henderson was unique because he could practically guarantee the opposition a 1-0 deficit from the jump. As the all-time leader in steals and runs scored, he also holds the record for most home runs to lead off a game.

True, Henderson set trends, like with the way he chose to snatch fly balls rather than catch them. Yet, what makes him incomparable still is how he routinely turned walks into triples or punished opponents like no other for those first-inning, get-me-over fastballs.

We shouldn’t confuse Henderson’s on-field fashion with his style of play. One occasionally led to a flub; the other got him to the Hall of Fame.

What Henderson exemplified individually, the team he grew up watching in Oakland, the Swingin’ A’s of the early seventies, did collectively. Owner Charlie Finley wanted his cast of renegades to re-define baseball fashion. And they made quite an impression with their white spikes, bright yellow uniforms and long hair and mustaches.

But they achieved lasting greatness by winning three straight World Series. The A’s were most memorable because of Catfish Hunter starting and Rollie Fingers closing; Joe Rudi climbing the wall and Reggie Jackson clearing the wall; Bert Campaneris on the run and Gene Tenace in the clutch; and Sal Bando captaining them all.

While they looked a certain part, what truly made them stand apart, is that for three seasons in a row, they played the part of the game’s very best.

By all appearances, baseball allows for individuality more than any other team sport. Nonetheless, I’ve covered some organizations who limit expression in the minors by legislating uniformity. Until this year, for instance, the Baltimore Orioles mandated that all minor leaguers blouse their pants just above the calves.

For the Triple-A Norfolk Tides, in addition to fully exposing their black stockings, the policy added intrigue whenever a teammate was promoted to Baltimore: Would he keep his cuffs knee high? Or exercise his big-league right to let his pants go low?

In 1996, when I was calling games for Class A Delmarva, the parent Montreal Expos banned Shorebirds players from wearing those aforementioned sunglasses. Coincidence or not, that club was loaded with future major leaguers, including two of the team’s catchers (Michael Barrett and Brian Schneider) and its fourth outfielder (Jose Macias).

How they played, not how they looked, made the Swingin' A's of the seventies a dynasty.

Who really knows if there was any positive effect on Montreal’s player-development cause? Perhaps, absent those sporty wrap-arounds, the Shorebirds kept fundamentals foremost in their sights. One thing’s for sure, there was never temptation to store their shades on the bills of their ball caps.

Ultimately, it’s hard to persuade a talented pro, let alone a teenage kid, that something like wearing sunglasses anywhere other than the bridge of his nose might be more a hindrance than help.

Someday, should my own son choose to play baseball, I might have to try to convince him of the same. Hopefully, he’ll be receptive. From what I hear, parents and their kids don’t always see eye to eye.

If he chooses to play something like the trumpet instead, my analogies might be different but my point will be consistent. However flashy your outfit is, it’s how well you hit your notes that defines how good you sound. True style, on the ball field or anywhere else, is born of substance.

That’s why I sure hope he was paying attention more recently, when we returned to that neighborhood park for a dip in the pool.

We cooled off on a hot afternoon and headed for the car. I was holding my now 1-year old in my arms, when I heard what sounded like a ball shooting off a bat. I turned in that direction, off in the distance to my left.

Two kids were in the middle of the diamond, accompanied only by bucket of baseballs. One was pitching batting practice to the other.

Best I could tell from afar, neither was sporting shades.

Bob has called Norfolk Tides games since 2006, in addition to his roles as the radio voice of Navy football and a freelance television broadcaster. To view and listen to samples of his work, please visit http://www.bobsocci.com.

Lasting Achievement, History Worth Celebrating

Former Navy All-American Chet Moeller is formally enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame

By Bob Socci

Originally posted on http://www.navysports.com on July 19, 2011.

Two weeks after Yogi Berra appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated, yet another college football team added a twist to the baseball legend’s most famous line.

It ain’t over til’ its over? Well, even then, it may not be over.

Last Thursday, summer vacating continued when Georgia Tech became the latest to lose what it presumably had won. The Yellow Jackets forfeited their 2009 ACC Championship, after being sentenced to four years of probation by the NCAA Committee on Infractions.

A unanimous All-American in 1975, former Navy safety Chet Moeller was formally enshrined Saturday into the College Football Hall of Fame.

Already in early June, USC was stripped of its 2004 B.C.S. title in the fallout from rules infractions centering around ex-Trojan star Reggie Bush. And earlier this month, Ohio State preemptively vacated all 12 victories from last season, surrendering its Big Ten crown in hopes of softening any future sanctions.

Meanwhile, both Auburn and Oregon, who met in last January’s B.C.S. finale in Arizona’s Valley of the Sun, enter the upcoming autumn under thick clouds of suspicion.

The Tigers reportedly remain under NCAA investigation for their recruitment of Cam Newton, who conceivably could someday join Bush as, truly, former Heisman Trophy winners. As for the Ducks, they’re entangled in scandal as well, resulting from reports of payments to recruiting services.

Considering the ever-altering state of the sport, it wouldn’t be shocking if someday Auburn’s triumph over Oregon is stricken from the record; exactly as similar achievements were symbolically erased for Tech, SC and OSU.

At any rate, the uncertainty to much of college football’s recent history borders on absurdity. It’s enough to leave one searching for some permanence to the game’s past; hoping to celebrate that which can’t be corrupted or compromised.

This past weekend, it could be found in South Bend, Ind., where the newest members were enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame.

Among them is Sam “Bam” Cunningham.

