Lured by others, Johnson tugged by Navy's tradition

December 02, 2007|By PETER SCHMUCK

It was everything you don't usually see at M&T Bank Stadium. The home team rolled up a lopsided score and, in a strange karmic twist, a last-second, 51-yard field goal caromed off the crossbar and continued on uneventfully into the scorebook.

OK, it was only halftime, but when Navy kicker Joey Bullen skipped that ball through the uprights - from the exact same distance that Cleveland Browns kicker Phil Dawson hit that fateful and controversial game-tying field goal against the Ravens here two weeks ago - it was hard not to feel as if some strange cosmic force was at work.

Maybe Navy has reversed whatever curse has befallen this place, and none too soon with the New England Patriots headed here tomorrow night and the Indianapolis Colts soon to follow. Or maybe the terrific atmosphere of yesterday's 108th meeting between Army and Navy was just the consolation prize for an otherwise lost football season in Baltimore.

Either way, it was another satisfying result for the Midshipmen, who have dominated the Black Knights during the Paul Johnson era and left no doubt which service academy deserves to hold the Commander in Chief's Trophy after their 38-3 victory.

Navy would have held on to the trophy regardless, because the Mids already had beaten Air Force to assure at least a split with their academy rivals, but they won it outright and continued to burnish Johnson's coaching resume at a time when his name is being mentioned in connection with several big-time job openings.

No one would begrudge him the chance to work his magic on a bigger stage, but the pageantry and the Super Bowl atmosphere of college football's most storied rivalry might be the most compelling argument to stay put.

How much better does it get than this? The sellout crowd. The entire Corps of Cadets and Brigade of Midshipmen juxtaposed at the tunnel end of the stadium. The patriotic fervor, particularly in this time of war. Six wins in six tries. You could make the case Johnson already has the best coaching job in the country.

"It's humbling to be out there in a game of this magnitude that means so much to so many people," Johnson said afterward. "It's the biggest game of the year, and we've been fortunate to win them all. I can imagine what it's like when you don't win - I've done that as an assistant coach - but I'm just happy for our guys and the sailors and Marines around the world. And the best thing is, we've got bragging rights for one day, but by tomorrow, they are all going to be on the same team."

The only question, then, is whether Johnson will still be on the same team after the Midshipmen complete their season with an appearance in the Poinsettia Bowl in San Diego Dec. 20.

Apparently, that's the other thing that naturally follows a game at M&T Bank Stadium this year - speculation about the coach's future - but even Johnson considers that a good thing.

"They've been running me out of here for six years," he said. " ... That's not a bad thing, because it means you're winning. There's two kinds of coaches. If you win, that's what people talk about. If you lose, people talk about who's going to replace you."

That's about all he was willing to say about the subject, except to assure everyone that any report that he has accepted another job is totally false.

"I've got a great job," he said. "I get to deal with some great kids. You never say never, but it would take a pretty special situation."

There are no great challenges left for him at Navy, but Johnson has long contended that he is in this business to coach young men, and there aren't many places better to do that than the Naval Academy. The only thing missing is the realistic chance to compete for a national championship.

"Again, you never say never," Johnson said, "but that's not something I spend a lot of time thinking about."

Certainly not yesterday, when the paratroopers were swooping down and the jets were flying by and there was so much more at stake.

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

Listen to Peter Schmuck on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon most Saturdays and Sundays.

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