Monday, November 05, 2007

Navy 46, Notre Dame 44

College football's longest losing streak came to an end on Saturday. The Midshipmen of the U.S. Naval Academy defeated Notre Dame, 46-44, in triple overtime at South Bend, ending 43 years of misery and frustration.

That's right. The last time Navy beat Notre Dame was in 1963. To put that in perspective:

John F. Kennedy was in the White House (he was assassinated less than three weeks after the Midshipmen's victory).

Roger Staubach was the Navy quarterback.

John McCain was a naval flight instructor in Meridian, Mississippi.

The current superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy, Vice-Admiral Jeffrey Fowler, was a second grader in North Dakota.

Navy's football coach, Paul Johnson, had just entered the first grade.

Yes, it was that long ago.

But five decades of losses--many of them lop-sided affairs--came to a dramatic end on Saturday afternoon, in front of Touchdown Jesus and 80,000 screaming fans in Notre Dame Stadium. History will record that Navy beat one of the worst Fighting Irish teams in history. But Notre Dame's woeful record doesn't eclipse the talent gap (some would say chasm) that exists between its players and those of the Naval Academy, whose days as a collegiate football powerhouse ended, well, about 43 years ago.

As writer John Feinstein observed in today's Washington Post, every Notre Dame team should dominate Navy on the football field, based on the number of outstanding players on its roster and the resources that come with a nationwide fan base and your own television network. At one point during Saturday's broadcast on NBC, color analyst Pat Haden observed, "With all due respect, Navy doesn't get to recruit blue-chip football players."

"Just blue-chip people," Mr. Feinstein retorts. He should know. For the past 11 seasons, Feinstein has served as a color commentator on the Navy football radio network.

He goes on to recount the story of Zerbin Singleton, who scored Navy's first touchdown Saturday. Singleton saw his mother shot and arrested by a bounty hunter at eleven; after graduating from high school, he was accepted by the Naval Academy, but was unable to enroll because of injuries suffered in a car accident. He tried to walk-on at Georgia Tech, but was told not to bother, because you're too small. Singleton reapplied and was accepted at Navy, but had to deal with his father's suicide during his plebe year.

At 5'8" and 174 pounds, Singleton is a prototype academy football player: tough, smart, and willing to do thing that supposedly can't be done--like beating Notre Dame at home. Last Saturday afternoon, a group of young men deemed to small or slow for "big time" college football did just that.

Mr. Feinstein sums it up well: "With all due respect to Notre Dame and all its blue-chip players, Navy's celebration should be our celebration."

Indeed, it should.


ADDENDUM: For years, I assumed that Notre Dame kept Navy on the schedule just to pad its won-loss record. But in reality, Notre Dame and the Navy have a special relationship, as detailed in a 2004 USA Today article. During World War II, the service established an officer training program on the university campus; money paid by the Navy helped keep the institution afloat when enrollment by "civilian" students dwindled, due to the war. Notre Dame repaid that favor by keeping the Academy on its football schedule and preserving its own Naval ROTC program.

As Father Theodore Hesburgh, the retired Notre Dame President observed in 2003 (after his school eeked out a last-second victory over the Midshipmen), "I'll tell you, if they had won, we would not have felt terribly bad, because they're the best friends we've got."

At last report, the football series between the Fighting Irish and the Midshipmen was slated to continue for at least another decade.

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