ANNAPOLIS -- Navy, with football wins over Eastern Illinois (31-10) and Bowling Green (27-20), has won two games in a row for the first time in three years and people are starting to wonder.
Is Navy back?
Is Navy at least on its way back?
Will Navy ever be back to what it once was?
No one is more familiar with those questions than retired Navy Capt. Bill Busik, who was a football star at Navy in the early '40s, returned as athletic director from 1962-1965 and is now head of the Naval Academy Alumni Association.
"We've been down for so long," Busik said yesterday, "that people are calling me from all over the country to talk about this team and what a couple wins mean.
"Oh, sure, there's improvement, but I remind everybody that we weren't as bad last year as the record [1-10 in each of the past two seasons] makes it seem. You have to look deeper than that.
"We had Air Force beaten last year but the game was taken away from us [18-16] on a bad call by the officials. The commissioner even wrote us a letter after reviewing the films admitting his officials had made a mistake and we should have won. The Army game we lost [25-24] on a couple bad calls.
"We lost our first three quarterbacks through injuries and had to move a tailback [Jason Van Matre] to quarterback. We had to change our whole offense at midseason for Jason.
"Hey, I've written many letters to alumni, explaining why we haven't had a winning season in so long [since 1982]. A lot of them ask why Air Force can have a good football team and we can't, but last year's game shows that we're not that far from Air Force.
"I don't care what you say, recruiting is the name of the game. For one reason or another, we've made a lot of coaching changes [to Gary Tranquill in '82, to Elliot Uzelac in '87, to incumbent George Chaump in 1990] and that breaks up the continuity of your recruiting. If we stay with this coaching staff, it'll help recruiting."
The man behind the recruiting scene at Navy is Dave Smalley, who holds the title assistant athletic director admissions-academics. It's Smalley, a former Navy basketball star and coach, who works on appointments for athletes.
"Our problem," Smalley said, "is academics. Then there's the pro thing. Some kids don't want to come here because of the service commitment. You look at the NFL rosters and those guys couldn't get in the Naval Academy."
Chaump, in his fourth year as Navy's coach, can't say enough good things about the kind of player who comes to Navy.
"Our kids don't practice any harder now because we've won two games," Chaump said. "They practiced just as hard when we were zero-and-whatever we were. That's a tribute to their character and intelligence.
"We're doing better now because we're playing more seniors and because we're healthy with [quarterback] Jim Kubiak and [fullback] Brad Stramanak back.
"Talent is what matters. If you have better talent on the field, you'll win. We have to grow our own talent here. Kubiak is a pretty darn good football player. He completed 28 of 34 passes against Bowling Green.
"But Kubiak had no scholarship offers coming out of high school. Almost none of our players had scholarship offers. We have one kid I cut from the team when he first came here because I was afraid he'd get killed. Now he plays and does a good job.
"We have to get along with tailbacks who run a 4.7 when other schools have tailbacks who do a 4.4.
"But they're great kids. They come here and they work hard and they improve. I'll say this about our recruiting -- the best bunch of football players on our team are the plebes [freshmen]."
"We're never going to be world beaters," said Busik. "We never were. But we can have a competitive team and when we get the rare outstanding player we can have a good team."
"Things have to go right for us to win," said Smalley. "We have a narrower margin for error."
Navy could make it three in a row for the first time since 1981 (Air Force, Boston College, William & Mary) when it plays Tulane (favored by 3 1/2 points) Saturday night in the Louisiana Superdome.
Quietly this week, Rear Admiral Tom Lynch, the academy's superintendent, inquired about the date of the Liberty Bowl. The winner of the competition between Navy, Air Force and Army -- and the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy that goes to the service champion -- is invited to the Liberty Bowl.
This year the game will be played on the night of Dec. 28 in Memphis, Tenn. From a pair of 1-10 seasons to a bowl game would be a tremendous leap for Navy.