Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Flotsam and Jetsam | by Jay

A couple of articles from the national scene about Navy breaking the streak: Jon Saraceno in USA Today:

As midnight approached in Annapolis, Md., a crowd gathered to greet their conquering heroes.

"It was incredible, absolutely electric watching the Midshipmen jump around," said Cmdr. John Fuller, 42, who enjoyed the revelry after returning from Indiana. "Rarely have I seen that much spontaneous enthusiasm. The town was happy, too — nothing like Boston celebrating the Red Sox, but it was special. Everyone was happy for us because the monkey is off our backs."

Jack Stem, a retired Navy lieutenant commander and a 1981 grad, was 1 the last time Navy beat Notre Dame. He watched the game with his father (Class of '61). "I can't explain it — unbelievable," the son said.

If you weren't inspired by the plucky, outmanned band of Midshipmen, or if the hair on the back of your neck didn't stand like a plebe at attention, you don't understand what Notre Dame-Navy is all about.

Vince McBeth, captain of Navy's 1986 team, flew to South Bend on Friday with Fuller, his former teammate with whom he shared a heartbreaking loss to the Irish in 1984. They toured campus wearing Navy attire, and McBeth said they were impressed by the "hospitality, friendliness and sportsmanship" shown by Irish fans.

"Every time we turned a corner, someone said, 'Welcome to Notre Dame,' " McBeth said. "Many people have argued over the years, 'Why does Notre Dame continue to play Navy?' There's a deep-rooted mutual respect. It's validation for both institutions."

If you think those Irish fans were merely happy to see a perceived patsy walk into town, you are wrong. The intersectional rivalry began in '27, but a closer relationship developed when Navy took over Notre Dame's campus to train officers and house midshipmen during World War II. Notre Dame graduates more Navy officers than any school other than the Academy.

For decades, Navy mostly served as cannon fodder for the Irish, who often blew the Midshipmen right out of the water. The Streak had become so ignominious that coaches on both sides cringed. The phrase "winless against Notre Dame since the year JFK was assassinated" had become part of the Navy lexicon.

Now it was gone forever, unlike the undying spirit belonging to those young men who made it vanish.
And then, a hyperbolic John Feinstein in the WaPo:
When the U.S. Olympic hockey team defeated the seemingly unbeatable Soviet Union in Lake Placid in 1980 en route to the gold medal, it was hailed as the most stunning upset in sports history.

It may be difficult for an outsider to understand, but the Navy football team's 46-44 triple-overtime victory over Notre Dame on Saturday may rank, at the very least, a close second to that storied miracle on ice...

The players Coach Paul Johnson recruits are frequently like Campbell and Singleton: too small for big-time programs like Notre Dame to bother with; tough kids who love a challenge and love proving they can do things that "can't" be done.

Like beating Notre Dame in Notre Dame Stadium.

The best description I ever heard of what it is like to play football at Navy, Army and Air Force came from Fred Goldsmith, who coached at Air Force: "At a civilian school the hardest part of a football player's day is football practice," he said. "At an academy, the easiest part of a football player's day is football practice."

Navy can't possibly beat Notre Dame. Except on Saturday a group of youngsters who were too small or too slow (or both) to play big-time college football did just that.
It was an incredible win for Navy, and it broke the longest running streak in division one. And it was an upset. But was it really a big upset? On par with the Miracle on Ice, even [cough]? Let's pick this apart.

In the article Feinstein paints Navy as a team of nerdy, pasty bookworms who get by on heart and effort alone, citing 5'8 Zerbin Singleton and 5'6 Reggie Campbell as representative of your typical Middie. This isn't exactly an honest portrait. Forget about the ND game; if Navy were as Feinstein describes -- a plucky band of Oompa-Loompas -- every game Navy ever won against Division 1 talent would have to be a cataclysmic upset.

Obvously, that's not the case. Feinstein makes no mention of the fact that Navy is actually a pretty good team. Since Paul Johnson took over, the Middies have actually been one of the better teams in college football, posting nearly a .600 winning percentage. If you filter out his first year where he went 2-10, Johnson is .700 over the last four years. That's 20th-best in all of division one. They've played in four straight bowl games, and last year came within a breath of knocking off Boston College (losing 24-25).

And it's not a fluke. Feinstein might want you to believe that Johnson pulls guys out of the library to cobble together a squad each year ("Hey, you with the horn-rims -- ever heard of football?"), but Navy actually does recruit players. And Johnson's option attack is a very effective system that capitalizes on all of those traits that Feinstein admires in the Navy players: heart, effort, discipline, intelligence, and yes, even talent. Frankly, I think Feinstein does a big disservice to Navy. He wants to prop up the upset as second only to the Miracle on Ice, but in order to do so he's gotta portray ND as King Kong and Navy as, well, pygmies. That's a shame.

Ending the streak was certainly a momentous (and joyous) occasion for Navy. And it's definitely a signpost for the sorry state of ND football: the canary in the coal mine just keeled over. But if we're talking strictly about big upsets, Feinstein missed the boat. If he's really looking for a ragtag bunch of amateurs who took down the Soviet Empire, all he has to do is look back to the first week of the season, when a little team from the hills of North Carolina wandered into the Big House and knocked off the 5th-best team in the country. It was the only time a ranked team has ever lost to a Division 1-AA opponent. That's truly miraculous.