Football Outsiders is a statistics-driven blog whose authors work to bring a Baseball Almanac/sabermetrics type of approach to gridiron research. Using one of their standard ratings systems, they decided to rank the top 100 teams of the last 100 years. Two Navy teams made the list: the Mids of 1943 and 1945, coming in at #52 and #42, respectively. If you think about it, that makes sense. There’s no doubt that these two teams were probably the most talented in Navy history relative to their competition, thanks to relaxed eligibility rules during World War II. Several football stars from schools around the country entered the service, and it wasn’t unusual for someone to play for four years at a civilian school, then step right back onto the field at a service school. Not only did this benefit Army and Navy, but it helped give rise to juggernauts like Iowa Pre-Flight, Bainbridge Naval Training Center, Great Lakes Naval Training Center, and Randolph Field. Some of the players who came to Annapolis after starring elsewhere included All-Americans like Penn’s Skip Minisi and Notre Dame’s Bob Kelly, Don Whitmire (Alabama), Jack Martin (Princeton), Jim Pettit (Stanford), and Bo Coppedge (VMI). It’s hard not to win when you’ve basically assembled an all-star team.
Even so, the Navy teams of World War II are overshadowed by the Army teams of the era, which rode their own cherry-picked squads to national championships. That probably keeps the average Navy fan from thinking of the ’43 and ’45 teams first when naming the best teams in the program’s history, despite the ridiculous amount of talent. Some would say that the 1926 national championship team was the best, since… well, they won a national championship. Many would pick the 1963 team, which played Texas for the national championship and featured Roger Staubach. Some people look at things a bit differently and feel that today’s athletes are bigger, faster, and stronger, and that a more recent team should be considered Navy’s best.
So what do you think is the best team in Navy history? Use whatever criteria you like. Here are your candidates, in addition to the two teams mentioned above:
1905: This team wouldn’t be eligible for Football Outsider’s list since they only went back 100 years, but we aren’t going to be bothered with such constraints. The first Navy team to reach the 10-win plateau, the 1905 squad finished 10-1-1, with a 6-5 loss to Swarthmore and season-ending tie with Army being the only roadblocks to perfection. The team was led by stars like Bob Ghormley and Kirby Smith, and coached by “The Father of Navy Football,” Paul Dashiell.
1910: The 1910 team finished 8-0-1. The defense didn’t give up a point all season. Hey Coach Green, I just thought of a great way to celebrate the 100-year anniversary of this team…
1917: Coached by hall-of-famer Gil Dobie, the 1917 team suffered a 7-0 setback to West Virginia in the second game of the year. They won the rest of their games by an average score of 69-2– including a 95-0 win over Western Reserve and 89-0 thrashing of Haverford– to finish 7-1.
1926: The only Navy team to claim a share of the national championship, the Mids of 1926 finished 9-0-1, including wins over Michigan and Princeton, two wins in one day over Drake and Richmond, plus a late comeback to tie Army in the original “Game of the Century.” This was a team full of Navy legends, with players like Tom Hamilton and Frank Wickhorst, and coaches like Bill Ingram and the newly-hired Rip Miller.
(A side note: one of my favorite lines ever written about Navy was about the 1926 team’s less-than-stellar first half against Princeton. In his 1951 book “Gangway For Navy,” Morris Bealle wrote, “But Princeton surged back and made two touchdowns as the overconfident Navy team played like a bunch of hams.” I’m so going to start working that line in whenever possible.)
1934: When Hamilton returned to the Naval Academy as its head coach in 1934, he came back to a team that included future hall-of-famers Buzz Borries and Slade Cutter. Finishing 8-1, this was the first Navy team to beat Army and Notre Dame in the same season. A loss to Pitt late in the year cost them a national championship; they would end up finishing third in most national rankings (the AP Poll wouldn’t make its debut for another two years). Borries, a fullback in the single wing, was a one-man wrecking crew. He scoried every point in a 20-7 season-opening win against William & Mary, tallied nearly 100 yards from scrimmage in a win over heavily-favored Columbia (a lot of yards in 1934), and threw a game-winning 40-yard TD pass to Bob Dornin to beat Notre Dame. The hero of the season, however, was Cutter, whose field goal was the only scoring in a 3-0 win over Army– the Mids’ first over the Cadets since 1921.
1954: “The Team Named Desire” is still one of the most celebrated in Academy history, led by George Welsh, Joe Gattuso, and Maxwell Award-winning end Ron Beagle. The team put themselves on the map with a 25-0 win over a 3-0 Stanford team that had already notched wins over Oregon and Illinois. That loss killed Stanford’s season, but launched Navy’s; the Mids finished the regular season 7-2 and shut out #5 Ole Miss 21-0 in the Sugar Bowl. The ’54 team put Navy back on the national scene after a string of absolutely horrible years following World War II.
