Streak over and pride restored, Army West Point is prepared to 'Beat Navy' -- again
The Black Knights are zeroed in on the Midshipmen as they look to start a streak of their own
WEST POINT, N.Y. -- On a cold, windswept Sunday night, Army West Point is practicing football barely 12 hours after playing it.
In that time, the Black Knights have lost a late-night 52-49 shootout at North Texas, traveled cross-country home in the middle of the night, gotten a few valuable hours of sleep and committed once again to the mission of a service academy cadet.
"We didn't play worth a shit," coach Jeff Monken says, barely looking up from his notes.
These are seemingly harsh words to describe a program whose players have a higher calling. Monken's squad of 170 are here to be officers, fighters, leaders, defenders of more than the artificial turf they are running across at the moment.
But such inconveniences are trivial compared to the larger mission of the United States Military Academy. History and the cadets' mere presence tell us they are willing to lay down their lives in defense of the country.
"Just the entire process," quarterback Ahmad Bradshaw said, relishing his early days as a plebe. "Shaving our heads, being outside at four in the morning, cold. I wasn't used to being up that early."
So when Monken grumbles about a lost fumble against the Mean Green, a season-high six penalties and blown leads, he is backed by a familiar philosophy on this campus.
"He's not going to accept anything less than the standard," said athletic director Boo Corrigan, who hired Monken four years ago. "Just like a physics professor isn't going to accept anything less, you've got a continuity of standard across the board. That kind of fits with your time as a cadet. You're expected to have a haircut. Your uniform is expected to look right. Your room is expected to look right. If you can't do the basic things, that's what makes people crazy."
It's a good craziness that has returned to this historic campus. For the 118th time, this is Navy Week. Fifty-one weeks after the last meeting, they are still celebrating the 117th meeting.
They can't help it.
Army's 21-17 win broke a 14-year losing streak to Navy, the longest for either side in the series. Losing the Navy game had become so common that players from the nation's No. 1 leadership academy were becoming sympathetic figures. As in, underdogs worthy of our compassion.
"That's what happened as the streak advanced," said Bob Beretta, a senior associate AD in his 31st year at Army West Point. "You had folks rooting for Army because of the streak. We want people to root for Army because we're America's team. We don't want people to feel sorry for us."
A rivalry isn't a rivalry unless there is some sort of equal competition. We are reminded this week that is still the case. In a series that dates back to 1890, Navy only possesses a narrow 60-50-7 lead.
The Midshipmen took the lead in the series within the streak that began 15 months after 9/11 and ended when Bradshaw knelt down for the final time with 12 seconds left last Dec. 10.
"I'd hear, 'Is this the year?' That type of thing," Corrigan said. "I'm so glad I don't have to answer that question anymore because, quite frankly, I was tired of it."
The Black Knights lost in so many ways during the Midshipmen's streak that it became ingrained in their glorious history. They lost late. They lost close -- four times by a touchdown or less. They got blown out -- five times by at least 27 points.
The result became so common it accentuated press box handshakes between the academies' support groups.
"Neither of them meant it," said the retired Mady Salvani, who traces her roots here back more than 50 years in being the first women's sports information director.
"We're friends with the Navy folks," she added. "[When] you say to someone, 'Hey, you played well. Maybe next year,' you just want to turn around and smack them."
None of it diminished from the Army-Navy Game, one of the sporting staples of this country that CBS will once again televise at 3 p.m. ET on Saturday as it emanates from Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia.
It's just that it was so one-sided.
"The 35-45 minutes on the field prior to an Army-Navy game are unlike any other," Beretta said. "The buzz on the field, you can feel it. The whole day is basically a showcase of Americana. You cannot leave the stadium that day and not feel proud to be an American."
But until last year, for the Black Knights, there was a long gap in taking pride in beating their fiercest rival.
Salvani remembers a prank that may be revealed here for the first time. Years ago, the night before the game, she and some Army friends went over to the Navy hotel, furtively slapping "Go Army, Beat Navy" stickers on anything they could find, including the backs of Navy fans and officials.
