HOUSTON - For three excruciating years, co-captain Eddie Carthan wondered if Navy football was ever going to improve its lot.
"I felt like when Coach [Paul] Johnson came, we weren't going to have success anytime while I was here," said the senior. "I thought we were never going to win with the attitude that was here."
But things did change for the better. In Johnson's second season, the Midshipmen developed some swagger, earned a huge victory over Air Force on Oct. 4 and proceeded to accomplish all their goals for 2003.
They finished the regular season 8-4, realizing the goal of a winning record, received their first bowl invitation in seven years and then smothered archrival Army to claim the Commander in Chief's Trophy (which goes to the winner in football competition among the three major service academies) for the first time since 1981.
Even Tuesday's unsurprising, 38-14 defeat by a bigger, stronger and faster Texas Tech team in the Houston Bowl, in which the Midshipmen typically battled to the end, couldn't detract from their deeds.
"If I told them before the season we would win eight and go to a bowl game, I think everybody would have taken it," Johnson said. "I'm proud of the effort they put into this. We didn't have to win [the bowl game] to make the season. A loss doesn't diminish anything this team accomplished."
Navy became the sixth school in NCAA history to go from a winless record to a bowl in two years.
Seven victories against an appreciably lighter schedule were routs or achieved with relative comfort. Only the 28-25 decision over Air Force was close.
On the downside, Navy played horribly in losing to Rutgers, self-destructed in a 21-17 homecoming loss to Division I-AA champion Delaware, and lost for a heartbreaking 40th straight time at Notre Dame on a last-play field goal.
But, overall, Johnson's triple-option offense did its job, producing an effort that led the nation in rushing. The defense advanced greatly, generally forcing opponents to earn their points rather than surrendering the long touchdown plays that had contributed heavily to a 3-30 record from 2000 through 2003.
Next fall's schedule is roughly equivalent, although a tad tougher with the return of North Carolina State, with Duke and Tulsa replacing Mid-American Conference also-rans Central Michigan and Eastern Michigan, and with the addition of Virginia Military.
But then, Navy is better equipped to handle a more challenging roster of foes with Johnson's system now ingrained.
The domination by Texas Tech demonstrated that the Midshipmen still have quantum strides to make to consistently play with the elite. But Johnson, his staff and promising efforts by plebes have given the players hope they can take them.
Big vacancies are to be filled, particularly those left by quarterback Craig Candeto, slot back Tony Lane, record-setting punter John Skaggs, Carthan, defensive end Ralph Henry and defensive backs Shalimar Brazier and Eli Sanders. But there are plenty of building blocks, especially on the offensive line and at linebacker.
And bulldozing fullback Kyle Eckel and the team's big-play threat, Eric Roberts, return to the offense and hard-hitting Josh Smith and Bobby McClarin are back to lead the defense.
Success created a new excitement around the program. Nearly 20,000 fans followed the team to Houston, a statement that will serve Navy well if bowl qualifications are met in the coming years.
Johnson assured that he will be around awhile, spurning feelers to coach elsewhere and signing a contract extension through 2009 during Thanksgiving week.
"Everybody has their head down," Candeto said after the bowl. "But I think we should be proud of where we are right now. We came a long way."