Ask Army coach Bob Sutton about the importance of the Army-Navy football game and he'll tell you about the 1985 season, when the Cadets beat Illinois in the Peach Bowl to finish the season 9-3 -- at the time the team's most wins in 36 years.
"If you ask any player on that team about that season, they'll say, 'We had a great year, but . . . '," said Sutton, who was an assistant on that team. "That year we lost [the Army-Navy game]. It's hard to believe that a team would feel bad winning that many games, but there's a void that year from losing the Navy game. This game just has a different magnitude than any other rivalry."
How different? Though no bowl bids will be at stake, thousands of television viewers nationwide will tune in Saturday to the 93rd game between Army and Navy at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia.
Sutton is in his second season as head coach at Army, and George Chaump is in his third season as coach at Navy, but each has been around long enough to appreciate a contest that -- despite overall records -- can make or break a season. Army is 4-6. Navy is 1-9.
"I'd like to think it's a factor," Chaump said, when asked whether a win would help salvage the season. "Especially when you're 0-10 [last season] and 1-9."
But Chaump went on to add that he'd much rather be in a different position, such as in 1990 when Navy entered the game against Army seeking its first winning season since 1982. The Midshipmen lost, 30-20.
"Beating Army is big, and I don't want to dilute what beating Army means," Chaump said. "I'd like to beat Army and have a lot more wins under our belt."
As rivalries go, one would be hard-pressed to find one that has been as close. With a 24-3 win last year, Navy took a 43-42-7 lead in the series. Neither has won more than five straight, and they have split the games played during the past 10 years.
"Talent-wise, I see two equal football teams out there," Sutton said. "This game you can't be close to your best, you have to be at your best. The team that comes to the game mentally at its best will win."
A year ago that team was Navy, which was 0-10 and anxious not to become the first team in school history to finish without a win or a tie. A big favorite going in, Army got a field goal on its opening drive but was shut out the rest of the way.
"That was a horrible feeling," said John Pirog, a senior offensive lineman for Army. "That's what makes the game more important this year. When I'm done playing football, I want to look back at it as a positive. A loss to Navy means your career will always be tainted."
This game could have been more important for Navy, which feels it should be playing for the Commander-In-Chief's Trophy, awarded to the winner of the competition among Army, Air Force and Navy.
On Oct. 10, Navy was leading, 16-15, at Air Force and recovered a fumble in the game's final minutes that would have preserved the win. Instead, an official wrongly ruled the runner was down (a call the officials admitted was wrong the following week), and Air Force went on to kick a field goal for an 18-16 win.
So instead of playing Saturday for the 2 1/2 -foot trophy, which Navy hasn't won since 1981, the award instead will remain at Air Force for at least another year.
"That was a terrible, costly mistake -- maybe the biggest mistake in the history of college football," Chaump said. "But it's over and done with."