WEST POINT – Michigan vs. Ohio State. Nebraska vs. Oklahoma. Of course. Yankees vs. Red Sox. Celtics vs. Lakers. Yeah, sure. Army vs. Navy.
Now we’re talking.
Every year, as this legendary rivalry approaches its next chapter – this is No. 114 if you’re keeping track – the manner in which both teams prepare and approach it as make or break for their entire season – more elements become part of the scenario.
Last season Trent Steelman – arguably the greatest quarterback in Army history – led a drive that was 14 yards and less than a minute away from breaking the Black Knights’ 10-game losing streak against the Midshipmen. Until the ball came loose on an exchange between Steelman and fullback Larry Dixon; Navy recovered, snapping a 69-yard drive that permitted the Midshipmen to run out the clock in their 17-13 victory.
All students at Army are trained to prepare themselves for leadership – perhaps even during a war – so you’d think losing a football game would not leave them in tears, their frustration as evident as the blood stains on their uniforms.
“They say ‘Go Army, Beat Navy’ from day one,” said Army coach Rich Ellerson, whose team will play the Midshipmen Saturday at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia. “When they start thinking about coming here, that’s one of the first things they start to get their head around. As an institution, we look forward to it. This week is easy to coach because I don’t have to go out there with bells and whistles to get guys excited in practice. They’re zeroed in and ready to go.”
And while there is no way in which a coach for either team can ever overestimate this game’s importance, Ellerson can be excused if he indulges in some personal angst. Upon being named the superintendent of the academy in July, Lt. Gen. Robert L. Caslen Jr. said on the academy website, “I am well aware of the great gift that has been given to me today. Command is always a privilege. Command in time of war and in the transition of a post-war Army is a distinct honor.”
“Among many other goals, I am also committed to beating Navy,” Caslen said. “Don’t get me wrong – we have learned over these last 11-plus years how effective, collegiate and lethal our joint teams are, but on that one day, on those fields of friendly strife, regardless of what sport it is – but especially football, of course – we’ll put all that aside and put the Navy where they belong."
Perhaps Caslen’s comments could be interpreted as light, maybe tongue in cheek. Or maybe not. As a member of the football team in 1973 and 1974, Caslen experienced firsthand two losses to Navy, by a collective score of 70-0. This is Ellerson’s fourth year as Army coach. The Black Knights finished 5-7 his first season. They were 7-6 his second season, including a 16-14 victory over SMU in the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl, their first bowl appearance since 1996. The team finished 3-9 last year; a loss to Navy this year would leave them with the same record.
Coaches have lost their jobs for better results than three losing seasons in four. Could an 11th-straight loss to Navy become the exclamation point on Ellerson’s tenure?
“The pressure is to win a football game,” he said. “There are so many back stories that surround this game, and some of them are great and deserving, but I’m trying to coach a football game, and I’m going to try to win on Saturday. We’re going to play because this is the last time the team of 2013 gets to play. We’re so committed to one another and have practiced so hard that that’s all we need. That’s what gets our blood boiling. But when you get the media guys aside, they’re not rooting for Navy and they’re not rooting for Army, they’re rooting for the story. They’re rooting for the most compelling story, the story that catches the imagination of the public. Some of those stories are great stories that should be told, but they’re not our story. That’s why we are closing the practice and trying to circle the wagons around why we play and who we are. This is a special moment. We’re going to make sure that we don’t lose that and don’t get distracted from that.”
And if there are any fears as to his job security, it is not Ellerson’s way to let on. Nor would they likely get in his way.
“We’re obviously trying to get the focus of our football team exactly where it should be and limit the distractions,” he said. “Some of the outside stories and the outside story lines really aren’t going to impact the result of the game, but we are trying to get zeroed in, and we are.
“I want to win a football game. I know what that feels like. I know how much these guys have put into that outcome. That’s the story we want to write, that we had that moment together that we worked so hard for and sacrificed for.”