Of the 341 times he rushed the football as a USC fullback, none were more important than the first dozen carries of Cunningham’s varsity career. They led to more than 130 yards and two touchdowns and helped the 6-foot-3 sophomore cast a shadow across the next four decades.

Cunningham is African-American. And when he and his Trojan teammates arrived at Legion Field in Birmingham on Sept. 12, 1970, they were the first fully-integrated opponent to visit Alabama. They left only after rolling over the lilly-white Crimson Tide, 42-21.

Contrary to some exaggerated accounts, the events of that evening didn’t convert ‘Bama’s legendary head coach Paul “Bear” Bryant from segregationist to integrationist. He was a realist.

Bryant understood that the Tide couldn’t regain national glory until ending discrimination against black players. In fact, he had already recruited African-American Wilbur Jackson, a receiver on Alabama’s freshman team.

But it’s widely believed that Bryant scheduled USC to stir the sea change that could turn the Tide. As soon as ‘Bama fans opened their eyes to the talent of the diverse Trojans, he correctly surmised, they just might open their minds too.

One look at Cunningham was all the convincing they’d need.

Cunningham helped spur irreversible social change; Hall of Fame classmate Pat Tillman served to inspire with an irrepressible spirit.

As an Arizona State senior, he was Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year, Sun Bowl MVP and second-team All-America. All of which is secondary to what Tillman did upon graduating.

Every American — if he or she isn’t already — should be made familiar with how Tillman lived and how he died. He was indefatigable as an athlete and uncommonly introspective as an individual, constantly taking inventory of the ideals by which he governed his life.

Tillman graduated Summa Cum Laude in 3 1/2 years, earned an NCAA Post-Graduate Scholarship and entered the 1998 NFL Draft. Considered an undersized linebacker by pro standards, he remained unwanted until 225 others were chosen.

At last, the Arizona Cardinals, who shared Sun Devil Stadium with ASU, wagered a 7th-and-final-round pick on Tillman, betting that he could adapt to playing safety. By his third season, Tillman hadn’t simply established himself in the Cardinals’ secondary; he’d driven himself to become a bonafide NFL star.

But following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Tillman made still another position switch. Giving up safety, most literally, he decided to forgo the comfort a multimillion-dollar contract can provide for the spartan life of an infantry grunt.

In July 2002, Tillman joined his brother, Kevin, by enlisting in the Army and training to become a Ranger. Less than two years later, on April 22, 2004, he was killed in Afghanistan.

Iconic and heroic, the posthumously-inducted Tillman is the most famous of the 20 Hall of Famers formally enshrined over the weekend. Others renown within their ranks include 1991 Heisman winner Desmond Howard, as well as retired Alabama coach Gene Stallings and his contemporary from Wisconsin Barry Alvarez.

Sharing the stage with them was someone somewhat overshadowed, though no less respected or deserving of induction. As anyone who ever saw him play, either in the moment or decades later on tape, could attest, Chet Moeller belonged in South Bend. Especially this year, with this class.

Bred in Ohio, he eventually adopted Alabama as his home state, settling where Cunningham left such a lasting social impact. And like Tillman, he was a relentless defender and a distinguished scholar who resolved to serve his country.

A self-admitted straight-laced kid from the Dayton area, Moeller was drawn to Annapolis by what he often describes as the “clean” environment of the Naval Academy. But while he avoided hard living, Moeller couldn’t resist hard hitting.

Host Charles Davis credited Moeller with reinventing his position.

From 1973-75, he made 275 tackles, including a school-record 25 for loss as a junior. The following fall, Moeller was voted the East Coast Athletic Conference Player of the Year and became just the sixth Midshipman to be unanimously elected All-America. There was even a national-TV appearance with Bob Hope.

He was instrumental in Navy’s 7-6 victory at Penn State in 1974, when the Mids ended the Nittany Lions’ 13-game winning streak, and in a 17-0 triumph at Pittsburgh in ’75, a year before the Panthers were declared national champs.

Moeller was also Academic All-American and, as Battalion Commander, earned the Naval Academy Athletic Association Sword for excellence. He graduated in 1976 and was commissioned as a Marine Corps officer.

Last fall, Moeller was honored in Annapolis, commencing a near year-long celebration that culminated late Saturday when, fittingly, former Naval Academy athletic director Jack Lengyel presided over the H.O.F. ring ceremony.

The evening also featured a question-and-answer session, as Moeller and Hall classmates were briefly interviewed by hosts Charles Davis and Jon Gruden, the ex-NFL head coach and current ESPN analyst.

As means of introducing Moeller, Gruden shared a childhood memory. The son of Notre Dame’s running backs coach at the time, Gruden recalled watching Sunday morning replays of the Fighting Irish with broadcasting legend Lindsey Nelson.

“We move ahead to further action,” Gruden chuckled, mimicking Nelson’s narration of those condensed classics, before segueing into play-by-play from a rebroadcast of Navy-Notre Dame. “Tackle by Moeller…tackle by Moeller…”

Quickly, the audience laughed along with Gruden; clearly getting the picture that, all joking aside, Moeller making a tackle got redundant. Against the Irish, or anyone else.

Davis credited Moeller for reinventing his position and referred to a film produced by former Navy assistant Len Fontes. It demonstrates how a safety should support against the run, and its star is the Midshipman in No. 48.

Thanks to YouTube and Google, Moeller can still be seen closing on ball carriers in all the glory of Fontes’s grainy black-and-white masterpiece.

“I grew up wanting to play college football,” Moeller told the audience. “I was not very big, I wasn’t very tall, I wasn’t very fast. But I believed I could play.”

