- The Washington Times - Friday, October 6, 2006

When Paul Johnson began his remarkable turnaround in Annapolis, Navy football was the Little Independent Program That Could.

It was a nice story for the rest of the college football community to see a once proud but forgotten program achieve some success. That was in 2003, when the Midshipmen won eight games, the Commander-In-Chief’s Trophy and appeared in the Houston Bowl.

Now, that little independent program is a winning machine.

Dating to a 58-12 demolishing of Army in the final contest of the 2002 campaign, the Mids have won 31 of 43 games. They have had three straight seasons with at least eight wins, and at 4-1 are halfway to a fourth. Two more wins will guarantee a fourth consecutive bowl game.

Two years ago Navy went 10-2 with a win in the Emerald Bowl and finished the season ranked No. 24 in the final Associated Press poll. Last year the Mids capped an eight-win season with a 51-30 throttling of Colorado State in the Poinsettia Bowl and finished just outside the top 25, fifth among others receiving votes.

But where does the Navy program fit on the national college football landscape? Given the lack of NFL-caliber athletes and questions about strength of schedule, are Navy’s consistent winning ways enough to merit consideration among some of the nation’s top programs?

“Absolutely,” ESPN college football analyst Ed Cunningham said. “[The Mids] have a slew of quality wins since Paul Johnson took over the program, and if you look at the teams that are in this range around the nation, Navy could beat any one of them. Forget about who may or may not have the best athletes, because that is irrelevant against this team. Who plays best on the field? Often enough, against good competition, it’s Navy.”

Navy does not receive the type of national media coverage that most of the top 30 to 35 programs do. With the exception of the week leading up to the Notre Dame game in 2004 — the Mids were undefeated and trying to snap their NCAA-record losing streak to the Fighting Irish — Navy had moved through the past two seasons off the national radar until it pounded Army and had impressive showings in the bowl games.

Despite the success, Johnson is quick to point out opposing teams still don’t “ooh” and “ah” when the Mids get off the bus.

“I think the teams we play, they kind of think, ‘Navy, well they play hard but if we don’t make mistakes we’ll be able to beat them,’ ” junior fullback Adam Ballard said.

The actual number of quality wins is worthy of debate. Navy has one win during its 31-12 stretch against a ranked foe (Air Force was No. 25 in the coaches poll when the Mids beat them in 2003). The Mids are 7-4 against BCS conference teams, but four of those wins are against Duke and Vanderbilt. When Navy crushed Rutgers 54-21 near the end of the 2004 season, it knocked the Scarlet Knights out of bowl contention, but it is 12-6 since that game.

Navy is 5-0 against the Mountain West, a conference that is consistently one of, if not the best, non-BCS league. But there have been missed opportunities as well. The Mids lost to Notre Dame by a field goal in 2003. They were one fourth-down stop from beating Maryland last season. A chance to knock off the defending Conference USA champs, Tulsa, slipped away a couple of weeks ago in a 24-23 overtime defeat.

“The last couple teams have probably been top-30 or top-40 teams,” Johnson said. “What this one will be, I have no idea. Outsiders don’t have any idea what this place is about or what it takes to win here. They can think whatever they want. What would be an easy game for Navy? When people schedule us, they think that is an easy game.”

Regardless of who is on the schedule, Johnson has made winning not only possible in Annapolis but expected. Before he accepted the position, Johnson and athletic director Chet Gladchuk outlined a plan to rebuild the entire program.

While Johnson has improved the product on the field, Gladchuk has overseen dramatic renovations off it. Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium was once a decaying relic and is now a sparkling venue for both football and for remembering U.S. Naval history.

Everything else from offices to memorabilia displays to video equipment to practice fields was modernized to help the Mids compete. One of the final touches will be an indoor practice facility set to open in March 2008.

While plenty of limitations remain, Johnson and his staff have made strides in recruiting as well. This is a senior-laden squad, but there are plenty of exciting underclassmen like sophomore slotback Shun White and freshman safety Jeromy Miles who have only begun to have an impact on the program.

“We’re getting more top kids,” Navy defensive line coach/recruiting coordinator Dale Pehrson said. “I think we’ve always had some top kids, but we’re getting more of that level. And then the coaches are developing them.”

So where does the Navy program go from here?

The Mids travel to Air Force (2-1) tomorrow with a chance to beat the Falcons for the fourth straight time, and there are more opportunities against quality competition coming, namely undefeated Rutgers next week and then Notre Dame.

“They have a great coach who understands the limitations,” College Sports TV football analyst Trev Alberts said. “I don’t know if they have reached their pinnacle, but they are going to bowl games and winning the important academy games.”

As for the future, well, Navy still isn’t like a typical college football program.

“It doesn’t have to go anywhere but where it is today,” Gladchuk said. “We’re enjoying great success. What do we want? Here is what we want — we want to have a winning season, we want to win the Commander-In-Chief’s Trophy and we want to go to a bowl game. We’re there. What we are working on now is sustaining it. We are succeeding.

“Our eyes aren’t bigger than our bellies. We don’t need to bring in more powerhouses. We’d like to appear in a BCS bowl and we’d like to go undefeated. Everybody has those aspirations, but do we need it? No.”

There will be plenty of starters to replace next season, but with juniors like Ballard and Reggie Campbell back and plenty of youthful talent behind them, the Navy winning machine appears to show no signs of slowing down.

There is one caveat, and that is retaining Johnson and his coaching staff. Gladchuk has kept Johnson in Annapolis despite overtures from other programs, and nearly the entire staff remains unchanged. With more success, that will be a tougher trend to continue.

“I think the key is having continuity in the program,” said Air Force coach Fisher DeBerry, who has won 167 games in his 23 years in Colorado Springs. “Paul [Johnson] is going to have opportunities to go to other places, but if they can keep him and the staff together they can keep it going. That is what I credit our success at our program to is the continuity. Not everyone can coach at an academy.”

If the Mids can sustain this success, then the players and the team may receive more respect. It may take a win against Notre Dame, or maybe the ACC team they will be slated to play in the Meineke Car Care Bowl should they secure at least two more wins.

“In the past two, three years we’ve had some good seasons and gone to bowls. I think if we keep on doing that teams won’t be able to write us off anymore,” Ballard said. “If we win six, eight, 10 games a year for five or six years straight, people are going to think we are doing something right.”

Or maybe they won’t.

“We’ll probably always be the underdog, because people always look at paper,” Pehrson said. “I’m even surprised myself sometimes. I don’t think it bothers anyone around here.”

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