College Football

Former Navy athletic director J.O. 'Bo' Coppedge dies at 88

During Kelly Coppedge's final conversation with her grandfather last Sunday, she says he was still thinking about Navy's football team.

"He asked, 'When's Navy playing and who are they playing?" Kelly Coppedge recalled Thursday.


J.O. "Bo" Coppedge, a former Navy football player and wrestler who ran Navy's athletic department from 1968 until his retirement in 1988, died Wednesday night — less than three days before the Midshipmen were scheduled to play Arizona State in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl in San Francisco.

Coppedge was 88 and, according to his son John, had been in declining health for several months. While funeral plans have not been finalized, a memorial service will be held at the academy chapel, John said.


"It is with heartfelt sadness to learn of the passing of Bo," current Navy athletic director Chet Gladchuk said in a statement. "Everyone in the Naval Academy Athletic Association expresses their sincere condolences to the Coppedge family."

Much of Navy's success during Coppedge's tenure — the longest by an athletic director in academy history — had to do with Coppedge's insistence that he hold the position for more than the three-year appointment given to most of his predecessors.

To do that, Coppedge retired from the Navy after serving for more than 20 years.

"The learning curve was so steep and once you acquired that knowledge, you had to rotate to your next position, so he recommended that it become a full-time position," John Coppedge said Thursday. "He was still Captain Coppedge, but he was wearing a suit."

Coppedge's association to the academy dated back to 1943, when he came to Annapolis after spending a year at the Virginia Military Institute out of high school in Arkansas. He lettered in football and wrestling at Navy, and as a two-way tackle he helped Navy finish with a 7-1-1 record in 1945. Sadly, the only loss came to Army.

After graduation, Coppedge served on two destroyers and spent five years of sea duty on submarines. He returned to the academy in 1954 and coached the plebe football team to a 15-4 record before returning to active duty, where he served as the Executive Officer of the USS Gudgeon for the first circumnavigation of the world by a submarine in 1957-58.

Coppedge gained some attention while serving in a similar position on the USS Tang when he brought the crew to the surface one November afternoon in 1960 so they could listen to the radio broadcast of the Army-Navy game, won by the Midshipmen, 17-12.

During Coppedge's reign as athletic director, Navy teams won nearly 67 percent of their games and 37 athletes were named All-Americans. A dozen sports were added over Coppedge's final 12 years and several of the athletic facilities were upgraded.


The football team — led at one time by Heisman Trophy candidate Napoleum McCallum and coached by George Welsh — went to three bowl games. The men's basketball team — led by future NBA Hall of Famer David Robinson — went to three NCAA tournaments, reaching the Elite Eight in 1986.

"He wanted Navy to be highly competitive in athletics, and he wanted the best facilities and the best ideals of the Naval Academy," John Coppedge said. "I think he felt like he accomplished that."

At his retirement ceremony in June of 1988, Coppedge was given the Department of Defense Medal for Distinguished Public Service. A banquet room is named in his honor at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.

Coppedge, whose wife Ann died in 2006, stayed active and interested in Navy sports until his health began to decline earlier this year, after his younger son Bill died suddenly after a heart attack in February.

"After my dad passed away, he started to go downhill," Kelly Coppedge said. "He was really upset about that, and I knew he took it very hard. I honestly think he really hung on until my sister [Erin] came back [so he could] see her and the kids for the last time. He saw John a couple of weeks ago."

Kelly Coppedge said her grandfather attended every Navy home football game until this year. Kelly, who helped coach Navy's women's lacrosse team in 2008 and now works in the ticket office, said one of the reasons she returned to the academy a few years ago was to be closer to her grandfather.


She would look forward to him visiting on Thursday afternoons after the local Rotary meeting.

"Everyone would always tell me stories about when he was the athletic director because a lot of the people he hired are still there," Kelly Coppedge said. "Every time I walk down the hallway his picture is there."

Said Gladchuk: "We hold a special appreciation for an incredible man who touched so many lives in such a magnifiicent ways through his distinguished career. ... Bo was such an icon within intercollegiate circles. ... To know Bo was to love Bo."