He also spoke of meeting Academy challenges, beginning with that first early rising at 6 a.m. and the 18-credit course load of his initial college semester.

“It taught me what I could do,” Moeller said. “The Naval Academy instilled that discipline in me and gave me the desire to do my best every time I was on the field or in the classroom.”

Soft-spoken and humble, Moeller chose to discuss the shutout of Pitt in collective terms more than as the individual who had an interception and fumble recovery despite playing with a broken thumb.

“Our defense, we were such a close-knit group,” Moeller explained, crediting Fontes and another assistant, Rick Lantz, for scheming to slow down the Panthers’ Tony Dorsett. “They forced everything outside to me and I was fortunate enough to make those tackles.”

Dorsett mustered only 36 yards through three quarters and, though he finished with 122 yards rushing overall, lost a pair of fumbles. Three weeks later he gained 303 yards and scored three touchdowns vs. Notre Dame.

Before letting Moeller go, Davis left the audience with one more anecdote. He cited the reaction of another former safety Chris Lepore upon learning in 2009 that he was selected for the Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium all-time team.

“That means you get to meet Roger Staubach,” Lepore’s wife excitedly said.

“No,” Lepore corrected her, “that means I get to meet Chet Moeller!”

Surely, Lepore had seen that old coach’s film of Moeller who knows how many times; perhaps enough to commit it to memory.

True greatness, even when witnessed through a scratchy lens, can’t be forgotten. It doesn’t get erased. It will never be vacated.

Bob has enjoyed a 15-year association with the Naval Academy. In addition to his current role as radio voice of Navy football, he calls Norfolk Tides baseball and is a freelance television broadcaster. To view and listen to samples of his work, please visit http://www.bobsocci.com.

Root, Root, Root…For The Home Team

By Bob Socci

During a recent reunion with a lifelong friend, conversation – as it inevitably does whenever we get together – turned to baseball.

Between us, we’ve invested more than 30 years of our professional lives in the game. Mine mostly in broadcasting; his primarily in scouting.

Granted, we occupy different seats in the ballpark and employ our powers of observation for different purposes. One of us notes for the record if a pitcher throws a ball or strike. The other evaluates if that pitcher does it with the stuff of a major leaguer.

Even so, our eyes are fixed on the same spot. And though what we’re looking for may differ, our jobs require the same thing. Essentially, we’re both people watchers.

We’re also storytellers. We better be.

An announcer has to hold a listener’s attention when a game becomes relatively inactive. The scout must stay sane through all those nights on the road chasing prospects and finding mainly suspects.

In Brooklyn, the famous Hilda Chester announced her presence with her ever-present cowbell.

So a broadcaster relays anecdotes and a scout spins yarns. Sit them at the same table and serve each a drink – meaning they’re off-air and off the record – and the stories flow long after the glasses run dry.

In our case, there’s little point to talking baseball if there are no punch lines. Oh sure, we’ll find room for healthy debate and take time to discuss the baseball business. But overall, we’d much rather recount the unforgettable characters of the game that we’ve both come across.

Without exaggeration, there are enough to keep us laughing the rest of our lifetimes. Most are in uniform; many populate the stands. On this particular night, we focused on the latter, recalling some of the most fanatical stadium fixtures we’ve seen and heard in our recent travels.

It must be said, emphatically, that both of us totally appreciate and are indebted to the fans. We’re paid to do what we do because of what they do: from buying tickets to tuning in their team.

Chilly April weeknights, or humid August afternoons, it doesn’t matter. They take their seats, proudly wearing their allegiances on caps, jerseys and jackets. Whatever the outcome, they’re back the next day. They form both the backbone of the game and give it a heart in communities across the country.

They always have.

Baseball fandom has produced some of the most memorable figures in the sport’s history. Nowhere, it seems, were the colorful more bountiful than in Brooklyn, before the Dodgers went West and Ebbets Field crumbled beneath a wrecking ball.

Their beloved ‘Boys of Summer’ featured Pee Wee, Duke and Campy; Jackie, Preacher and Skoonj. They included the likes of Letty Allen, who legendarily never missed a home game for a half century, and Hilda Chester, who devotedly rang her brass cowbell from the bleachers as if signaling a religious rite.

A handful formed the Sym-Phony Band, the famous Ebbets Field troupe. Some, like Henry Fleischman, created a single-handed cacophony. In The Last Good Season, author Michael Shapiro wrote of Fleischman, a father of three:

“He beat a steady tattoo on the drainpipe that blocked his view of home. He used a rolled up newspaper, as was traditional for the people who believed that by beating this drainpipe for the entire game they could summon the spirits who would make the Dodgers win.”

Years later, a long-haired, shaggy-bearded cabdriver was lifting spirits – reportedly the ‘King of Beers’ – and leading cheers in uptown Baltimore. Wearing cut-off jean shorts, a t-shirt and straw cowboy hat, “Wild Bill” Hagy first roared from Section 34 of Memorial Stadium. In time, he was rallying the faithful from atop the home dugout and contorting his body to spell out O-R-I-O-L-E-S.

Today, who-knows-how-many other originals like Hilda and Wild Bill root, root, root for their home team; wherever it happens to play. In my own hometown of Auburn, N.Y., several years ago the local NY-Penn League club, the Doubledays, gave away bobblehead dolls.

Not of a player, but of a fan. The D-Days honored “Dancing Bill” Jayne, a local known for high-stepping routines to songs like Thank God I’m a Country Boy.

Free spirited "Wild Bill" Hagy became a Baltimore legend, roaring from Section 34 of Memorial Stadium.

