It took coach Charlie Weatherbie almost his first full season at Annapolis to realize that Army-Navy was not just another traditional season-ending football game.
Before sending his Midshipmen to face the West Point Cadets for the first time last December, Weatherbie told John Feinstein, author of "A Civil War," which chronicled the 1995 football season at the two academies, "To tell you the truth, I think people want to make it a bigger thing than it is. I'm not saying it's not a great rivalry or a big deal, but I don't see it as being any different than Alabama-Auburn, Florida-Florida State or Oklahoma-Oklahoma State."
Weatherbie, who had quarterbacked Oklahoma State to two bowl victories in the mid-'70s, had failed to heed the words of Army coach Bob Sutton, who served an eight-year apprenticeship at Army before replacing Jim Young in 1991.
Said Sutton: "It's not something you can understand until you've been through it. The feeling in the stadium is unlike any other football game. The seniors all know it's the last football game they'll play, barring a bowl game. They all want that last memory to be a good one, and they'll do anything to win."
And this year, it's not just academy bragging rights at stake.
The winner of today's game will be invited to play in the Independence Bowl on New Year's Eve. The winner also clinches the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy. For Navy, it would be the first time since 1981; Army last won it in 1988.
Army could win 10 games in a season for the first time ever, and be the first to beat the Midshipmen five years in a row. The Midshipmen are already assured of their best season since the 1981 team went 7-4-1 under George Welsh and played Ohio State in the Liberty Bowl.
An assistant at the Air Force Academy from 1984 through 1989, Weatherbie was deluded into thinking that Army-Navy was really no different than their interservice contests with the Falcons, with the exception of its being the last game of the year.
But all that changed after he made an ill-fated decision in the fourth quarter against Army. Leading 13-7 with 8:24 left to play, Navy faced a fourth down inside the Army 1. Weatherbie spurned an 18-yard field-goal attempt to "go for the jugular."
The strategy backfired when quarterback Chris McCoy underthrew slotback Cory Schemm. Army then staged a classic 99-yard march for the winning touchdown. It secured a fourth straight victory over Navy and left the Midshipmen in tears.
Later, Weatherbie offered a humble apology to his players for his tactical blunder.
"You deserved to win that football game," he said. "You won it. I was the one who [messed] it up. It hurts me more because we would have had a winning season. I'll tell you what, though. This ain't gonna happen again. You played your hearts out. I apologize."
Weatherbie's mea culpa won the sympathy of both his players and Navy personnel around the world. He received encouraging calls and E-mail from retired admirals to plebes on the Naval Academy ground.
Their feelings were typified by safety and co-captain Andy Thompson, who said, "Coach, I want you to know I would follow you into a blazing inferno."
Said Weatherbie, "I learned a valuable lesson. But it's one of those things you don't dwell on. The good Lord has a plan, and there's a reason we weren't successful.
"I won't let it bring me down. I know I can build on it. Any time you can gain from experience, you're going to improve as a coach and player. You get better at acting and reacting to different situations."
More than anything, he had learned that Oklahoma-Oklahoma State was not the equivalent of Army-Navy. As a final reminder, two days after last year's devastating loss, a message was waiting from his former college coach, Jim Stanley, a one-time Navy assistant.
"Now do you understand?" asked Stanley. Weatherbie shook his head affirmatively in silent response.
The atmosphere of Academy life and the dedication of the athletes has grown on Weatherbie. Earlier this week, he rejected an offer to become the head coach at Boston College, where recruiting demands and a chance to gain a bowl berth would have been easier.
"I made a statement once that I'd like to be the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys one day," he said. "I'm from Kansas, played at Oklahoma State, so I know the territory, and I always admired the Cowboys and [former Navy quarterback] Roger Staubach.
"But I think God has a plan. You just have to work your tail off to get what you want. But right now I'm very happy being here."
And so are Navy's upperclassmen, who prefer Weatherbie's positive approach to that of his predecessor, George Chaump.
"Day in and day out, Coach Weatherbie is upbeat. He comes out with a spirit and enthusiasm for us to play and practice and gives us a sense of direction," said junior defensive back Rashad Smith.
"Coach Chaump would say things, but the team really didn't believe in him. We kept losing, and the players tuned him out. Coach Weatherbie, of course, has been winning, so you have to believe what he says.
"But even in the games that we lost to Boston College and Notre Dame, we realized he had us thoroughly prepared. We just didn't make the plays. Coach Weatherbie has me convinced that this is the perfect coaching environment for him."
It will be less than perfect, though, if Navy again fails to beat Army, which has won the last four games by a total of six points.
"This is always a special game with so much hype," said Weatherbie, "but this year there is even more at stake -- the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy, a bowl bid and an opportunity to finish in the Top 20. It's winner-take-all, so to speak.
"But you have to know the difference between emotion and intensity. Emotion doesn't last; intensity does, and you have to -- be intense and stay focused for 60 minutes of football. You can't allow anything to take you away from the task at hand."
Asked if there was a "revenge" factor involved, Weatherbie said, "I'm not a big redemption type of person. I'm just more confident this year because we're a better football team in a lot of ways.
"Number one, we've learned how to win the close games and know how to come from behind. We haven't flinched. The maturity of this team has improved a ton in believing in the system and themselves, and they're totally committed to beating Army."
Inevitably, someone asked Weatherbie what he would do if the game again came down to a field-goal attempt.
"Whatever it takes to win," he said emphatically.
Army (9-1) vs. Navy (8-2)
Site: Veterans Stadium, Philadelphia
TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WITH (1230 AM), WNAV (1430 AM)
Line: Navy by 2
At stake: Independence Bowl berth vs. Auburn
Last meeting: Army won, 14-13
........................ Army ..... Navy
First downs ............ 23.5 ..... 22.6
Yards rushing .......... 347.2 .... 296.7
Yards passing .......... 102.6 .... 122.1
Total yards ............ 449.8 .... 418.8
Turnovers .............. 1.1 ...... 1.4
Points ................. 32.2 ..... 32.6
........................ Army ..... Navy
First downs ............ 14.0 ..... 17.4
Yards rushing .......... 82.6 ..... 135.8
Yards passing .......... 169.6 .... 191.5
Total yards ............ 252.2 .... 327.3
Turnovers .............. 1.2 ...... 2.6
Points ................. 16.8 ..... 24.3
Pub Date: 12/07/96