As David Brinkley said to President Clinton, it was past my bedtime. I was tired. I was confused. I'd missed dinner. The stage lights were in my eyes, my underwear was too tight, and I've never even owned a pair of Bruno Magli shoes.
What else can I say? I was wrong.
It has been two years since I used this space to offer a brilliant suggestion to the football programs at Army and Navy. Both service academies were struggling, and it appeared from here that their days of fielding competitive Division I-A teams were over. They were losing more often than Libertarian candidates, and they could not continue to play a big-time schedule without embarrassing everyone who had ever worn the academies' uniforms.
Both teams were 3-7 going into the final weekend of the 1994 season. Navy had given up 209 more points than it had scored. Army had lost to Boston University, a Division I-AA team. From '83 through '94, the Midshipmen had had a 36-95-1 record, and I, for one, detected a trend. Army and Navy, for a number of reasons, were drowning in the shark-infested waters of major college football.
My advice to Annapolis and West Point was simple: Give up. I advised them to take their wishbones and their buzzcuts and their 212-pound defensive linemen and drop down to the more equitable and honorable surroundings of I-AA. They did not have the size, speed or disregard for rules that was necessary to compete in Division I-A. They were Eagle Scouts trying to fight fair in a back-alley brawl, and quite naturally they were getting the worst of it.
I said at the time that there was only one thing more humiliating than losing to Army, and that was losing to Navy, but now there appears to be a new entry on the list of most embarrassing gaffes: underestimating the resilience of our service academies.
In 1996 the Cadets and the Midshipmen have mounted inspiring turnarounds and thus transformed their annual showdown, this Saturday in Philadelphia, into more than just a patriotic spectacle, into more than a battle for bragging rights. Army is 9-1, and Navy is 8-2, and the winner is likely to end up in the Independence Bowl on New Year's Eve. A West Point victory should push the No. 23 Cadets into the Top 20, while the Midshipmen would most likely crack the Top 25 with a win. Don't look now, but the Boy Scouts are holding their own.
Both schools have benefited from softer schedules than they played in the past, but neither has simply squeaked by. The Cadets have the nation's top-ranked rushing game and have won their games by an average of 20 points; the Middies have the fourth-ranked ground attack. They both beat an Air Force team that knocked off Notre Dame. Together Army and Navy have made this smart-ass scribe look sillier than Pierre Salinger.
The most impressive thing about the reemergence of the football programs at Annapolis and West Point is that the academies apparently have done it on their terms. They didn't suddenly change the rules and start accepting criminals who could, as they say with a wink in Lincoln, Neb., benefit from the structure of the program. As much as anything the academies attribute their resurgence to a p.r. boost from the gulf war. Says West Point coach Bob Sutton, "I truly think that the way our leaders came off during the war—so dynamic and motivational—that our image changed dramatically. It became O.K. to root for the military."
Army and Navy players not only play like but also look pretty much like their predecessors of decades past: no earrings or agents or juniors still working toward that degree in leisure studies. At a time when the college football beat includes gambling scandals, recruiting violations and a defending national champion with more bad guys than a James Bond movie, the military academies are a throwback to another era. Army has 30 rushing touchdowns this season, and not once did a Cadet running back whip off his helmet and dance in front of a TV camera. What would Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, who dropped by West Point to deliver a pep talk earlier this season, have said if anyone dared to do that?