In 1972, Army cadets captured the Navy goat mascot for an advertisement in the New York Times.
"Hey Navy, do you know where your kid is today?" the copy read. "The Corps does."
"These are two schools that are equal in everything," said Salvani, who grew up next to the academy in tiny Highland Falls. "You see them go on the field afterwards. If one of the football guys is in tears, an Army guy will go over to a Navy guy. I've seen them do it after a loss."
Army West Point is back to being a college football factor because of Monken, a 50-year-old Midwesterner with no military background but a fierce admiration for discipline. In coaching circles, he is known most for leading FCS Georgia Southern to an upset at Florida in 2013. Monken still runs the same option and still has the same belief he can beat anyone.
"There is a great disparity between our talent level and theirs," he said of a 38-7 loss at Ohio State on Sept. 16. "But there was a pretty good disparity between the team I took down to Georgia Southern four years ago, and we won that game. Our players expected to win that game."
The Navy win last year was part of an 8-5 season, Army's first winning campaign since 1996. The Black Knights enter this year's game with at least eight wins (8-3) for the first time since that year.
This season, Army is going to back-to-back bowl games for the first time in 31 years. For the first time in 20 years, the Commander-In-Chief's Trophy comes down to Army-Navy.
The six-game winning streak ended by North Texas was the longest in 21 years. A 10-win season is not out of the question.
The glow from last year still hasn't dimmed. Players still walk each day through the "Beat Navy Tunnel." They still play underneath two banners in the indoor facility that read "Beat Navy" and "Duty Honor Country."
The messages are not mixed because everyone here knows Navy works just as hard and is just as committed as Army cadets.
For both academies, football is truly the extracurricular activity the NCAA says it is supposed to be. Destroying another NCAA myth, Army football players are paid professional soldiers and amateur athletes. They also have access to five-figure low-interest loans.
Plop that scenario in the SEC and there'd be an NCAA investigation. Here, they are the best of everything we have.
"I'm really calm under pressure," Bradshaw said, recalling his year at West Point Prep. "When they were yelling at me, I just said, 'Yes, sir.' They couldn't get to me or really break me. Watching other kids kind of panic is kind of fun."
I saw that resolve up close. Army played at UAB in its first game back from 9/11, now 16 years ago. Clearly distracted, the Black Knights lost 55-3. It was no disgrace. In a couple of months, some of those players were on the ground fighting a Mideast war.
That's one reason why each side at Army-Navy sings the other's alma mater after their annual meeting.
"It was surreal," right tackle Brett Toth remembered from last year's game. "First thing I did was hug my center. We realized what we'd done."
When the result became official, cadets poured out of the stands at Baltimore's M&T Bank Stadium. Army being Army, officials at the school actually had meetings to prepare for a field storming.
"We strategized it," Beretta said. "We have to keep the goalpost erect. Our plan was, once they come over [the wall], we're not going to keep 4,000 cadets off the field. When it started to happen, it wasn't just the 4,000 cadets, it was people from the stands. My daughter, who is 17, was on the field."
When they all assembled for the Army alma mater, "there's no band, there's just instruments. We saw unmanned tubas up in the stands," Beretta said. "It was pure euphoria, raw emotion."
Even the band had stormed the field.
That glee continues this week. The last consecutive eight-win seasons for Army came in 1984-85. Toth could be the first lineman drafted here in 58 years. He would be the first Army player drafted at all in 10 years.
All that comes after a mandatory five-year service commitment -- unless he would get a deferment after two years.
Toth came here as a 220-pound tight end from Charleston, South Carolina. Clemson and South Carolina, he says, wanted him to walk on. To get to where he is as an elite offensive tackle took some of Army's strategic planning.
There is no nutrition bar common at Power Five programs. Cadets eat meals together and get the same 20 or minutes to do so.
