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Retreat with Honor

Army and Navy put up the good fight, but it's time for them to pull back to I-AA football

A pair of sky divers sailed into Veterans Stadium last Saturday, clinging to each other and floating upside down toward the turf, a fitting opening act for the Army-Navy game, circa 1994. The teams tumbled onto the field moments later, both looking to salvage lousy seasons and to silence talk that they ought to drop to Division I-AA. There is always plenty at stake when these great rivals square off, but this year just a little more was on the line. As any self-respecting major college team will tell you, only one thing is more humiliating than losing to Army these days, and that's losing to Navy.

The schools came into Saturday's meeting with the same record (3-7) and the same addendum to their nicknames. The once mighty Cadets and the once mighty Midshipmen were hoping to avoid being cast as the nation's worst service academy team, which lately is like being the craziest Jackson sibling.

The top teams in college football long ago left Army and Navy behind. These days young studs coming out of high school don't want to do more before 9 a.m. than most people do all day. The lads of the MTV Generation would rather wear earrings, cut class and maybe play in the NFL some day, difficult endeavors for an officer-in-training. Some ambitious recruits also want to be on winning teams during their college careers. Annapolis and West Point can't even promise that anymore.

In its first 10 games this fall, Navy, which hasn't had a winning season since 1982, was outscored by 209 points. Roger Staubach will soon be telling people he spent the early '60s in prison.

Army, meanwhile, beat one team, Holy Cross, that gave up football three years ago. The Holy Cross players just haven't been notified yet. In other games against I-AA competition, the Cadets defeated The Citadel by a point and lost to Boston University. Maybe they should consider skipping I-AA and dropping right down to Division II. "I don't think you'll ever see that happen at the Academy," says Army coach Bob Sutton of a possible move to I-AA. "Our business is taking on challenges. That's what we do. [Moving down] would be giving up."

Navy has an even better reason for sticking it out in Division I-A. "We couldn't afford to move down," says one Annapolis athletic department official. "We've got 29 sports. The Notre Dame game and the Army game pay for most of them."

Of course, the Middies would have to beat Notre Dame in each of the next 49 years to break even on the field. Navy's record in the series stands at 9-58-1. Army will play Notre Dame next season, giving the Cadets a chance to chip away at their 8-34-4 mark against the Irish. Our future military leaders have adopted a new philosophy: Forget winning. Let's beat the spread, troops. Now they know how General Cedras felt.

As part of last weekend's Army-Navy festivities, the five living Heisman Trophy winners from the two schools were honored. Staubach, at 52, was the youngest. To put the academies' downward spiral in perspective, when Staubach played for the Middies, his helmet had no face mask. Army and Navy players today don't have the speed—"When you talk 4.6 with us," says Sutton, "you're probably talking about a guy's grade point average, not his speed"—the size or the skill to compete with elite teams. All they have now is each other. Army versus Navy.

Then again, maybe that's all they need. This year was the 95th meeting between the two teams, and they showed why the first 10 games of the season still don't mean a thing. Times have changed, but this game remains unique. A prayer was said over the P.A. system before the kickoff, and the players for both teams serenaded their fans with school songs when the game was over. The Cadets and Middies in the stands passed around plebes like bags of peanuts. With an ocean of Army gray on one side and rows of white Navy hats on the other, the stadium rocked—orderly and politely—for more than three hours.

Army won 22-20, thanks to senior Kurt Heiss, who kicked a 52-yard field goal with six minutes remaining. It looked as if Navy kicker Ryan Bucchianeri, who last year missed an 18-yard field goal that would have beaten Army, might get a shot at redemption, but the Middies couldn't get into range.

Heiss went home the hero. As always, there were tears in both locker rooms and all over the hallway in between. "It's something I'll never totally comprehend," said Heiss. "But I'll enjoy it. This is my dream. This is every Army player's dream."

The next day George Chaump was made the goat, fired as Navy coach after five seasons, during which he went 14-41. More important, four of those losses were to Army.

While last weekend the Cadets landed just like the sky divers, upright and on target, the Middies sounded another alarm that the academies should retreat—to Division I-AA.