- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 1, 2001

ANNAPOLIS His players describe him as a "salty old man" with a no-nonsense attitude. His athletic director calls him a seasoned veteran. Rick Lantz probably would be pleased with either of those depictions.

Lantz, a 35-year college assistant, became Navy's interim coach Sunday morning promising to instill two things in the Midshipmen: toughness and a team-first attitude. To do that, Lantz will need to stick around longer than the season's last three games, and that's exactly what he plans to do.

"I'm looking at this as a long-term road," Lantz said assuredly. "I told [Vice Adm. John Ryan, academy superintendent, and Chet Gladchuk, athletic director] that I'm taking this as if they've done a national search and picked me.

"Learning to win is difficult. Being afraid you might lose is difficult to overcome. [Earning the right to wear the Navy uniform] means going back to fundamentals. In order to play, you have to practice. If we stay here, these guys are going to be so excited to do the PRTs (a physical fitness test) because it's going to be the easiest thing they're going to do. The team is the most important thing. Nobody is more important than the team, including me."

That kind of confidence and attitude can only help the Mids, bowl winners in former coach Charlie Weatherbie's second season in 1996 but among the worst teams in Division I-A this year. Navy lost its first 10 games in 2000 before beating Army in the finale, then began 2001 with seven straight defeats. Weatherbie was let go after the last one, a 21-20 loss at Toledo that may have been the Mids' best effort this season.

"I've been on board for about a month, and I've been under pressure to deal with things that have been called unacceptable," said Gladchuk, a former AD at Houston. "Obviously, we've had some adversity. We're looking at this as new life, new blood, a new season."

Maybe what he should have said was new life, old blood, because to mold Navy's future, Gladchuk delved into its past. Lantz served as a defensive assistant at Navy under Rick Forzano (1971-72) and George Welsh (1973-76) and worked as Welsh's defensive coordinator for five seasons until the longtime coach retired from Virginia last year. That the Navy fans and alumni still long for the Welsh years became evident at homecoming two weeks ago when Welsh received a huge ovation during a ceremony that honored Navy's 1981 Liberty Bowl team.

Lantz's pedigree also includes years at Notre Dame, Georgia Tech and Miami. With the Hurricanes, he worked as an assistant to Howard Schnellenberger, and he lists Welsh and Schnellenberger among his greatest influences.

"Each knew how to make teams better than they were," said Lantz, who served four years in the Marine Corps. "They made their teams believe they were champions. They were demanding men, different people but similar in that they were focused on the team, with no outside interference. They demanded excellence."

Lantz went on to describe Schellenberger's tendency 20 years ago to drill his players for hours on end until they got things right. Coaches can't do that anymore because of NCAA limits on practice time, but Lantz will change the way the Mids prepare for games. Weatherbie relied on a scout team to imitate opponents during his seven-year stint, but Lantz promised to send those players to another field to learn Navy's schemes for next year.

"It's going to be first and second [string] against first and second," Lantz said. "We're going to find some things we haven't seen an awful lot [on tape] and get some emphasis on that. We're going to do … our type of plays to get us some real good work."

For the most part, the players seem amenable to the coaching change. Many of them groused privately about Weatherbie's tendency to interrupt practices with prayers, and the losing grew tiresome. Plus, Gladchuk pointed out Navy's status as the worst of the academies when he told the players he had fired Weatherbie, and that never dawned on many of them.

"I was kind of surprised at the timing," senior quarterback Brian Madden said. "[Gladchuk is] an eloquent speaker. He made sense. [That we were falling behind the other academies], those were his exact words. We don't just want to be the premier academy but a top 25 team."

The Mids seemed to be headed in that direction under Weatherbie just five years ago. Using a triple-option offense a proverbial slingshot to carve up opponents, Navy went 9-3 in his second season and knocked off California and current 49ers coach Steve Mariucci in the Aloha Bowl in 1996.

The Mids' first winning season since 1982 made Weatherbie one of the country's most sought-after coaches Boston College, where Gladchuk was AD at the time, reportedly was among those schools interested and prompted Navy to give him a nearly unprecedented seven-year extension.

The Mids continued their success in 1997 with a 7-4 mark, but the bottom dropped out after that. The Mids fell to three wins in 1998 and managed five in 1999 before the 1-17 mark over the last two seasons cost Weatherbie his job.

And it got uglier off the field. Record-setting quarterback Chris McCoy who ran for 1,307 yards and threw for 1,203 in '97 completed his eligibility that year, then tarnished his reputation when he was put on probation for "fraternizing" with a female midshipman off campus. Last year three prominent Mids were charged with raping a woman at an off-campus party. All three left the academy.

So it's no surprise that the Mids turned to a no-nonsense guy to right their ship.

"Salty is a nautical term for being experienced," senior linebacker Jake Bowen said. "It's the guy on the ship with salt stains all over his uniform. [Lantz has] been there before … and he has expectations of excellence. I'd say that requires discipline, yes, and that means we're yelled at, yes, but he wants this to be our football team. He gives us the autonomy to make our own decisions. It's not about fear but about respect."

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