"You just have to eat more of it," Toth said. "One of our old head strength coaches had me look in the mirror one day and say, 'You will never look like this again.'"
That meant stockpiling as much protein as possible, whether it required hitting a buffet, visiting a local sushi place or gobbling up steaks.
"I'm proud of my 17-year-old self to able to make that big of a decision," Toth said. "It has made me the person I want to become."
Toth is part of an offense that has run for the most yards in the country. Monken is a disciple of Paul Johnson. The Georgia Tech coach is perhaps the best practitioner of the pure option there is today. The two coaches were together at Navy and Georgia Tech from 2002-09.
That places Monken among a handful of men who have coached at both academies.
"I felt like that's part of the reason they wanted me to come here and coach," Monken said. "'You've been on the other side of this thing.'"
Monken relies so much on the option ground game that Army has gone three games this season without completing a pass. Against Air Force, it didn't attempt one.
That makes sense. Bradshaw isn't what you'd call a gunslinger. His career 42 percent completion rate is dragged down by a career-worst 30.8 accuracy mark this season. But he is a hero (in a football sense) in a place that specializes in heroes. Bradshaw was the quarterback last year on the team that broke the streak.
"We were 'streak starters,'" Bradshaw reminded. "That night is summarized everything -- how everybody was feeling. A lot of partying."
In the week after the Navy win, Bradshaw ducked into a psychology teacher's class to say hello. They were watching Black Knights highlights.
It didn't end there. Those first-year plebes were allowed to unclench their fists in public. Balled-up hands are usually a requirement. There was an unfounded rumor finals would be cancelled.
"Some random guys came to my room with a bag. He pulled out a pylon and said, 'Yo, can you sign this?' It's like an Army-Navy souvenir. I didn't even know who the kid is. He found my room, my barracks."
This week, there will be pep rallies. The superintendent will speak, perhaps a celebrity or two. Typically, a boat signifying Navy is dragged onto the parade ground and burned.
"To watch a boat burn is really [special]," Salvani said.
The reason behind the turnaround, though, lies in logistics. When he arrived, Monken began suggesting an adjustment to the administration the cadets' offseason training. Those first-year plebes have to go through what is known as Beast Barracks, a seven-week cadet training course. Cadet Field Training at Camp Buckner follows after the second year. Leadership and specialty training follow the third year. All of it didn't have to bump up against the beginning of football camp.
Navy had long ago made the same changes. When Army did, cadets had time to study abroad, get internships. Mostly, it was a rest.
"It didn't compromise the mission or the integrity of the academy at all," Monken said. "We're the No. 1 public university in the country. … We are known as the finest leadership laboratory on the face of the planet. It seems silly to field athletic teams that don't have the same expectation."
Not even Monken might realize how far the program has come. Former coach Todd Berry once ran a spread offense, a killer for academy football that relies on controlling the ball and clock to diffuse bigger, faster opponents.
Army found itself out of its league playing in Conference USA from 1998-2004.
"In retrospect, it was not the best decision for our program," Beretta said. "It was a speed conference and everybody back then spread it all out. We were facing it week in, week out attacking our weaknesses. They got used to defending our option."
The Black Knights are scheduled out to 2027 now. As an independent, the idea, yes, is to schedule beatable teams but also to showcase the academy.
Oklahoma is coming here in 2020.
Corrigan says, when Monken was hired in 2014, "we were looking for our David Cutcliffe." That meant a wise, veteran coach who could overachieve. Corrigan had worked for the three years at Duke where his legendary father Gene graduated.
"We're looking for a guy that is different," Corrigan said. "You can't fight our kids taking physics. You can't fight them taking chemistry. You can't fight them taking summer training."
And Monken can't fight the urge to demand that excellence prior to Navy Week. Sure, it's cold and windy on a Sunday night practicing 12 hours after a game halfway across the country.
It's also the Army standard.
"I felt a sense of responsibility to end the streak as the coach here," Monken said. "It just needed to be done."
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