In fact, it wasn’t too far from Dancing Bill’s stage where my friend and I sat, swapping stories about this fan or the other. He had recently scouted the Minnesota Twins Triple-A affiliate while covering a series at one of my favorite ballparks, Rochester’s Frontier Field.

It’s where Fred Costello tickles the organ, just as he did at old Silver Stadium as long ago as 1977, yet also where you can buy a cup of Starbucks to go with your crepes. Yes, crepes. And where, as told by my buddy, one voice was heard above all others about four times a game, four or five days in a row.

“Taco…taco…taco!” someone yelled. “TACO…TACO…TACO!!!”

Supposedly, the chant continued, over and over and over again, coinciding each night with every at-bat by a specific player on the visiting team. That batter was designated before the game as the K-Man. If he struck out, then ‘lucky’ fans won tacos from a national chain.

Hearing it told, there was great intensity in the fan’s voice and unwavering concentration on his face. He was totally enraptured with the possibility of one man’s failure filling the cravings of others. Another’s empty plate appearance might put a taco on his plate.

I smiled as the scene in Rochester was being re-created, while thinking of my own experiences overlooking Frontier Field when the introduction of the K-Man elicited similarly passionate pleas. In those moments, defined by tacos and tortillas, The Flower City once again becomes The Flour City.

Similarly in neighboring Syracuse, tacos are in fare play. Meanwhile, for International League foe Toledo, ice cream instead hangs in the balance when the K-Man comes up.

Admittedly, the promotion mostly amuses me. But there’s also a rub. And by that, I don’t mean what seasons the meat. Confessing that I’ve observed this phenomenon only from the visiting booth, and thus might be extra sensitive, I’m bothered by one thing: it entices fans to root against rather than for someone.

So, if I could consult with clubs around the minor-league map, I’d ask: How about turning it around and promoting more positively? Instead of wishing for an opponent to be a goat, why not implore a home teamer to be a hero? As an organized pursuit sold to sponsor, wouldn’t that be a nobler endeavor?

Borrowing from another sport, there are basketball teams who also give tacos away. They do it when the home team scores so many points, usually a hundred. Not when the visitor fails to reach fifty.

That doesn’t, in any as-long-as-it’s-not-obscene way, mean that paying customers aren’t entitled to express disfavor for the opposition. If Philadelphians, for example, feel they know enough to boo J.D. Drew after all these years, power to those people. Or if A-Rod remains persona non grata in Boston, far be it from anyone else to stop the Fenway faithful from telling him like it is.

At Wrigley, it’s perfectly understandable for Cubs fans to return the ball to the playing field after a visitor’s deep fly clears the ivy. And it’s understood that the Phillie Phanatic’s tongue is firmly in his beak when he’s putting the whammy on an opposing pitcher.

All I’m asking for is a small change; switching from the top to the bottom half-inning and officially trying to facilitate the ‘pro’ as opposed to the ‘anti.’ Let’s root, root, root for the home team. If for no other reason, it might create good karma.

I’m quite certain that’s exactly what took place last month in yet another sport.

The Vancouver Canucks advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals with the NHL’s best regular-season record and seeking their first-ever title. Leading their quest was a volatile goalie and two sets of twins – one pair known as the Sedins and the other as the Green Men.

In Vancouver, the Green Men taunt a Los Angeles King. Do we really need to see anything like this in other sporting venues?

Henrik and Daniel are generally high-scoring forwards from Sweden. Force and Sully are two Vancouverites concealed inside fully-body, neon-green suits. For much of the year, until the league judged that enough was enough, they were given free reign inside Rogers Arena to taunt opposing players confined in the penalty box.

Meanwhile, the Boston Bruins got to the Finals only after out-grinding and out-gritting Montreal and Tampa Bay in two seven-game series. As one of the NHL’s Original Six, they summoned legends like Rene Rancourt (their 30-year anthem man) and banner-carrying Bobby Orr (enough said) to pump up the TD Garden. Even when the B’s fans gave the Canucks’ a hard time, you could argue they were providing a service; like reminding the troubled netminder of his last name, “Luongo, Luongo!”

In Game 6 the Garden shook from the thunderous spontaneity of 17,565. In Game 7 the Green Men sat inside Rogers, silenced in their spandex. Boston avoided a 40-year championship drought. For Vancouver, it’s now 40 years and counting.

If that’s a stretch, it’s only as far as cotton, not polyester. But if what goes around comes around – whether it’s a taco, an ice cream or a championship trophy – then teams should turn it around.

Become actively pro and they just might uncover the next lovable Wild Bill. Stick with the con and they soon could be opening their gates to hecklers clad in Lycra.

That’s something none of us cares to relive.

On deck: Understanding the Difference Between Fashion and Style

Bob has called Norfolk Tides games since 2006, in addition to his roles as the radio voice of Navy football and a freelance television broadcaster. To view and listen to samples of his work, please visit http://www.bobsocci.com.

There Should Be No Screaming in Baseball…

By Bob Socci

Maybe it was more than mere coincidence the night Yankee Stadium’s speakers were silenced.

Last month, as New York tried to rally during an eventual 5-4 loss to Boston, the climactic innings were played without audio advertising pitches, music to rev up the fans and formal announcement of each batter. According to the New York Daily News, the public address system automatically shut down after one of the ballpark’s water pumps registered a low-pressure reading.

The fact that it was Friday the 13th of May must have struck some as eerily cosmic – an untimely ballpark malfunction representing more than a stroke of bad luck.

