Baltimore Sun Media Group reporter Bill Wagner previews the 115th edition of the Army -Navy game. This year the game is being played at M&T Bank Stadium. (Kevin Richardson/BSMG)
One of the first things Jeff Monken did after becoming Army's head football coach last December was deck the halls of the academy's practice facility with signs that said, simply, "Beat Navy!"
He had learned the power of the rivalry from the other sideline, as a Navy assistant, and he wanted it always on his players' minds, especially after 12 years of losing to the sailors from Annapolis.
Monken's friend and Navy counterpart, Ken Niumatalolo, feels the game loom over every season for his Midshipmen. "Now that it's here," said the man who's never lost to Army as a head coach, "it's everything."
Baltimore is not a college football town. There's no annual game to grip the populace as Ohio State-Michigan does in the Midwest or Auburn-Alabama does in the South. But for one day on Saturday, the city will be the center of the college football world — a stage for the 115th chapter of a rivalry that arguably packs more layers of meaning than any other.
The field at M&T Bank Stadium won't be filled with professional prospects, and the result won't affect anybody's final Top 25 rankings. But it's a game that has deep significance for the service academies, both socially and financially, and an appeal still far broader than that.
"I think the difference with our game is it's a national game," Niumatalolo said. "I think everybody has somebody in their family or knows somebody who either served in the military or is in the military. So I think it touches everybody, regardless of where you live. … I think people respect this game because both teams have young men who are going to be serving this country. Regardless of who you root for, you root for both teams."
Monken took it a step further. "This is the biggest rivalry in sports, bar none," he said. "I've been a part of some great rivalries, but nothing takes the place of this one. Just the history and tradition of these two academies, the teams, just what it means to the guys on these teams. It's a feeling that's very unique. You can't describe it unless you've been a part of it."
The day will begin with ESPN's "College GameDay" broadcasting from the Inner Harbor from 9-11 a.m. The show, which travels to the nation's biggest game each Saturday, has never been in Baltimore.
At noon, thousands of white-capped Midshipmen and gray-clad Cadets will stream down Ravenswalk in perfect columns for the annual pre-game "March On" to the stadium.
The game will kick off at 3 p.m., with Navy in special red, white and blue uniforms from Under Armour emblazoned with the phrase "Don't Tread On Me" and an accompanying rattlesnake.
In a final show of postgame solidarity, the teams will meet in the center of the field to sing their alma maters, first the loser's song and then the winner's.
Though the players are more focused on the nuts and bolts of preparing for the game, the weight of the occasion isn't lost on them. Army-Navy never feels routine, they said.
"Just from hearing different accounts, I know this game does wonders for people [who root for the teams]," said Navy defensive captain Parrish Gaines. "Knowing I can help do that for people by stepping on a field, it means a lot. Even the older veterans who can't come to the games, they fall in love with this."
The game carries singular importance for each institution. It brings alumni together like no other event and fills the coffers of two athletic departments that spend much of the year below the radar of casual sports fans.
"It's a really big piece of the puzzle for us," said Army athletic director Boo Corrigan. "It's very important to us financially. This is a very special game, a 'bucket list' kind of game for people."
His Navy counterpart, Chet Gladchuk, agreed, though he noted the Midshipmen have also played Ohio State and Notre Dame in NFL stadiums this season.
"It's a piece of it, an important piece of it," Gladchuk said of the game's financial impact on his department. "It's a game that has high value. It generates a significant amount of revenue that's important to both institutions."
If anything, the academies might be poised to draw greater revenues from the game after their current television deal with CBS ends in 2018. The game has been among the 20 most watched in college football in recent years, and Forbes has referred to it as "the most undervalued sports brand on television" given a reported annual rights fee of less than $5 million.
City and state officials have touted the game, which always sells out and drew 6.2 million television viewers in 2013, as a boost to tourism. They predict as much as $30 million in economic impact, with fans coming to town for multiple days, because pregame festivities began Friday with military exhibitions and a noon pep rally at the Inner Harbor.
"At the end of the day, it's extremely appealing from a financial perspective because of the sheer number of out of towners coming to witness the game," said Terry Hasseltine, vice president of the Maryland Stadium Authority. "This is probably right up there on the short list of biggest stadium activities we can put together for the city and state."
Tickets are scarce on the secondary market, selling for a minimum of $165 each on StubHub as of Friday morning.
The teams generally play in Philadelphia, a natural middle ground between Annapolis and West Point, N.Y. But the academies shift venues periodically. Baltimore has hosted four previous games, most recently in 2007, a 38-3 Navy victory. The 2011 game was played at FedEx Field in Landover.
After returning to Philadelphia next year, the game will come back to M&T Bank Stadium in 2016, a sign of the institutions' comfort working with the city and the Ravens. Navy also played its season opener at M&T Bank Stadium against Ohio State.
"The Ravens are phenomenal," Gladchuk said. "They attend to every single detail, and it's been going on now for months."
Hasseltine said the state hopes to be in the running to host more games when the academies put the next batch up for bid between now and 2016.
For Navy, of course, Baltimore is a quick hop away. Niumatalolo said the contest will feel "like a home game." When he and his captains came to town for a pregame luncheon last week, he joked the trip had been too short for them to take their usual naps on the way to Philadelphia.
But Monken dismissed any idea of a homefield advantage. "These games aren't in anybody's back yard," he said. "We're playing in an NFL stadium. Every year it's played in an NFL stadium."
Regardless of venue, the stands are split evenly between Army and Navy and the spectacle hues to tradition.
For the players, the sense of culmination is always profound. They want to win badly — Navy (6-5 this season) to extend its dominance, Army (4-7) to end an unprecedented losing streak in the series. But they know their next meetings could come as fellow combatants on distant battlefields.
"We're always thinking about the Army-Navy game," said Navy offensive captain Noah Copeland. "You can't get too far ahead of yourself, but we come into the Naval Academy with 'Go Navy, beat Army!' So that's just in us from Day One."