Wave of enthusiasm washes over academy as Navy football team rides winning tide Long-suffering fans celebrate revival

November 17, 1996|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF

Navy football fans are doing something unusual this fall:

They're actually watching the games.

The once-bare stands of the Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis have sold out. Crowds carrying "Go Navy" banners jostle at the gates. Families spread out on the grass. Even the most die-hard tailgaters have left off partying in the parking lot.

It's the sheer thrill of a winning season.

"I had a full head of hair the last time Navy had this good of a season," joked Bob Bohan, 51, an Annapolis lawyer, as he munched snacks with a group of friends at a pre-game cookout. He had more to cheer yesterday: the Naval Academy trounced the Tulane Green Wave, 35-21.

For 14 years, a longer time than most care to recall, the Navy faithful had little to celebrate. Naval Academy midshipmen, alumni and families continued to make a loyal pilgrimage to the football stadium. But many never bothered to go inside.

There was more action in the parking lot.

As the Naval Academy lost game after game, reaching an all-time low in the early 1990s with two 1-win, 10-loss seasons in a row, the fans got creative in their despair. They perfected the art of tailgating.

People set up elaborate feasts, complete with pasta dishes, grilled chicken, raw oysters and wine, on folding tables.

Some relished more simple pleasures; Bill Dempsey, owner of an auto repair shop in Annapolis, recalled: "We'd go in and watch two quarters, and then come back out and hit the Coors Light."

The tailgating parties got going in earnest in 1990, aided by a Naval Academy marketing push. Unable to sell Navy football, the athletic organization came up with "Navy Fest," enlisting corporate partners to set up tents for tailgating and promoting game festivities like the parade by the 4,000 midshipmen.

"Everyone came for the camaraderie," said Jan Hardesty, who with her husband, Jerry, owns two downtown Annapolis restaurants and is a "Navy Fest" booster.

"People would just entertain themselves. Now it's amazing; they go running into the stadium to watch the game. You can promote all the fun, but there's nothing like winning."

On yesterday's cloudless afternoon, the roar of the crowds came close to rivaling the cannon that boomed at every touchdown. Freshmen grinned as they raced to the field for their ritual push-ups each time Navy scored.

And Capt. William T. R. Bogle, the academy's second-highest officer, got the game off to an exuberant start: He jumped out of a helicopter onto the field.

"It's awesome," said Chris Neish, 23, a senior from northern New Jersey who was enjoying every moment of his last trip to the stadium as a midshipman.

"There's so much more spirit in the brigade now. Everyone is more together; we have a lot more camaraderie this year."

It was the last home game for the midshipmen, whose "Beat Army" chants have taken on new meaning as they prepare for the traditional showdown with their archrival Dec. 7 in Philadelphia. West Point's football team was undefeated until yesterday's 42-17 loss to Syracuse, while the Naval Academy is 7-2, having lost to Boston College and Notre Dame.

Navy's football comeback -- under coach Charlie Weatherbie, now in his second year -- has done more than boost ticket sales; it also has lifted the spirits of midshipmen and residents of Annapolis.

Season ticket sales are up 6.7 percent, and group ticket sales, packages of 25 or more that are targeted to corporations, have jumped 109 percent, from 1,111 last year to 2,325, said Beth Shumway, director of sports marketing and promotions.

The 35,000-seat stadium sold out at homecoming and the Nov. 9 game against Delaware.

And as Navy football regains national attention, alumni begin to make comparisons to the glory days of the 1960s when the legendary Roger Staubach was quarterback.

Midshipmen say they feel there is something to be proud of after a year of student misconduct scandals.

"It does help morale," after the publicity over students stealing cars, using LSD and sexually assaulting women, said Stephen McJessy, 21, of Buffalo, Ohio. "Everyone is behind the football team, wishing them well on the way to class, and we're getting good press."

In downtown Annapolis, restaurant and pub owners have enjoyed serving larger, happier crowds after the games. Navy banners hang from shop windows and Colonial homes.

"The city is in many ways the proverbial old Navy town," said Annapolis Alderman Dean Johnson, who lives a block from the stadium.

"There's no doubt it's boosted civic pride. It's been a long time since we all got to feel this good about Navy football."

Pub Date: 11/17/96

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