But for others, including some players, the unusual shutdown was a blessing. For them, hearing fans left to their own devices – namely passion for the home team and awareness of the game situation, knowing when to clap and what to chant – was music to the ears.

On Friday, May 13, the public address system malfunctioned at Yankee Stadium, where longtime fans still hear the echoes of the late Bob Sheppard.

“I thought it was pretty cool, actually, for the last three innings,” Red Sox first baseman Adrian Gonzalez told reporters.

“(The fans) made up for that (muted audio),” added Yankees outfielder Curtis Granderson. “It was absolutely amazing.”

Upon experiencing that organic Bronx beat – of the fans, by the fans – the Boston Globe’s Nick Cafardo wondered why ballparks can’t regularly take time out for quiet time. Cafardo proposed a two-inning moratorium on electronic stimuli at the stadium.

Realistically, no one’s going to the pull the plug on what team marketers and, frankly, many paying customers value as in-game entertainment. Not even for just an inning or two. Bells and whistles, as well as a myriad of other sound effects and musical clips, are now part of the fan experience.

Nonetheless, what Cafardo wrote calls to mind a conclusion I reached long ago, while frequenting dozens of ballparks across the country – from minors to majors. It’s based, essentially, on the wholly unoriginal idea of less being more.

What I’d like to see – hear, actually – in those places where ballgames are treated somewhat like tractor pulls or monster trucks is a little less volume.

It’s not so much the tunes that get to me. Let the music play, I say. More often, it’s the sound and fury from the pipes of the rare stadium voice who mistakes our leisurely night at the ballpark for his Rockin’ New Year’s Eve.

Society could use more civil tones. And so could baseball.

That’s why, if ever designated czar of the game – after first ending the habitual fidgeting with batting gloves that grips today’s hitters (please see previous post Baseball Addition by Subtraction) – I would decree:

2. There Should Be No Screaming in Baseball…

…unless, that is, you’re arguing with an umpire. And since I’ve yet to see a public address announcer or stadium emcee charge onto the field doing his best Bobby Cox or Lou Piniella impersonation, it’s time in some parks to dial it down a bit.

On any given outing to a ballgame, you can be treated to a beautiful arrangement. It’s the voices of vendors heard above the murmur of a grandstand; dugout chatter and bleacher banter; and the hubbub of a crowd taking cues from clutch hits and rally-ending strikeouts.

But in some places, particularly at the game’s grassroots, the minor leagues, electronic intrusion creates an assault on the senses. They’re where you’re liable to hear special effects, like the sound of shattering glass, on every foul ball out of play and/or an over-amplified and amped-up announcer shouting for the sake of shouting.

Years ago, The (insert sponsor) Pizza Scream was a widespread promotion. The premise was simple enough. During a designated between-innings break, fans were invited to scream for a free pie. Whoever was judged to make the most noise received an in-seat delivery. At least in that case, it was the fans doing all the screaming.

There are times, however, when the in-game, on-field host – filling a role created fairly recently – gets a bit carried away. For instance, at one International League stadium, the M.C. is a talented guy with plenty of timbre. He just happens to go overboard from the bed of a four-wheeler that circles the warning track and launches t-shirts into the crowd.

“Make some noise!” he repeatedly seems to be yelling from the top of his lungs. In moderation, his message would be clear. Over-modulation makes it just plain loud.

One of the great appeals of going to a ballgame is the idea of relaxing in your seat, washing down a dog slathered in mustard with a cold beverage and enjoying good conversation. You shouldn’t have to shout to be heard by the person in the next seat, as if bellied-up to the bar of a loud nightclub.

I’m totally into the idea of pumping up a crowd, trying to energize fans during a rally or entertain them when there’s a lull in the action. And, absolutely, a hometown hitter walking up to a clutch at-bat should be identified with a little extra oomph on each ensuing syllable of his name.

For that matter, creative use of music and videos definitely enlivens in-game presentation. There aren’t many ideas in sports marketing more ingenious than the Rally Monkey. I mean, except for Giants fans, who didn’t love seeing the Angels answer the monkey’s call to come back and win the 2002 World Series? The Rally Monkey was (is) so cool, one can almost forgive the Halos for perpetrating Thunder Sticks on the public that same postseason.

The one and only Rally Monkey.

It’s understood that one can’t possibly expect other venues to sound like Fenway Park when Sherm Feller welcomed “ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls” or old Yankee Stadium when Bob Sheppard enunciated every syllable of Alvaro Espinoza with impeccable elocution.

And, granted, in most places announcers strike a perfect balance between Rex Barney (the late pitcher-turned-P.A.-man in Baltimore whose elongated “Thank Yooouuu!” punctuated announcements) and Michael Buffer (you know, the “Let’s get ready to rumble!!” ring announcer).

It’s not that I’m strictly advocating what some consider stodgy and stale over what’s hip and hop. And unless I really do get to reign over the game someday, all I can hope for is that those proud to be loud take the words of a longtime baseball man to heart.

For 35 years, Bob Brown was public relations director for the Baltimore Orioles. Later, in the mid-90s, he went on to a consult for a group of Maryland-based minor league clubs, including the Delmarva Shorebirds.

Once, speaking on the subject of what really draws fans to the ballpark, Brown offered a gentle reminder.

“The next time the club goes on the road,” he suggested, “open the gates, invite people to buy tickets to hear music and announcements, and see who shows up.”

The Durham Bulls Athletic Park (photo courtesy of durhambulls.com)

Click here to hear how at some ballparks, the announcer screams for fans to scream for t-shirts!

Click here to compare how at other stadiums, including the home of the hugely successful Durham Bulls, only the fans do the yelling!

