Uniformly matched

Army, Navy have been playing since 1890. But no one leads in 49-49-7 football series.

College Football



On yesterday's Sports cover, the photograph of Army football fans, next to a photo of Navy midshipmen, showed enlisted men, not cadets.

The Sun regrets the errors.

If ever two college football teams deserve to be labeled as even, they are Army and Navy.

As their 106th meeting on Saturday approaches, the series is tied at 49 victories apiece (with seven ties), leading host city Philadelphia to brand this showdown as the "First to 50."

Moreover, until the Midshipmen dominated the past three meetings by a combined score of 134-31, the arch-rivals had scored 177 touchdowns each and were separated by a mere 92 points after more than a century of competition.

What makes this rivalry so close over such a long period?

"It's just the classic example of two like institutions that can, on any given day, beat each other," said longtime Navy athletic director Jack Lengyel. "This is a game played from the heart with great enthusiasm and character, and a 1-10 team has as good a chance as a 10-1 team. In an emotionally charged game like this, anything can happen. It's not uncommon for the underdog to win. The records bear that out."

"That [the tie in the series] just shows how competitive the teams are," added Navy coach Paul Johnson. "The two programs are very similar. It's the same type of kids you're playing."

The similarity of the academies is the recurring explanation. Both have traditionally recruited players from the same pool, one that encompassed the best in the nation until the lure of riches in professional football and the backlash against the military because of Vietnam began shrinking the available talent in the '60s.

In researching a 1996 book on the rivalry, best-selling author John Feinstein found remarkable similarities between players on each side - kids who were a step slow or a head short but burned to play big-time football as long as possible.

"They're going to get, typically, the same type of person, the same type of athlete, the same kind of player," Feinstein said. "You're rarely going to get a situation where one team has athletes running 4.3 in the 40 and the other has athletes running 4.7 in the 40."

The players are so alike, Feinstein said, that after the captains of each team meet at the annual pre-game banquet, they often become good friends.

Today, Army, Navy and Air Force must attract players from a supply line that does not include those with a goal to play professionally because of the long-term service commitment, but does include those who are militarily inclined, academically strong and able to handle the discipline associated with the academies. Those requirements put the three major military institutions on the same plane, but below the Southern Californias and Notre Dames.

So, among themselves, it is imperative to sign as many players from that pool as possible to get an edge on the other two. With Johnson's program taking off recently, more have headed to Annapolis, upgrading the team's overall talent and speed.

"The series goes in cycles," said former Navy coach George Welsh, who was a gaudy 7-1-1 against Army from 1973 to '81 before leaving to uplift Virginia from the doldrums. "Most of the time, I just had better players and when Army dominated, they probably had better players.

"We were going to bowl games [three times] and that obviously helped us in recruiting. And I thought we and Air Force got a lot of kids away from Army because they wanted to fly."

The series began in 1890 when a group of midshipmen issued a challenge to a group of cadets, who had only one member, Dennis Mahan Michie, who knew anything about football. Navy romped in that first game, 24-0, but a year later, Army retaliated with a 32-16 victory and they have been peas in a pod ever since.

No matter how you parse the series, it's close.

Of the 105 games, 48 have been decided by a touchdown or less.

Army holds a one-game lead under Republican presidents, Navy a one-game lead under Democrats.

Army fielded the most dominant teams in series history, Earl "Red" Blaik's 1944 and 1945 squads. Both went 9-0, the 1944 team outscoring opponents by 52 a game and the 1945 team winning by 41 a game. And both beat Navy on the way to national titles.

But Navy has scored the most resounding victories in head-to-head competition, 51-0 in 1973 and 58-12 in 2002.

Army has produced three Heisman winners to Navy's two, but Navy developed the best pro, Roger Staubach.

Neither academy has ever won more than five straight, though they've typically traded four- and five-game runs (Army has five such streaks and Navy three).

"When there's been a difference, a run like that, it's usually been due to coaching," Feinstein said.

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