Jim McNally was hoping to keep it a secret.
After nearly four decades as a physical education instructor and boxing coach at the Naval Academy, McNally was hoping to ride off into the sunset without any fanfare. He specifically instructed the ring announcer to not mention it during the recent Brigade Boxing Championships.
“I was trying to retire without anybody knowing,” McNally admitted.
However, there was no way such an esteemed member of the Naval Academy faculty was going to walk away without a word of thanks or appreciation. Kris McNally organized a retirement party for her husband that was purposefully held the day after the 82nd annual Brigade Boxing Championships.
Nonetheless, the jaded old coach was surprised and somewhat choked up that nearly 200 people showed up in the Akerson Tower high atop Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium to pay their respects.
Jim Searing, who has served as a volunteer assistant boxing coach for the past 24 years, was impressed that seven or eight former Navy boxers voluntarily took to the podium to express their personal appreciation for McNally.
“We had returning boxers from all 37 years of Jim’s tenure come back from all over the country to honor him. I thought that alone was a great indicator of the impact Jim’s made on so many of those he coached,” Searing said. “Some of the guys got up and gave very emotional, heartfelt speeches about the influence Jim had on their lives.”
Searing and others did the math and figured out that McNally has taught boxing to upwards of 40,000 midshipmen and coached another couple thousand that elected to join the Navy club program. The Annapolis resident has led Navy to seven team national championships (five men, two women) and has trained 56 boxers that captured a total of 77 National Collegiate Boxing Association individual championships.
“Jim McNally’s influence on the lives of thousands upon thousands of midshipmen has just been extraordinary. He leaves a tremendous legacy that sets the bar high for decades to come,” Navy athletic director Chet Gladchuk said. “Jim’s success in leading Navy boxing has elevated our program to national stature. He’s simply a wonderful man who has been a role model in every dimension of his life.”
McNally is rightfully proud that so many former Navy boxers have gone on to do great things as Navy and Marine Corps officers and later as civilian professionals. Those success stories include the commanding officer of the Blue Angels, commanding officer of SEAL Team 6 and commanding officer of Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point.
Multiple former Navy boxers have reached the rank of admiral, while an unusually large number have served in the special forces.
“There are no recruited boxers at the Naval Academy. They chose this institution to become leaders and warriors,” McNally said. “It means a lot to me personally to hear so many of them talk about how boxing made them better military officers. The discipline they learned from training in the gym along with the mental and physical toughness they learned in the ring translated when leading men and women.”
McNally grew up in Philadelphia and started boxing at Joe Frazier’s gymnasium while a freshman at a local community college. Frazier, a Philadelphia native, is recognized as one of the greatest heavyweight boxers of all time and was a childhood hero of McNally’s.
McNally was fighting in the finals of the 1977 Mid-Atlantic Amateur Athletic Union Championships when he discovered that collegiate boxing existed. He read an article in Amateur Boxer Magazine written by Al McChesney, head coach at West Chester University and president of the fledgling National Collegiate Boxing Association.
At McChesney’s encouragement, McNally transferred to Lock Haven University and established a club boxing program that still exists. After graduation, he spent five years teaching physical education in the Philadelphia public school system and coaching boxing at a local gym.
A major turning point came when McNally was asked to referee the annual Penn State Invitational boxing card. He showed up with no formal training and proceeded to officiate nine fights.
That led to a lengthy career as a referee. McNally began with the Mid-Atlantic Boxing Association and steadily worked his way up to national and international events. He reached the pinnacle when selected to officiate at the 2008 Winter Olympics in Beijing.
McNally was officiating a collegiate boxing match when he learned that longtime Navy coach Emerson Smith was retiring. He applied and interviewed for the position, but Navy hired Tom Virgets away from Virginia Military Institute.
Virgets departed Annapolis after only one year to train professional boxers, including successful heavyweight Tommy Morrison. McNally reapplied for the position and this time was hired by Jim Gehrdes, who was chairman of the Naval Academy physical education department at the time.
In August 1986, McNally became just the fifth boxing coach in Naval Academy history, following in the footsteps of three legends: Hamilton “Spike” Webb, Tony Rubino and Smith.