1957: With the ’54 team’s legendary status in Navy football history, and the star power of two Heisman winners drawing attention to the ’60 and ’63 teams, it can be easy to overlook the Cotton Bowl-winning 1957 campaign. You shouldn’t, though. The 1957 team could easily be Navy’s best. Quarterback Tom Forrestal finished 5th in Heisman Trophy voting after throwing for 1,270 yards, while Bob Reifsnyder won the Maxwell Award for his dominating two-way line play and anchoring the “jitterbug” defense (which got its label from its habit of players moving around before the snap). The team was somewhat ahead of its time, relying on Forrestal’s passing and speed out of the backfield with running backs Ned Oldham, Harry Hurst, and Ray Wellborn. The ’57 offensive line is almost certainly the best in Navy history, with Reifsnyder, Tony Stremic, and George Fritzinger. Even the Navy second-string was stacked; while Forrestal was the Cotton Bowl MVP, sophomore QB Joe Tranchini was the one QB to actually score in the game. The fifth-ranked Mids absolutely dominated #8 Rice in that game, outgaining the Owls 232-53 in the first half while holding them to a single first down. After taking a 20-0 lead early in the 3rd quarter, the Mids could coast the rest of the way. Rice was the second top-ten team that Navy beat that year, having already topped #10 Notre Dame 20-6. The Lambert Trophy-winning Mids also beat an Army team that finished at #18 in the AP poll, dropped a 46-6 bomb on a Boston College team that would finish 7-2, and tied Orange Bowl-bound Duke.
1960: Much in the same way that the ’54 team’s win over Stanford set the tone for the rest of their season, the 1960 team’s last-second 15-14 win on the road at defending (and eventual) Pac-10 champion Washington was the springboard for the Mids’ later success. The Huskies were ranked #3 at the time and had their eyes on a national championship; Navy would be their only loss that season. The Mids would rise to #4 in the AP poll at 9-1 before falling to the #4 team in the coaches’ poll, Missouri, in the Orange Bowl. Hal Spooner and Jim Luper were a great tandem in the passing game, but the star of the team was Joe Bellino, who was awarded the Heisman Trophy after running for 834 yards and 18 touchdowns. Bellino had been described by Herman Weiskopf as “small as backfield men go, but a bruising, tricky runner with a knack for looking good in every game.” He looked his best against Army, where he put his all-around ability on display by running for 85 yards and a TD, catching two passes for 16 yards, and returning a punt for 46 yards. While a late Bellino fumble gave Army a chance to drive for the win, a later Bellino interception on the ensuing Army drive sealed the win, and the berth in the Orange Bowl, for the Mids.
1963: This is easily the most celebrated team in Navy history. A win over Michigan in game three turned a few heads, but it was the homecoming win over undefeated Pittsburgh that put the Mids on the path to a national championship showdown in the Cotton Bowl against Texas. So many players on this team are household names for Navy fans; names like Staubach, Lynch, Orr, Sai, and Donnelly. Staubach is of course the most famous. Instant replay was invented specifically to show Roger Staubach highlights, which pretty much tells you everything you need to know about him as a player. The Mids won the Lambert Trophy and were ranked #2 behind Texas for most of the second half of the season.
1978: This was arguably the best team of the George Welsh era, finishing 9-3 with a 23-16 win over BYU in the inaugural Holiday Bowl. After racing to a 7-0 record to start the year (including a win over a 5-1 Pitt team that would go on to play in the Tangerine Bowl), the Mids lost three straight to Notre Dame, Syracuse, and Florida State. They bounced back in their last two games against Army and BYU to earn a spot at #17 in the final coaches’ poll. Jim McMahon was the quarterback for BYU, but was trumped by Navy’s Bob Leszczynski and his game-winning 65-yard TD pass to WR Phil McConkey. It was the defense that defined Welsh’s Navy teams, though, and 1978 was no exception as the Mids surrendered a paltry 11 points per game.
1996: Almost out of nowhere, the 1996 team produced Navy’s first winning season since the Mids went 6-5 in Gary Tranquill’s first year in 1982. With a spread option offense coached by Paul Johnson, players like Chris McCoy, Ben Fay, Omar Nelson, and Cory Schemm became standards against which modern Navy players are still compared. Not to be outdone was the defense, with an exceptional linebacking corps led by fan favorite Clint Bruce, and a secondary that included Gervy Alota, Rashad Smith, and Sean Andrews. The Mids went undefeated at home, and hit the road to beat Air Force, Wake Forest, and Georgia Tech. The season was capped off with an incredible 42-38 Aloha Bowl victory over an absolutely stacked Cal team coached by Steve Mariucci that included Tony Gonzalez, Deltha O’Neal, Bobby Shaw, first-round draft pick Tarik Glenn, and fourth-round pick Pat Barnes.
2004: It took 100 years after Navy’s first 10-win season for the Mids to produce a second. The 2004 team finished 10-2 while taking out Mountain West runner-up New Mexico in the Emerald Bowl. Aaron Polanco and Kyle Eckel combined for over 2,100 rushing yards, while Polanco added another 1131 and 8 TDs through the air. Yet one could argue that it was the defense that was the backbone of this team, recording the program’s first shutout in a decade and including standouts like David Mahoney, Josh Smith, Babatunde Akingbemi, and Jeremy Chase. The 34-19 Emerald Bowl win included the longest scoring drive in NCAA history and earned the Mids a #24 ranking in both polls.
2009: It took slightly less time for Navy to record its third 10-win season, with a 10-4 campaign last year. After putting a scare into Ohio State in the season opener, Navy rolled to wins over Air Force, SMU, and Wake Forest before beating Notre Dame for the second time in three years. The season ended with a lopsided 35-13 thumping of an 8-4 Missouri team in the Texas Bowl. Ricky Dobbs was the first Navy QB since Craig Candeto to both run and pass for 1000+ yards, and a resurgent defense led by Ross Pospisil and Wyatt Middleton forced 23 turnovers.