For more than a century, the Navy has looked among its seasoned officers for the next superintendent of the Naval Academy, but as another search gets under way, the pool of these high-ranking candidates has shrunk.
Many among the Navy's brass are engaged in the war and unavailable. At the same time, the Navy is attempting to return to the post the prestige that has been fleeting in years of scandals and "fix-it" superintendents.
Admirals of a rank who could replace Adm. John R. Ryan when he retires at the end of his tour next summer number only a couple of dozen.
Further complicating matters is a new law requiring all superintendents at the four service academies to retire after completing their tenures, a tradition the Air Force Academy, West Point and the Coast Guard Academy have followed for decades.
The Naval Academy's supervising board made a recommendation almost five years ago that academy superintendents do the same, arguing that the stature of the post is hurt by shuffling low-ranking admirals in and out of the job, sometimes in less than two years. Until 1968, the Navy named several captains superintendent. Congress passed the law as part of the fiscal year 2000 defense authorization bill.
Place for the best, brightest
"Being superintendent [of the Naval Academy] didn't seem to hold the kind of prestige necessary to make the naval services see the position as the place to put its best and brightest commanders. ... as if it were the [carriers USS] Eisenhower or [USS] Kennedy," said Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, who sits on the academy's Board of Visitors, which made the recommendation.
"A lot of [officers] didn't want to go to the academy because they thought it would put them out of the [action] for too long," the Eastern Shore Republican said. "But those midshipmen are the future leaders of tomorrow, and they and the country deserve some of the best people the Navy has to offer."
Eligible for the superintendent post are 23 three-star admirals and 46 two-star admirals. Even fewer are seasoned enough or at the end of their current tours, Pentagon officials said. Also, the Navy has tended to tap graduates, further reducing the pool.
Congress and the academy's governing board hope the law will shape this year's search for a superintendent in requiring that the candidate chosen be someone headed for retirement who isn't in line for a fourth star, perhaps by taking command of the Pacific or Atlantic fleets.
But in a time of war, many alumni fear that the Navy is likely to keep their top officers near the conflict.
Historically, the chief of naval operations reviews candidates with the secretary of the Navy, who then takes the recommendation to the president. Senate confirmation is then required.
Only unrestricted line officers can take the post, meaning only officers who have had command at sea. Admirals from the fields of Navy law, medicine, intelligence or the supply corps do not qualify.
After scandals in the 1990s, the Board of Visitors also argued that the job, a three-star position, be offered only to three-star admirals rather than giving it to a two-star admiral and then giving the admiral a third star upon his accepting the job.
The board and a number of alumni wanted to see the job become the capstone of an officer's career, rather than just a place to pass through.
The Navy nevertheless named Ryan, a two-star admiral, superintendent in 1998 and then gave him a third star.
The Naval Academy position has always been prestigious, but it has fallen short of the stature of the corresponding posts at the Air Force Academy and West Point, where only generals with at least three stars have been offered the post, usually as a final honor before retiring.
Not enough stars
"It didn't seem right, sitting at the table with two stars," surrounded by much-higher-ranking superintendents from the other academies, said former Naval Academy Superintendent Ronald F. Marryott, who held the post as a two-star rear admiral from 1986 to 1988.
Marryott was pulled out of the academy after two years to become deputy director of naval intelligence. Now retired, he said he thinks retiring superintendents, especially "sea warriors" arriving at the academy with higher ranks, was a long time coming. He, like many of his fellow alumni, also thinks superintendents should serve a minimum of four years.
"People coming into the job and getting pulled out in two years has a ripple effect," he said. "This way, with four or five years, the faculty sees the stability of that. You can see one class all the way through and see the effects of your changes.
"It would help make the [position] special, without people worried about going on to bigger and better things."
Navy officials and alumni hope the changes will usher in a new era after more than a decade of notorious incidents.
Adm. Charles R. Larson, Ryan's predecessor and the only four-star admiral to hold the post, took over the academy in 1994 to bring the school out of the depths of the largest cheating scandal in its history, which occurred while Rear Adm. Thomas C. Lynch was superintendent.
Lynch had also taken over the academy with a mandate to "fix" the school after an incident where five male midshipmen handcuffed a female midshipman to a urinal and were allowed to graduate while his predecessor, Rear Adm. Virgil L. Hill, was superintendent, from 1988 to 1991.
Lynch and Hill accepted lateral moves in the Navy after serving as superintendent, and both retired a short time later.
Larson, the only superintendent in the school's history to have the job twice, said he is a strong supporter of the new model of superintendent the Navy is trying to find.
'The value of experience'
"I came to realize the second time around the value of experience and maturity in doing that job," said Larson, who was superintendent as a two-star admiral from 1983 to 1986 and as a four-star admiral from 1994 to 1998.
"It's a philosophical difference, and the Army [at West Point] really set the tone for this," he said. "They felt if you brought in a young, ambitious officer, they would lose focus."
The timing for the Navy in finding such a superintendent this time could prove difficult, with many high-ranking admirals wanting their last assignments to be where the action is, in the war against terrorism. Some might also see the conflict as an opportunity to earn a fourth star, something they can't do at the academy.
Still, Larson and Marryott said there are few admirals who would turn down a chance to lead the academy if asked.
"In all my career, that job was the one I was most thrilled to be asked to do," Larson said, "and it is probably the most important job I've ever done."