- The Washington Times - Friday, November 28, 2003

The scene at Navy’s practice facility Thanksgiving morning spoke volumes about why the Midshipmen are in the midst of a return to respectability.

That they were even on the field is an indication of how times have changed.

Under former coach Charlie Weatherbie in past years, the Mids would have been spread around the country on a four-day break. Meanwhile, current Navy coach Paul Johnson would have had his Georgia Southern squad practicing in preparation for the first round of the Division I-AA playoffs.

When Johnson came to Navy last season, the Mids’ late-season vacation was replaced with morning practices on Thanksgiving and the day after. The result was the biggest rout of Army (58-12) in the series’ century-long history.

The Thanksgiving tradition continued this year, and a similar result next weekend against the winless Black Knights would clinch the Mids’ fourth-best season in 40 years. It also would bring the Commander-In-Chief’s trophy, a three-way competition among Air Force, Army and Navy, back to Annapolis for the first time since 1981.

Johnson and his staff were rewarded this week with contract extensions that will keep them in Annapolis through 2009 and add stability — primarily as a recruiting aid. Yesterday athletic director Chet Gladchuk accepted an invitation for the Mids to play in the Houston Bowl on Dec.30, the team’s first postseason appearance since 1996.

“I think [going to a bowl] helps the program, and it certainly gives us some credibility and hopefully will help us in recruiting,” Johnson said. “A lot of people have said that we couldn’t go to bowl games here, we didn’t have any tie-ins, and hopefully that puts some of that to rest.”

In Johnson’s second season, the academy launched a marketing campaign based around the words “tailgates,” “touchdowns” and “traditions.” Of the three, tailgating was the only sure thing. Coming off a 2-10 season, traditions and touchdowns were hard to come by.

Other than the rout of Army, the Mids scored just 31 touchdowns in 11 games in 2002. Before this year, the Mids had just 10 winning seasons in the past 39 years.

But apparently the people in Annapolis knew something no one else did. The Mids are averaging more than 30 points and lead the nation in rushing. All those touchdowns (46 through 11 games) have the Mids building a bit of new tradition.

“The players have worked their butts off, and the assistant coaches have prepared this team all year,” Johnson said after last weekend’s win over Central Michigan. “I’m just along for the ride.”

Except he’s not.

His biggest contribution has been his offense. The version of the triple-option he devised is uncommon in Division I-A football. Designed to level the playing field between stronger and faster defenses, it is based on reads by the quarterback to determine which of three options (fullback, slotback or keeper) is best on a given play. Though senior quarterback Craig Candeto is not blessed with the quickest feet or the most accurate arm, he has mastered Johnson’s system and has gained 1,801 rushing yards in two years as the starter.

“Craig understands what we’re looking for,” Johnson said. “He and I are on the same page most of the time, and he stays within the system. He’s been a great leader for this team.”

Meanwhile the defensive staff, led by coordinator Buddy Green, successfully implemented a 3-4 system this year that emphasized speed (something the Mids have) over size (something they don’t). The change put Navy’s best athletes on the field while lowering opponents’ scoring totals and creating turnovers.

Johnson’s realistic scheduling philosophy also contributed to the team’s success. Instead of traveling to Washington to open the season, a home date with VMI was added, and the Mids gained some momentum after a 37-10 win. The schedule was not up to typical Navy standards, but the berth in the Houston Bowl against a Big 12 team will be a steppingstone for the future as the schedule slowly becomes more difficult.

That Johnson has the Mids back in a bowl in just two years isn’t much of a surprise. He has done the same thing at Navy before.

Navy appeared to be turning the corner after 12 consecutive losing seasons in the mid-1990s. Johnson was offensive coordinator under Weatherbie when the Mids went 5-6 in 1995 but broke five offensive school records as Chris McCoy emerged as the school’s most prolific rushing quarterback.

The next year, the offense erupted, and the Mids posted a 9-3 record — the team’s best in the past quarter-century. They beat California in the Aloha Bowl, and the future looked bright.

Then Johnson took the job at Georgia Southern — and took his potent offense with him.

McCoy’s talent carried the Mids to a winning season in 1997. However, the Mids won just nine games in the next four years, and Weatherbie was fired late in the 2001 season with six years remaining on a 10-year contract he signed after the 1996 season.

With Johnson now locked up through 2009, Navy has the man responsible for the mid-‘90s success. That’s something for which the players, the brigade and the entire Naval Academy can be thankful this Thanksgiving weekend.

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