For Navy, Air Force, differences are stark

Mids' Johnson: Continuity, commitment help Falcons

College Football

October 05, 2002|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | Kevin Van Valkenburg,SUN STAFF

Want to know the dirty secret of the storied Air Force-Navy rivalry?

It's that lately, Navy's been a pretty unworthy rival.

At least on the football field, that is. Both academies still specialize in churning out some of the nation's brightest young men, but lately, only Air Force has been able to consistently assemble good football teams. Since 1982, the Falcons are 18-2 against the Midshipmen, and today, when the two teams kick off, Air Force will be a 23-point favorite. The Falcons (4-0) have beaten a ranked team this season (No. 23 Cal on Sept. 21), something Navy hasn't done since 1985.

So why is there such a large gap between the two service academies?

"I'd like to say it's coaching, but I know better than that," Air Force coach Fisher DeBerry said jokingly this week. "I don't really have an answer. We've been awfully fortunate and we've done a good job recruiting.

"I think maybe kids see they can get a great education here and they realize they can get a great job doing something like the space program when they get out. There is an attractiveness to flying."

Navy coach Paul Johnson doesn't totally buy DeBerry's logic, however.

"That might be part of it, but kids can be pilots and astronauts at the Naval Academy as well," Johnson said. "They sell a lot of things in recruiting. They sell that their guys don't leave the country and all kinds of things. It's not as simple as people would like for you to believe. I think there's a lot of factors."

For starters, Johnson will point out, continuity helps. DeBerry, a 1960 graduate of Wofford, is in his 19th season as Air Force coach and has run the same system the entire time. Over the same period, Navy has had five head coaches.

"Instead of addressing the problems, Navy has changed coaches," Johnson said.

Part of the reason Johnson agreed to leave a successful program at Georgia Southern to come to Navy was that the administration assured him the academy was committed to building a winning football program. The feeling was, that hadn't always been the case.

"I don't even want to get into all the [differences between Navy and Air Force] because it sounds like you are making excuses and I don't want to do that," Johnson said. "I think that, quite honestly, the biggest thing is that they've made a commitment to win. They haven't just paid lip service to it."

DeBerry agrees.

"The administration at Air Force believes that football is very important in its overall mission," DeBerry said. "Our athletic director [Randall W. Spetman] played here and was a captain of the team, so he realizes what football means. ... I think playing in the Mountain West Conference certainly helps the development of our program as well."

Air Force also points out that it will redshirt a player (withholding him from varsity play for a season without losing a year of eligibility) if he is injured. Starting halfback Tom Heier and linebacker Mike McCraney, for example, are fifth-year seniors this season. At Navy, redshirting is virtually unheard of.

Air Force's prep school also sits just across the road from the academy, whereas Navy's prep school is in Newport, R.I.

Despite the differences, the emotions involved usually manage to keep the game close. Navy hasn't won since 1996, but the Mids nearly pulled off wins in 1997, 1999 and 2001.

"I would hope all the players go out there and play a little harder," DeBerry said. "It's a rivalry game. It's not different than Alabama-Auburn or South Carolina-Clemson. Both teams are going to play as hard as they can and neither one is going to give up."

NOTES: Navy defensive tackle John Brindel (shoulder) is likely out. ... Air Force is second in the nation in rushing, averaging 305 yards a game. Navy is third with a 288.5 per-game average. ... Navy and Air Force have had one common opponent so far: The Falcons defeated Northwestern, 52-3, in their season opener. The Mids lost to the Wildcats, 49-40.

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