For Navy, winning has extra dividends Academy's successes spur morale, fit with mission

March 13, 1997|By Alan Goldstein | Alan Goldstein,SUN STAFF

The Naval Academy has gone through some turbulent times in recent years -- student misconduct, drug use, an off-campus car-theft ring and even a murder involving a female plebe.

Although the troubles involved only several dozen students, it prompted Newsweek to label the academy a "School for Scandal."

Helping to restore pride in the Brigade of Midshipmen has been the resurgence of the football and basketball teams. For the first time, a service academy won postseason berths in the two major sports.

The Navy football team finished 9-3 this past season and scored a thrilling, 42-38 victory over California in the Aloha Bowl. And tomorrow in Tucson, Ariz., the Navy basketball team (20-8), after clinching the Patriot League title, will play second-ranked Utah in the opening round of the NCAA tournament.

"I really think winning in athletics has a positive influence on the brigade," said Capt. William T.R. Bogle, commandant of the midshipmen. "It's a two-way street. The winning lifts the morale and spirit of the brigade, and they're more apt to get more involved in supporting the teams."

The success resulted in record attendance for the two major revenue sports. Four home football games at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium drew an average of 29,258 fans, and basketball at Alumni Hall averaged 2,357.

The nuts and bolts of developing a successful sports program at the academy fall to Jack Lengyel, in his eighth year as athletic director.

He fired football coach George Chaump and basketball coach Pete Herrmann after a string of losing seasons, replacing them with Charlie Weatherbie and Don DeVoe, who quickly turned around the foundering programs.

"This has been anything but an overnight success story," said Lengyel. "It has been about seven years in the making -- restructuring our athletic staff, developing a strategic plan and hiring eight new head coaches in various sports."

To entice athletes, the Naval Academy Athletic Association invested $20 million in new buildings and facilities, including the renovation of Halsey Field House, a new baseball clubhouse at Bishop Stadium, new practice fields for football and lacrosse and an expanded football locker room that comfortably accommodates about 80 players.

And Lengyel is quick to reward success, granting Weatherbie a contract extension through 2006 after the football team's dramatic turnaround.

Stressing the comfort level he feels in dealing with disciplined athletes, Weatherbie rejected overtures from Boston College and Baylor to remain in Annapolis.

DeVoe, 56, who also won NCAA tournament berths while coaching at Virginia Tech in 1976 and five times at Tennessee, said he would be happy to finish his career at the academy.

"I believe coaching here is my destiny," said DeVoe. "Someone greater than me is controlling the switches."

After an 8-19 debut in 1992, DeVoe has posted a 72-52 record at the academy and won three Patriot League titles.

Asked if it is difficult coaching against Bucknell, Colgate and Lafayette rather than such Southeastern Conference teams as Kentucky, Georgia and Vanderbilt, DeVoe said: "One thing you have to be careful of in life is not letting ego get in your way.

"I look at my job here as an advancement. I've been coaching more quality student-athletes than I probably would have if I had stayed a lifetime at Tennessee or Wyoming.

"For me, it's still coaching on a Division I level. Walk out on the basketball court and you see banners showing Navy has sent 10 different teams to the NCAA tourney. There aren't many institutions that can say that. The fact that we're not playing in the Big East or ACC doesn't mean we're not a quality basketball program."

Although he realizes every coach is subject to being fired, DeVoe said the pressure of winning is far less at Navy than in one of the major conferences.

"During the season at those schools, basketball is everything," DeVoe said. "But at the Naval Academy, it is totally different, and the people I work for realize that. As much as they get excited about us winning and support the team, I know I won't get fired because someone missed a free throw. Basketball is just a small part of the equation here."

Lengyel said the Patriot League is a perfect fit for his men's and women's basketball teams, but he faces a harder decision when it comes to football.

Traditional rival Army is prepared to join Conference USA for football. This would leave Navy and Notre Dame as the only major independents.

Lengyel said he prefers to wait on moving to a conference.

Since coming to Navy, Lengyel has weighed the possibility of joining the Big East and Atlantic Coast Conference, but decided that neither was a good fit because of lower academic standards and junior-college transfers at a number of the schools.

"We want to maintain competition with traditional rivals like Army, the Air Force and Notre Dame," he said. "But, at the same time, we want the opportunity to be successful -- a level playing field, so to speak.

"While we have an obligation as a national academy to play games around the country, we're still a leadership institution. Winning is still important to us."

Pub Date: 3/13/97

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