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As David Brinkley said to President Clinton, it was past my
bedtime. I was tired. I was confused. I'd missed dinner. The
stage lights were in my eyes, my underwear was too tight, and
I've never even owned a pair of Bruno Magli shoes.

What else can I say? I was wrong.

It has been two years since I used this space to offer a
brilliant suggestion to the football programs at Army and Navy.
Both service academies were struggling, and it appeared from
here that their days of fielding competitive Division I-A teams
were over. They were losing more often than Libertarian
candidates, and they could not continue to play a big-time
schedule without embarrassing everyone who had ever worn the
academies' uniforms.

Both teams were 3-7 going into the final weekend of the 1994
season. Navy had given up 209 more points than it had scored.
Army had lost to Boston University, a Division I-AA team. From
'83 through '94, the Midshipmen had had a 36-95-1 record, and
I, for one, detected a trend. Army and Navy, for a number of
reasons, were drowning in the shark-infested waters of major
college football.

My advice to Annapolis and West Point was simple: Give up. I
advised them to take their wishbones and their buzzcuts and
their 212-pound defensive linemen and drop down to the more
equitable and honorable surroundings of I-AA. They did not have
the size, speed or disregard for rules that was necessary to
compete in Division I-A. They were Eagle Scouts trying to fight
fair in a back-alley brawl, and quite naturally they were
getting the worst of it.

I said at the time that there was only one thing more
humiliating than losing to Army, and that was losing to Navy,
but now there appears to be a new entry on the list of most
embarrassing gaffes: underestimating the resilience of our
service academies.

In 1996 the Cadets and the Midshipmen have mounted inspiring
turnarounds and thus transformed their annual showdown, this
Saturday in Philadelphia, into more than just a patriotic
spectacle, into more than a battle for bragging rights. Army is
9-1, and Navy is 8-2, and the winner is likely to end up in the
Independence Bowl on New Year's Eve. A West Point victory should
push the No. 23 Cadets into the Top 20, while the Midshipmen
would most likely crack the Top 25 with a win. Don't look now,
but the Boy Scouts are holding their own.

Both schools have benefited from softer schedules than they
played in the past, but neither has simply squeaked by. The
Cadets have the nation's top-ranked rushing game and have won
their games by an average of 20 points; the Middies have the
fourth-ranked ground attack. They both beat an Air Force team
that knocked off Notre Dame. Together Army and Navy have made
this smart-ass scribe look sillier than Pierre Salinger.

The most impressive thing about the reemergence of the football
programs at Annapolis and West Point is that the academies
apparently have done it on their terms. They didn't suddenly
change the rules and start accepting criminals who could, as
they say with a wink in Lincoln, Neb., benefit from the
structure of the program. As much as anything the academies
attribute their resurgence to a p.r. boost from the gulf war.
Says West Point coach Bob Sutton, "I truly think that the way
our leaders came off during the war--so dynamic and
motivational--that our image changed dramatically. It became
O.K. to root for the military."

Army and Navy players not only play like but also look pretty
much like their predecessors of decades past: no earrings or
agents or juniors still working toward that degree in leisure
studies. At a time when the college football beat includes
gambling scandals, recruiting violations and a defending
national champion with more bad guys than a James Bond movie,
the military academies are a throwback to another era. Army has
30 rushing touchdowns this season, and not once did a Cadet
running back whip off his helmet and dance in front of a TV
camera. What would Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, who dropped by West
Point to deliver a pep talk earlier this season, have said if
anyone dared to do that?

Every time Army or Navy scores on Saturday, a cannon will be
fired and students will rush out of the stands to do a push-up
for each point their team has on the scoreboard. Before the game
a prayer will be said over the P.A. system, and after the game
players from both academies will serenade fans with their school
songs. The whole thing will be hokey, sophomoric, outdated and
absolutely unforgettable.

And this year Army and Navy are throwing in an added bonus
between the prayer and the parties: a big-time college football
game, with two good teams slugging it out for a trip to a bowl.
If it's O.K. with everyone else, we'll just go ahead and let
them stay in Division I-A a while longer.

CHUCK SOLOMON [Crowd at football game holding signs reading 'GO ARMY!']