I’ve read 75% of John Feinstein’s book on the Army-Navy rivalry. I found these passages particularly intriguing:
Feinstein recounts the 1995 Army-Air Force game in chapter 16 and observes that “emotional rhetoric is a big part of football. The reason for that is simple: going out to play a football game–even going out to practice–isn’t like other sports. To play well, you almost certainly must endure pain. You are going to be hit and you must hit back–harder. You are going to feel tired, probably exhausted, but you have to keep going. You are going to endure aches and pains throughout the season, the kind that won’t go away–if they ever do–until after you stop playing the game“ (276).
“That makes it important to emphasize and reemphasize the commitment individuals have to a team. If you are determined not to let your friends, your buddies, your comrades down, you will push forward even when your body is telling your mind it has had enough” (277).
Feinstein then articulates, “What bothered the Army players most about the losing streak to Air Force was that they couldn’t figure out a reason for it. If they had lost six straight times to Notre Dame they wouldn’t like it, but they would understand it. But being dominated by Air Force made no sense because the schools were similar, even if the dorms at Air Force were a little plusher and there were more TVs–and the gap between Army and Navy each year was usually about the width of a thumbnail.
The losing streak had fallen into a distressing pattern: at home, the Cadets would keep the game close–losing 15-3, 7-3, and 10-6. On the road, they would get blown out: 29-3, 25-0, 25-6. In fact, Army hadn’t scored a touchdown at Air Force since 1987. That was a long time to go between extra-point attempts” (277-278).
Contributing factors to the Air Force might? Altitude (thin air, less oxygen) was considered, but attempts to address that issue didn’t resolve the matter of losses. Consistent coaching staff wasn’t it either (278). Feinstein suggests, “a large part of it was recruiting. For geographic reasons, Air Force had an advantage in recruiting anyone west of the Mississippi, and it had a large edge in California, which was one of the most football-rich states in the country” (278-279).
In terms of attracting future players, I really like the inclusion of this point:
“Finally, there was image. Army and Navy certainly had the edge in tradition, and no game Air Force was going to play in was going to equal Army-Navy in national appeal or or attention. But, that was one game. Air Force sold, to put it bluntly, the Wild Blue Yonder. Tom Cruise in Top Gun was the best recruiter Air Force had. Come to Air Force, fly superfast jets for a living,and hang out with Kelly McGillis when you’re on the ground. Even General Graves admitted that the more glamorous image of the Air Force worked in its favor.
‘There is such a thing as Army Aviation…but let’s face it, when you think of Air Force, you think of flying, blue skies, sunglasses and all. When you think of Army, you then to think about activities that usually are associated with mud.’
“Ouch. The Army coaches would no doubt wince at that description, but there was little doubt that just as Navy pitched the romance of the sea, Air Force talked often about the glamour of the sky. Army had to sell tradition and leadership. Sometimes that worked. In recent years, it had not been enough to beat Air Force” (279).
Army did lose to Air Force that year and not only did it take them an extra long time to get home (plane and weather issues), but just getting away from the vicinity of Air Force’s stadium was taxing because “traffic is always slow getting out of Air Force because there is only one main road leading out of the stadium. Unlike other schools, Air Force refuses to clear a path for the visiting team’s bus to get them through the traffic” (288).
Chapter 18 covers the period of time leading up to the Army-Navy game of 1995. Feinstein notes that Charlie Weatherbie of Navy and Bob Sutton of Army view the rivalry between the academies differently. Weatherbie “had thought the people on the Yard made too much of the rivalry with Army… ‘I’m not saying it isn’t a great rivalry or a big deal, but I don’t see it as being any different from Oklahoma-Oklahoma State or Alabama-Auburn or Florida-Florida State. Those are all big rivalries. They all come at the end of the season, so that makes them seem bigger. Navy-Army…is right up there with games like that. But I don’t see it being something beyond that‘” (310-311).
Clearly, Bob Sutton “felt differently. He had coached in twelve Army-Navy games, eight as an assistant, four as a head coach. He had been involved in other rivalry games before arriving at Army, including Michigan-Ohio State and North Carolina State-North Carolina. In his mind, nothing came close to Army-Navy. If someone had told him be could coach only one more game in his life, it would be Army-Navy.
‘It’s not something you can understand until you’ve been through it…The seniors all know it’s the last game they’ll ever play, with maybe on exception every three or four years. They all want that last memory of football to be a good one, and they’ll do anything to win‘” (311).
I’m wondering the following:
1. Does Air Force still choose not to provide an open path for the visiting team after the game is over?
2. Is the Army-Navy rivalry different from those between non-service schools? If so, how?
I liked that Feinstein brought up Air Force’s benefiting from Top Gun in PR and branding. Released in American theatres in May of 1986, Tony Scott’s film came into a country led by Ronald Reagan. According to IMDB, Scott’s film had a budget of around $15,000,000 and more than made its money back.
If the visual presentation of Air Force incited desire to matriculate, the music sealed the deal. Can you “Take My Breath Away” ?
For more Army-Navy excerpts, click here.
I was five years old when Top Gun played in theatres. We had the soundtrack on vinyl–I wonder if we still do. Bob Sutton was born one day and thirty years before I was; I am also exactly two days older than Justin Timberlake.