On deck: Root, Root, Root for the Home Team…

Bob calls Norfolk Tides games, in addition to his roles as the radio voice of Navy football and a freelance television broadcaster. To view and listen to samples of his work, please visit www.bobsocci.com.

Baseball Addition by Subtraction

By Bob Socci

Thirty-five years ago, in what was widely viewed as an act of defiance, baseball’s commissioner created quite a stir by sitting through a World Series game sans an overcoat.

The Big Red Machine was beating the Yankees on a frigid Sunday evening at Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium, for the second of four wins during its sweep of ‘76, and the late Bowie Kuhn was on the hot seat.

For the first time ever, Major League Baseball was staging a World Series weekend game at night, thus avoiding direct competition with the NFL for afternoon viewers. Critics were convinced that Kuhn sold out to television.

Mike Hargrove earned the nickname "The Human Rain Delay" with the deliberate mannerisms he displayed during his 6,693 major league plate appearances (photo courtesy of espn.com).

Ostensibly, the commissioner deemed it in the best interests of baseball to eschew an extra layer, as is if to boldly suggest to viewers nationwide that a 40-degree chill in mid-October was perfectly suited – topcoat or not – for a ballgame.

Of course, today such controversy might seem silly. We all realize that a main mission of every major sport, college or pro, is to maximize ratings and thereby please the networks and their sponsors. If anything, we in the East simply hope – often in vain – that World Series games end while it’s still p.m.; not the following a.m.

Furthermore, nowadays it’s customary for the Late Fall Classic to stretch into November and be played by men wearing ear muffs attached to their caps. There’s no sense pretending when being practical might keep them warm.

And as Kuhn’s eventual successor, Bud Selig, recently indicated at his annual meeting with Associated Press Sports Editors, baseball’s postseason is about to last longer and extend later.

There’s been talk of playoff expansion for years. USA Today was writing about the possibility as early as the fall of 2003. In April, MLB proposed a rule change to increase the field from eight to ten teams, as soon as 2012.

“I would say we’re moving to expanding the playoffs, but there’s a myriad of details to work out,” Selig told the AP editors in late April. “Ten is a fair number.”

In exchange for this inevitable expansion, and with the integrity of the game at heart, I am seeking a tradeoff of sorts. I’m pleading for contraction; hoping baseball will soon eliminate some of the things that are truly troubling about the way it’s being played in the 21st Century.

As easy it might be to come up with 10 or more, I’ll settle for just a handful. In this case, five is a fair number.

But rather than publishing the items on my wish list all at once, so that Commissioner Selig can pay each due consideration, I’m divulging them one post at a time.

So, mislabel me a purist or traditionalist if you so choose, but here’s the first edict I’d love to see – in the best interests of baseball:

1. A Ban on Velcro

There are a lot of theories, some prompted by actual studies, for speeding up baseball’s pace of play and shortening its average time of game. Naturally, though unscientifically, I’ve come up with a suggestion of my own.

I arrived at it, after a somewhat exhaustive review of thousands of plate appearances, from hundreds of games, in recent years. For time’s sake, the moment has arrived to outlaw Velcro straps on batting gloves.

As much as anyone, I value the rhythms of the game and appreciate the timeless appeal of its timeless nature. I would never quibble with the great Roger Angell, who wrote: “Since baseball time is measured only in outs, all you have to do is succeed utterly; keep hitting, keep the rally alive, and you have defeated time. You remain forever young.”

What’s gotten old, or – to borrow a frequent expression inside the sport – what’s gotten tired is the routine that interrupts the game’s flow before every pitch. Hitter steps out of box; hitter rests the bat handle against his legs or tucks the barrel under his arm; hitter undoes the strap of each batting glove; hitter refastens the strap of each batting glove; hitter returns to box.

Right-handed or lefty; slugger or Punch-and-Judy; it doesn’t matter. Every at-bat, between balls and strikes, such fidgeting has gone from idiosyncrasy to idiocy.

It’s reached the point where Frank Deford recently made the point, during an NPR commentary: “The worst thing that ever happened to baseball was batting gloves — because unlike all the other gloves in the world, which people just put on and forget about, baseball batters seem to be born with a compulsion to monkey around with their batting gloves. Batting gloves, to baseball players, are like texting to teenagers.”

Granted, such finicky behavior spawned one of the sport’s best nicknames – Mike Hargrove really was ‘The Human Rain Delay.’ But, as fascinating as every Nomar Garciaparra at-bat proved to be – from the tug on his gloves to the tap of his toes – too many of today’s batters remind me of my 11-month old every time he reaches for the Velcro straps on his sneakers. Maybe they, like him, just love hearing the ripple of Velcro off and Velcro on.

Just think, if such a ban has the effect both desired and expected, then baseball can begin to better police the use of other implements. Like shin guards and elbow pads.

Resourceful Yankees coach Mick Kelleher has his hands -- and belt -- full as caretaker of gloves and other equipment (photo courtesy of Reuters).

First-base coaches are constantly being weighed down by equipment handed over by almost every batter who reaches base. If enough guys get on, the coach has to form a relay with a bat boy just to get the gear back to the dugout. How can that coach possibly offer a fist bump after an RBI single, when his hands are full with the previous batter’s arm and leg guards?

Perhaps baseball needs legislature to impose hands-free coaching.

Should a batter choose to bat in body armor – thereby gaining an advantage over a pitcher in their battle to control the coveted inside corner – maybe he should be forced to keep wearing it on the bases. So what if it proves bothersome while running.

