College Sports

Don't think Army-Navy still matters? You're wrong


o ahead and tell me why you don't think the Army-Navy football game is a big deal anymore.

No BCS glamour teams? No Heisman Trophy candidates? Nobody who'll be decked out in a pricey designer suit and jabbering into a cell phone when the TV cameras show him as a top pick in the next NFL draft?


Not enough big-time atmosphere, not enough glitz - that's your problem with the Army-Navy game?

If so, you're missing the whole point of the best pure rivalry in college sports, which takes place for the 110th time Saturday at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia.


"This is a game in a lot of ways that transcends football," Ross Pospisil,Navy's inside linebacker and co-captain, said at the recent kickoff luncheon. "We know [the Army players'] lifestyle, and we know what they're going through.

"It makes the game something special. ... It has a deeper meaning for [U.S.] servicemen all across the world."

See, that's what you have to understand about this game: It's between two arch-rivals who have nothing but respect for each other.

Go take in another big college football rivalry like Alabama-Auburn or Oklahoma-Texas or Ohio State-Michigan.

Tell me what you hear from the players and their fans: WE CAN'T STAND THOSE GUYS. WE WANT TO DESTROY THEM.

You never hear anything like that during Army-Navy week.

For one thing, the players know their counterparts at the other service academy face the same challenges they do: the long hours, the demanding academic regimen, the emphasis on serving their country once their military commitment begins.

And they know that a few months after they graduate, these midshipmen and cadets could find themselves fighting alongside one another in Iraq and Afghanistan and God knows where else, with real bombs going off and real bullets flying and real people dying.


Don't get me wrong: The outcome of the Army-Navy game is still important to both sides.

Incredibly important, if you want to know the truth.

No matter how many wins Army or Navy has going into the big game, a loss makes the season a disappointment.

And a win confers bragging rights to Army and Navy personnel who serve around the world and look forward to the game each year.

"We know that Army members who are abroad listen to this game on their radios," said Victor Ugenyi, Army's defensive tackle and co-captain. "It feels great to be able to help out fellow soldiers who are fighting - even if it's in a small way."

Navy (8-4) has had the upper hand in this rivalry for years, having won the past seven games.


No, check that. The Midshipmen haven't just won those seven games - they've crushed the Black Knights in almost every one. (Final scores: 34-0 last year, 38-3 in 2007, 26-14 in 2006, 42-23 in 2005, 42-13 in 2004, 34-6 in 2003 and 58-12 in 2002.)

But there's actually talk of Army (5-6) giving Navy a game this year, something that could kick off a party at CBS, which televises the game.

For one thing, there's a sense that new head coach Rich Ellerson, hired last December from Cal Poly after eight successful seasons, has begun to turn the program around. (This will take some doing, since Army hasn't had a winning season in 12 years.)

And an Army win would guarantee that the Black Knights play in the Eagle Bank Bowl, their first bowl appearance since 1996.

Make no mistake, the Army players and coaches look with envy at Navy's recent record in football, which includes six winning seasons in a row and six bowl appearances.

But there's a war going on, and it has been going on since not long after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001.


And in a time of war, Army people know West Point is a much harder sell than Annapolis when you're trying to recruit young athletes to a service academy.

"Their [dress] uniforms look better than ours," Army wide receiver and co-captain Ali Villanueva said with a faint smile. "And if you go to West Point, the instructors tell you the first day: 'You're going to Iraq or Afghanistan.' "

Said Ellerson: "When you're 17 and 18 years old, what we do [at West Point], you can't shine it up."

But at least for three hours Saturday in Philadelphia, there will be no talk of war for the Brigade of Midshipmen and the Corps of Cadets.

There will be only talk of football.

And that's another reason the game still matters.


Listen to Kevin Cowherd Tuesdays from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. with Jerry Coleman on Fox 1370 AM Sports.