Making an impact
Fans and followers of Navy boxing have often asked McNally is often asked to name the best fighters he has coached. He starts the list with two early proteges, Class of 1987 members Dick Hoffman and Roger Stanton. McNally brought those two four-time Brigade Boxing champs to the Eastern Olympic Festival Trials.
Todd Alexander is the only four-time national champion trained by McNally and holds an interesting distinction as only a three-time brigade champ. He was named Most Outstanding Boxer after capturing his fourth NCBA gold medal as 165-pound champ in 1997, helping Navy secure the team title.
Since graduating from the academy, Alexander has remained extremely close with McNally. In fact, McNally often visits the Pennsylvania farm operated by Alexander, the fourth generation of his family to work that land.
“It’s just a tribute to the bond we’ve developed that Jim has become a really important person in my life and that of my family,” Alexander said.
Alexander has high praise for McNally’s coaching style and was always impressed by the way he related to different boxers.
“Coach is a real human type of person who has a way of connecting with everyone in the gym,” Alexander said. “If you needed him to be your dad, he could do that. If you needed him to be your friend, he could do that as well. When you needed him to be your coach he would certainly do that.”
Almost all the midshipmen that choose to pursue boxing as a way of fulfilling the physical mission of the Naval Academy have no prior experience in the sport. Alexander marveled that McNally had “an uncanny knack for figuring out who has the grit and heart” to succeed in the ring.
In addition to Alexander, McNally lists three-time national champs Amir Shareef and Michael Steadman among the best he’s coached. He notes that four-time brigade champ Chris Bertucci had the most total fights of any Navy boxer over the last four decades.
Late last month, Aidan McNally became the 21st and last four-time Brigade Boxing champion molded by his father.
“I would put Aidan up there in that elite category. His skill level is as good as anyone I’ve ever coached,” said the elder McNally, who hopes to help his son capture a second straight national title.
Aidan McNally grew up going to the Brigade Boxing Championships every year and looked up to fighters such as Alexander, Shareef and Bertucci as heroes. Being able to attend the Naval Academy and be a member of the boxing program led by his father has been special for the senior.
“It has definitely meant a lot to me. I’m probably the only person at the Naval Academy who gets to hang out with their dad every day,” the younger McNally said. “I think my dad probably would have retired a few years ago if I hadn’t come to the academy and started boxing for him.”
Aidan McNally was amazed by how many former Navy boxers came back to Annapolis for his father’s retirement party.
“My dad has made an incredible impact on so many generations of midshipmen. He has former boxers in extremely important positions and very dangerous jobs. A lot of those men attribute their success to what they learned as part of the Navy boxing team,” Aidan said.
Jim McNally oversaw the advent of women’s boxing at the Naval Academy. Searing, a 1971 graduate and former brigade champ, primarily coaches the female boxers.
With the addition of women, the cramped boxing gymnasium on the top deck of MacDonough Hall is often filled with 75 to 80 boxers. McNally has expressed frustration that he is the only full-time coach for such a large program.
“Boxing is a very high-level club sport with really high visibility at the academy,” he said. “I would like to see the academy bring in a second full-time coach. When you have that many fighters in the room, it’s hard to give them all the individual attention they deserve.”
While it was often impossible to do so, McNally tried his level best to provide a personal touch to every midshipman who laced up the gloves.
“I would say Jim’s secret sauce is that he does a great job of relating to people and connecting with them,” Searing said. “I think Jim is really great at providing tough love with a touch of caring. He can detect quickly that Person A is motivated by this, while Person B is motivated by something totally different. Jim knows how to push a boxer without being too overbearing.”
McNally, who is 65 years old and has been working in education for 42 years, initially planned to retire last May, but agreed to stay on through December 2023 so a proper replacement can be found. He hopes to do a lot of traveling with wife Kris, whom he characterized as a “saint” for providing unwavering support.
McNally will stay connected to boxing as a volunteer coach at the academy and as one of the leaders of the new Annapolis youth boxing program being operated out of the Pip Moyer Recreation Center.