Heck, for years pitchers have donned cumbersome jackets on the basepaths. Those satins in the seventies had to be worth at least a lost step or two trying to go from first to third.

On a fabric-related topic, just last week I witnessed a first after a Baltimore Orioles farmhand reached second.

Josh Bell, in short sleeves, delivered an RBI double. But once in scoring position, he took time to remove a pair of long black sleeves from his back pockets and pull them up over his elbows.

I had heard of padded sliding shorts, but had never seen what were presumed to be sliding sleeves. Can you picture Pete Rose scraping the dirt on a head-first dive, only after first pausing to cover his hairy forearms with Lycra tubing? Eeshh.

But I digress, getting way ahead of myself. For now, and for the good of the game, let’s simply take it one strap at a time.

On deck: There Should Be No Screaming in Baseball…

Bob calls Norfolk Tides games, in addition to his roles as the radio voice of Navy football and a freelance television broadcaster. To view and listen to samples of his work, please visit www.bobsocci.com.

Pointed Toward A Special Place

By coming to Navy, Ed DeChellis is answering a calling, for both him and his late friend.

By Bob Socci

Originally posted on http://www.navysports.com on May 25, 2011.

Ed DeChellis had been back in Happy Valley for four seasons when sadness struck in the summer of 2007, leaving him to eulogize the man he still considers “my best friend in coaching.”

His confidant and colleague, Skip Prosser, was at Wake Forest, where he went out for a jog, returned to his office and collapsed in his chair. At age 56, he was dead of an apparent heart attack.

Days later, DeChellis addressed the hundreds, many of them his basketball peers, crammed into Holy Family Catholic Church in Clemmons, N.C.

After eight seasons as head basketball coach of his alma mater Penn State, Ed DeChellis was hired by the Naval Academy.
“The man I count on for direction is gone,” he told the mourners. “My compass in life has gone to another place.”

Four years later, the memory of if not the compass himself, seemed to be pointing DeChellis to another place. On Monday, just two months after leading his alma mater Penn State to the NCAA Tournament, and only two seasons removed from a NIT title, DeChellis was hired by the Naval Academy.

He arrived at his decision after touring Annapolis, accompanied by his wife, Kim, daughter, Lauren, and constant reminders of a dear friend.

DeChellis had grown especially close to Prosser when both were college assistants. Eventually, he took ownership of East Tennessee State’s program, before returning to PSU, while Prosser rose in the profession from Loyola (Md.) to Xavier to Wake Forest.

But one position Prosser never held was the one he always professed to want; the one that last weekend was made available to DeChellis.

“(Skip’s) dream job was the Naval Academy,” DeChellis said by phone on Tuesday, making one of the 50-to-60 return calls he owed to media and colleagues around the country. “Each year in the spring time, when jobs would circulate, he always talked about the Academy.”

Prosser romanticized about frequent visits to Annapolis during Navy’s halcyon days of the mid-to-late 1980s. A hard-nosed kid he coached in high school, Doug Wojcik, was the lead guard for the “Elite Eight” Midshipmen of 1986 and their captain a year later.

“He always talked about how special it was seeing Doug playing,” DeChellis remembers. “Years ago, I scouted a game at Halsey Fieldhouse. I understood what (Skip) was talking about.”

And when he recently came back to The Yard, walking with Navy athletic director Chet Gladchuk, watching midshipmen march past and feeling a “great sense of pride,” DeChellis thought of Prosser.

The inexplicable enormity of it all, at this stage of his life and career, moved him to act.

“It was something that was very, very powerful,” DeChellis said during a press conference early Monday evening in University Park, Pa. “I can’t explain it, unless you’ve been there and done it. It was more like, without being too philosophical, it was like a calling, like this was something I needed to do and this was where I needed to be.”

Call it his civic duty. DeChellis does, if only “in some small way.”

“Believe me, I’m a very small part of it, but this is something I can give back” he said of his newly chosen role coaching soon-to-be officers.

Outside of Annapolis, such sentiments have evoked responses ranging from curiosity to incredulity, as demonstrated by lines of questioning during Monday’s presser and in Tuesday morning’s analysis.

Why, some wonder, would the 2009 Big Ten Coach of the Year depart a power conference so lucrative that it’s contemplating paying players? For the Patriot League, which until 2006-07 still fielded a member abstaining from athletic scholarships?

Was there discontent in Happy Valley, coaching in football’s 360-degree shadow? Did his contract status leave him feeling underappreciated, disrespected or insecure? Could it be all of the above?

It was, DeChellis stresses, none of the above.

“It’s not about going from the Big Ten to the Patriot League, it’s about working at the Naval Academy and having to work with young men who want to serve our country,” he said on Monday.

DeChellis paused several times to compose himself during the course of his 16 ½-minute media session. He was PSU Class of 1982, assisted three different head coaches for a total of 12 years and presided over the Nittany Lions for eight seasons. He and his wife raised three girls and became grandparents there. Saying goodbye is hard to do.

The following afternoon, DeChellis summed up his thought process.

“I wasn’t leaving Penn State,” he said, “I was going to Navy.”

To the person who knows DeChellis best, fully understanding his inner being and personal bearings, his decision in the end wasn’t much of a surprise.

“(To) my wife, driving home last week, I said, `What do you think?'” DeChellis recounted. “She just said, `This is who you are, this is what you stand for: morals, ethics, hard work, determination, all those words.'”

Saccharin as those words might seem to skeptics – especially considering some of the stuff we’ve heard from too many ethically-challenged coaches – DeChellis’s reputation appears beyond reproach.

