ANNAPOLIS -- Football players are loath to admit when they're embarrassed. Such frailty is not esteemed in a sport in which who-da-baddest is the central question of every game.
Just because most players are the size of Montana -- the state, not Joe -- doesn't mean they're different from anyone else, though. Sometimes, things just get so bloody awful that, sure, yeah, it's enough to make a man want to run and hide.
If you ask a Navy football player whether he was ever embarrassed these past few years, he'll look you in the eye and shake his head firmly from side to side. No, sir. You know he was, though. He's only human, and the past few years were among the worst in Navy's prideful history.
It wasn't the scores so much as their depressing message. In the three years Elliot Uzelac coached the Midshipmen, they lost to Delaware, The Citadel, Penn, William & Mary -- all teams they figured to beat. They lost to James Madison on homecoming. They lost every home game last season.
Worse, they lost using a wishbone offense that was so dated and unoffending, it almost seemed the game had passed the Middies by. Embarrassing? Uzelac was fired for that very reason. People were embarrassed. Alumni. Administrators. Players.
It wasn't so much a hide-in-the-room shame the players felt. Just being members of the brigade imbues them with a self-assuredness that keeps them from hanging their heads too low. But the academy is about developing leadership, after all, and people around campus expect more.
When George Chaump arrived as Uzelac's replacement last winter, he set about stirring the still air. His pass-happy playbook was enough to enliven the people in the stands, but his priority was changing the players' outlook. A red-faced team is not going to win many games.
"Losing leads to you losing your confidence," Chaump said the other day. "You won't go anywhere without the foundation of good self-image. We used a positive approach with them."
It was a considerable departure from Uzelac, who was something of a martinet. That change in philosophy, a properly watered-down schedule and Chaump's reputation for winning combined to raise a sense of optimism for the first time in a while.
The first game, against Richmond on Saturday, was critical. "A must win," Chaump called it, and he was not exaggerating. Losses in such should-win games were the root of the insecurity he inherited.
The Middies fell behind by 10 points in the first quarter, stirring up some old, unwanted ghosts, but then they rallied for a 28-17 victory. It wasn't the stuff of legend, but it was a fine start to the rebuilding of the team's psyche.
The players' post-game return to Bancroft Hall, where all members of the brigade live, was a celebration. Such has rarely been the case these past few years. At no school, safe to say, is the football team considered more an extension of the student body.
"They're tough fans," senior quarterback Alton Grizzard said. "It was nice to hear them saying, 'Hey, good game,' things like that. You can tell they're excited about the way we're playing."
Yes, there finally is a hint of renewal at Navy. His team has played only one game, but Chaump more and more resembles a good hire. He is a coaches' coach, not a marquee name, but highly regarded in the profession. He preaches sound blocking and tackling, yet is enamored of reverses, screens and flea-flickers.
He is a distinct upgrade from the old-fashioned Uzelac, although that's only partially fair in that Uzelac's tenure came after it became obvious that the schedule needed to be softened, but before the softening went into effect. Still, the players are walking around with a brighter glint in their eyes.
"The atmosphere is just completely different this year," Grizzard said. "It's more enthusiastic. It's fun. That's what this game is supposed to be. For as much time as you put in, you want to get something back. It looks like this is the year for that."
Said Chaump: "You have to make it fun for them. I think they love what we're doing."
Saturday's game at Virginia might douse some of the kindling, but there will be a chance to recover. Virginia used to be one of the Middies' easier games, but now is one of the toughest. That is due as much to Virginia's emergence as to Navy's more agreeable schedule. Pitt, Syracuse and BYU -- three top-25 teams -- are gone since last year, replaced by Akron, Villanova and Toledo.
"We could have a good enough record to make a bowl game," Grizzard said, and although that may be a bit much to ask, the very mention of the idea demonstrates the restorative atmosphere that exists. The chill is gone.