Army, Navy, Air Force: Running a Different Option : Academies Are Making a Comeback

Times Staff Writer

The old days of the 1970s are dead and gone, and nobody at Air Force, Army or Navy would waste three notes of Taps mourning their departure.

For the football teams from the military academies, no era in the past 20 years compares with the sweetness of the present.

To really understand their relief, you have to know something about the dark days. Carl Ullrich, Army director of athletics, remembers the way it used to be.


“When we were losing, people would say, ‘If Army fights like Army plays football, we’d better buy Kremlin war bonds,” Ullrich said.

“I actually had someone say that to me on one occasion. It really hurt.”

Nowadays, Ullrich proudly spreads out a copy of “The Football News” on his West Point desk. The headline on the page reads, “If They Defend The Nation Like They Play Football, the U.S. Is In Safe Hands.”

He likes the ring of that.

“When we tied Tennessee last season, (Volunteer coach) Johnny Majors said, ‘Gosh, the way those fellows play, it’s a good thing they’re on our side!” Ullrich said.

“That was one real satisfying moment after four years of agony.”

Ullrich personally experienced only four losing years because he didn’t become athletic director until 1980. By then, the school already had endured a much longer dose of woe.

In 1972, West Point--a school whose football rosters once included such names as Douglas MacArthur and Dwight D. Eisenhower--could not find enough plebes to fill its freshman class.

“We took every single soul who was qualified,” Ullrich said.

In 1973, the Cadets went 0-10. During the next 10 years, Army managed to win four games in a season only twice.


It was the same depressing story at the other academies. Between 1970 to 1977, Navy had just one winning season. Air Force had no winning teams between 1974 and 1981.

Tickets went unsold. Alumni grew disgruntled. Coaches came and went.

Meanwhile, in the civilian world, memories of a war passed. A new generation of teen-agers entered high school. The nation elected a new president, one with a special affinity for the military.

A swell of patriotism lifted the football fortunes of the academies to new heights. Today, applications to the three academies have never been higher.

“I think there was a time when very few kids were interested--in fact, most were almost turned off by the idea,” said Chuck Gallo, the Mater Dei High School coach who

was a 1960 West Point graduate. “But over the last five years their interest has definitely increased.”

Another Army alumnus, Frank Gibson of Orange, was captain of the 1960 Cadet football team and an assistant coach at West Point from 1963-65 and 1975-77. Today, he works in Orange County real estate, and charts the progress of sons Boomer, on scholarship at Arizona, and Don, a highly recruited lineman at El Modena High School.


“The service academies are a product of the environment we live in, and patriotism has come back real strong,” Gibson said.

“You can go back to how the American public reacted to Grenada or the hostage crisis. Flag-waving is back and I think it has to do with President Reagan. He’s a big flag-waver himself and he is the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces.

“You can see it in a movie like ‘Rambo.’ ‘Rambo’ is quite an exaggeration of how you get things done, but he symbolizes the macho thing. He’s muscular, he talks tough, and his last words are ‘I’m an American.’ He’s proud of it.

“The appeal of the service academies is a macho deal, too--for the young men and the women alike--and you can see the mood of country reflected in the number of applications, which have never been higher.”

Col. John Clune, Air Force athletic director, says that the academies have felt an upswing in quality as well as quantity of applicants.

“We’re getting better kids--brighter kids and better athletes,” he said. “Of course, success begets success.”


The traditional Saturday morning dress parades have become a cause for celebration at Air Force this year: The Falcon football team is ranked fifth in the nation.

Its 9-0 record is the best in school history, and the Falcons have beaten their opponents by an average of 27 points.

The status report from Army is much the same.

The Cadets (7-1) are reveling in their best season since 1958, the last team of legendary Coach Earl “Red” Blaik. That team went 8-0-1 and produced Army’s last Heisman Trophy winner, back Peter Dawkins.

Meanwhile, a lot of fairweather fans are apparently rediscovering an enthusiasm for academy football.

A record standing-room-only crowd of 34,000 was present for last month’s Navy-Air Force game at Annapolis. Air Force had a record crowd of 52,123 at Colorado Springs when it beat Notre Dame.

“It used to be a battle just to sell tickets every week,” Ullrich said, “but we’re selling them by the stack now.”


“There’s been a lot of competition for tickets. This was the first time we’ve ever sold out a game (Yale) in July.

“We have a lot of new found friends. Many people who used to be among our critics have become friends. But it’s very gratifying.”

Navy, which was the first to revive itself from the disastrous effects of the early ‘70s slump, is 3-4--losing three games by a total of eight points.

But the Midshipmen also have a milestone source of pride in 1985. Running back Napoleon McCallum is Annapolis’ first legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate since Roger Staubach in 1963.

Not long ago, there was a time when few players of that caliber would have considered attending one of the military schools, with their obligatory five-years of post-graduate service.

But the economy has a way of acting on people’s motivations when they plot their futures.

“A very important factor is that more people today are thinking about the benefits they can get from society,” said Captain J.O. Coppedge, athletic director at Navy. “People want to drive a nice car and wear nice clothes.


“There was a time when that was not too popular. But today that’s what many people aspire to, and the service academies have the reputation of being able to get you into a good career.”

Esperanza High School Coach Pete Yoder, who has sent seven players to the academies in recent years, said: “I think there has definitely been more interest in the last five or six years as the cost of a college education has gone right out of sight.”

Said Ullrich: “We have a great product. We do have a professional five-year opportunity at the end--and you will notice that I do use the word ‘opportunity,’ not ‘obligation’--but it is still a pretty good package we’re offering.”

Happy days are here again at the academies, but throughout the years one goal always has remained constant, for a 7-1 team such as Army or a 3-4 team such as Navy.

That is the desire to win the Commander In Chief’s trophy, signifying supremacy among the academies. Air Force plays Army this weekend and that matter of pride and duty is on the line.

“I’d trade wins against Notre Dame and BYU to beat Army and Navy,” Clune said. “Don’t get me wrong, we have the highest respect for their programs. They are our brothers all year long . . . except on two afternoons in the fall.”


Navy, though out of the running this year, has no less of a desire to redeem the season with an upset of Army in the final game.

As the quality of competition rises, so do the stakes.

“What do you think are the first two words they teach a plebe here?” Coppedge asked. “Beat Army!”

Orange County Recruits

ARMY John Garcia Sonora 6-4 230 DT Fr Matt Seymour Woodbridge 6-0 174 DB Fr Thomas Sharp El Modena 6-1 215 DE Sr John Suggs Mater Dei 6-4 228 OL-DL Fr

NAVY Charles Cassidy Mater Dei 6-2 229 DT Jr

AIR FORCE Tom Allison Los Alamitos 6-3 210 OL Fr Sean Conboy Los Alamitos 6-0 180 TB Fr Ted Hovorka Servite 6-1 206 LB Soph Tom Kitchens Newport Harbor 6-5 270 DT Fr Pat Stoll Los Alamitos 6-3 216 DT Jr