Academy chief seeks to build understanding

Socials after military school games proposed

July 03, 2002|By Ariel Sabar | Ariel Sabar,SUN STAFF

The Army-Navy football game ranks among the country's most celebrated athletic rivalries, a century-old rite of fall that transforms cadets and midshipmen into fire-spitting enemies. Yet the Naval Academy mantra "Beat Army!" -- writ on everything from weight-room barbells to baby clothes -- may soon have an addendum: Greet Army.

Outlining his priorities over the next four years, the new academy superintendent, Vice Adm. Richard J. Naughton, said yesterday that he is considering a kind of social hour after games between military academies, to encourage players to set aside on-field differences and to get to know one another without helmets on.

As Naughton sees it, a post-game dinner or picnic is one step toward preparing future officers for a modern military that increasingly relies on precise coordination among the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force.

"It's a mindset that's terribly important," Naughton said, in his first sit-down interviews with reporters since he took charge of the military college June 7. The proposal is a sign that Naughton, 55, a 1968 graduate, is ready to adjust academy customs to fit the broader goals of the U.S. military.

Another priority, he said, will be nudging the school further into the information age. He is reviewing the curriculum to make sure it prepares midshipmen for a high-tech Navy. And he wants to breed a generation of nimble officers, better able to adapt on the fly to the fast-shifting tactics of post-Cold War enemies.

During a 45-minute interview in his office, he talked about his role models, his ambitions for his four-year term, and the experience of returning to his alma mater 34 years after pinning on his ensign's shoulder boards.

"It really is a full-circle experience, to come back to where I started as a 17-year-old young person who had never been out of Iowa," he said.

In his last assignment, Naughton, a veteran Naval flight officer, commanded a base in Fallon, Nev., that trained elite fighter pilots before they were sent into combat, many of them in Afghanistan.

Naughton said yesterday that he hadn't thought about the superintendent's job until Navy leaders told him he was under consideration. "It wasn't necessarily me accepting, so much as them choosing me," he said.

He says he has embraced the assignment, which by law will be the last stop before retirement from the Navy.

"In the four years here, you're liable to touch anything from a president to a chief naval officer to a secretary of the Navy to a congressman," he said. Those are the heights graduates have reached. "There's an opportunity to shape the future for a long time."

Since taking command four weeks ago, he has been taking attic-to-basement tours of school buildings and grilling academy staff about the minutia of their jobs, from the procedural details of hiring civilian faculty to the nuances of determining class size.

"He wants to know every little aspect of ... how things work," says William C. Miller, a retired rear admiral who is the school's academic dean. "He's not going to be someone who's aloof from the organization."

Naughton agrees. "I'm probably the most ardent student here," he said.

The academy's fishbowl quality will expose Naughton to a level of public scrutiny absent in earlier jobs. If scandals break, as they do from time to time, Naughton says he will deal honestly with the public and the media while protecting the "dignity" of midshipmen and academy staff.

In a talk Friday to the parents of incoming students, Naughton held out the World War II fleet commander, Adm. Raymond A. Spruance, as the embodiment of a model officer. "He was a quiet warrior -- he's the one that won the battles, but he was not in front of the media all the time," Naughton said yesterday. "It was an excellence without arrogance that I find so admirable in an individual."

He believes the academy will benefit from his record as a consensus builder, a skill he says he learned while overseeing a complex overhaul of the USS Enterprise, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.

Managing the academy, with the sometimes sparring interests of midshipman, parents, military staff, civilian faculty, alumni and Congress, can be a balancing act. "Consensus is very important in an institution like this," Naughton said.

In his spare time, Naughton has been reading Stephen E. Ambrose's book on D-Day and primers on management, including one called First, Break All the Rules. He has fit in a couple of rounds of golf on the academy links, and power-walks around campus with his wife, Jacqueline.

Naughton succeeds Vice Adm. John R. Ryan as chief of the 157-year-old officer-training school. Ryan retired last month to become president of the State University of New York Maritime College.

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