And if accepting a reported pay cut to take a supposed step down on the coaching ladder seems unfathomable, you should understand that DeChellis sees life differently than most of us.

He was in his early 20s when his father, Richard, the family breadwinner, died from stomach cancer on Halloween of 1981. With poor health coverage and little life insurance, the DeChellises were forced to sell their family home.

The disease would revisit decades later. DeChellis’s mother Audrey succumbed to pancreatic and liver cancer at 6:08 a.m. on Christmas Day in 2007.

Between the losses of both parents, DeChellis awoke on a Friday morning seven years ago to blood in his urine. He suspected a kidney stone. The next day, a doctor delivered a grave diagnosis: DeChellis had a tumor in his bladder. It was malignant.

Today cancer is in remission, yet remains part of who DeChellis is. It shapes his perspective.

“No question,” he says. “I live six months at a time. My next doctor’s appointment is in June.

“You look at things differently. You learn that having lots of money, fanfare, TV (notoriety), whatever; it’s not going to help you.”

DeChellis called the late Skip Prosser "my compass in life."
In 2009, DeChellis was one of five Division I basketball coaches among more than 6,000 American Cancer Society representatives who converged on Capitol Hill to lobby lawmakers to do more to help families ravaged by the disease physically and financially.

He’s also helped Penn State raise hundreds of thousands through his work with Coaches vs. Cancer. Last year alone, according to a school press release, the Nittany Lions generated more than $200,000.

Considering what he confronted, and how he’s acted on his convictions, there’s no doubting DeChellis’s sincerity when he tells you that coming to the Academy is “about what I wanted to do with my life.”

And, he adds, making a difference in his players’ lives.

That includes helping the Mids reach the NCAA Tournament. Navy hasn’t been there since 1998.

Like his friend Don DeVoe, who led the Mids to three Patriot League titles in a five-year span, DeChellis comes to Annapolis after guiding two other schools to the NCAA tourney.

At East Tennessee State, he inherited a 20-loss program before averaging nearly 19 wins his final three seasons, including a Southern Conference crown in 2003. DeChellis then succeeded Jerry Dunn at Penn State, which had gone to the NCAA Tournament only eight times in its history.

Any Nittany Lion tradition in basketball, for the most part, is in the women’s game. The Penn State men’s program is truly a Big Ten outlier. While five conference foes have advanced to the Final Four since 2000, it hasn’t been that deep since 1954.

Nonetheless, under DeChellis, the Nittany Lions captured the NIT Championship with their 27th victory of 2008-09. Last March, they reached their first-ever Big Ten final and earned the school’s first NCAA tourney bid in a decade.

As you know – and as he’s already discovered – DeChellis faces unique challenges inherent at a service academy. He laughs about trying to reach a Navy player this week, only to learn of the Mid’s unavailability. His ship, literally, had sailed.

But DeChellis’s rolodex is filled with invaluable resources. He intends to call on DeVoe and Wojcik, now the head coach at Tulsa. He plans to reach out to Paul Evans, Pete Hermann and Emmett Davis, all of whom have strong coaching ties to the Academy.

“I want to see what their formula for success was,” DeChellis says. “History can repeat itself if you pay attention.”

In many ways – especially on defense and under the boards – he’ll try to duplicate what was done at Penn State. When successful, his Nittany Lions weren’t quite winning on style points. Sometimes they won without many points, period.

Like in the 2011 Big Ten quarterfinals, where the score was: Penn State 36, Wisconsin 33. And no, the shot clock didn’t malfunction.

Of course, that’s an extreme example. Nonetheless, DeChellis will soon be coaching where prevailing by grit and grind isn’t just accepted; it’s expected. This is, after all, where the football team has won twice in three years without ever completing a pass.

It’s also where the Mids of the mid-90s made winning ugly at times an art form. Most of DeVoe’s tenure, defense and rebounding were paramount. Offense often was a by-product of the two.

And though the dynamics of the now-scholarship Patriot League are different than many of those seasons, Navy was good enough to place second just four years ago. The Mids have been talented enough to feature the conference’s top scorer three of the past four seasons.

But with a style predicated on three pointers – sometimes for better, sometimes not – they still found the league’s quarterfinals inescapable. Navy hasn’t won a postseason game since 2001.

If the likes of Tom Izzo and Bo Ryan and Wojcik believe DeChellis has what it takes to change that – and they most certainly do – well, to coin an expression familiar around Annapolis, expect to win.

“I’m proud that we proved we could win at Penn State,” DeChellis says. “I’m ready to do something different.”

Albeit by means tried and true, in both Navy and Penn State blue.

“You have to be a tight-knit group and have a togetherness to you, with no missing pieces on the floor,” he says of his coaching philosophy. “You have to defend, and you better take care of the basketball to give yourself a chance to do well.

“Togetherness, toughness, defense; those three things have to be staples in our program.”

Especially togetherness and toughness; those are cornerstones of the Academy. DeChellis is ready to start building around them.

“It’s a different lifestyle; a different way of life,” he knows. “But it’s basketball; it’s competing…We will be as competitive as heck and I think we are going to put a great program together. But it’s not about those other things with me anymore. It’s just not.”

It’s about something an old friend understood long ago.

“Penn State is a special place for me and my family,” DeChellis says, “but I found another special place in the United States Naval Academy.”

Bob has enjoyed a 15-year association with the Naval Academy. In addition to his current role as radio voice of Navy football, he calls Norfolk Tides baseball and is a freelance television broadcaster. To view and listen to samples of his work, please visit www.bobsocci.com.