NAVAL ACADEMY officials are giving football coach Paul Johnson enough rope to pull them over to his side or hang himself.
They are giving him concessions such as a softer schedule, "voluntary summer workouts" and a policy change in releasing pro athletes from active duty after two years instead of the long-standing term of five years.
But at the same time, some of the old guard in Annapolis is preparing a gallows. If this guy doesn't win, whispers will swirl about the return of Tom O'Brien.
O'Brien, the coach at Boston College, is always mentioned as the next Navy coach because he is one of their own, a former Mid who knows what it takes to win at a service academy, or so they say.
But that's part of the problem at Navy. Some of the alumni and old, stuffed-shirt admirals believe the program can still win the way it did in the 1950s and 1960s, when undersized and undermanned Navy teams could out-tough and out-discipline the Notre Dames, Pittsburghs and Dukes.
But since 1983, the Mids have had two winning seasons and gone to one major bowl.
Division I-AA might be a better place for the Midshipmen, or maybe that 165-pound sprint league in Annapolis needs another team.
But when Navy (1-7) takes on Notre Dame (8-1) at Ravens Stadium on Saturday, it will become more evident that Navy needs to make a move.
But that won't happen. Navy officials say they need the money from the football program to subsidize their 29 other sports, but this is about ego as well.
If Army and Air Force moved down, so would Navy.
Navy continues to see itself in the picture with N.C. State, Wake Forest and Boston College, not William and Mary and James Madison.
It's understandable why Navy has to play Notre Dame, Maryland and Army. They are the big-money cows. But Duke, Northwestern and Wake Forest are getting their money for nothing and their kicks for free.
"We've got to kind of rub it down," Johnson said of the schedule. "If we're going to play certain teams, it has to make sense for us to play that game.
"It's good to have tradition and rivalries, but it's also good sense to play the Rices and SMUs. Hopefully, we can work our way back up."
That's a smart move. Navy's current schedule could include six bowl participants.
"If you drop the quality, then fan and alumni interest drops down," said Navy athletic director Chet Gladchuk.
Fan interest also drops when you're getting your butt kicked every week.
That's why Johnson wants to go back to the format used by George Welsh, considered one of the best coaches in modern Navy history. Welsh had a 55-46-1 record in nine years, and he was 14-2 against Division I-AA schools.
"We have to be realistic about what we're dealing with," Johnson said. "There is no such thing as a typical Navy recruit. We have guys here who are overachievers and overlooked. You have to be careful and not get frustrated. Kids that are 18, 19, 20 years old don't understand what a degree from the service academy means. You have to look for good parents who'll tell them to take a long look at the situation."
Basically, Navy has been in the same recruiting pool as the Ivy League, but with a five-year commitment to active duty after graduation. But like Air Force and Army, pro players can now be released after two.
It's a perk. Johnson also has received permission for a group of 40 or 50 players to be granted regular leave time so they can work out together to promote team unity in the summer.
"There is no set timetable," Johnson said about developing this program. "I hope it doesn't take four or five years. I'm not a patient man. At some point, though, it's going to click. You keep working and working. Overall, though, I think we're all on the same page here."
That appears to be the case.
But some of these concessions go against the Navy way of the past. There are those who think there is too much emphasis on turning out football players and producing winning records instead of quality servicemen. They believe Navy should be able to compete with any team.
A lot of the old guard hasn't realized how gifted current athletes are compared with generations past.
Johnson knows he is walking the fine line at Navy, pushing buttons that have never been pushed. Navy isn't as liberal in its policies as Air Force, but it's nowhere as stringent as Army.
The Mids are somewhere in between, and so is Johnson, trying to pull it all together before the guys on the other side take back control of the rope.