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.

57 thoughts on “G.O.A.T. GOATS

  1. tphuey

    I vote for the 1978 team, only because Leszczynski and McConkey were my classmates.

    The 79 teams wasn’t too shabby either, as I recall. Were they the team that gave Ohio State a scare in the Liberty Bowl?

  2. navyrugger

    81 was the team that lost to tOSU 31-28, although we scored with just a few seconds left to make it that close.

    Interesting that those that deride today’s emphasis on athletics are either ignorant of the WWII era team’s practices……or just choose conveniently to not recall.

  3. Tim

    Criteria: Gratitude.

    Entering USNA in the summer of 1986 from a non-Navy family, my immersion in Navy football was quintessential love/hate: loved the experience, hated the results. Apart from one shining moment (a visit from the blessed Saint Frank Schenk), I was commissioned assuming that Navy football fans were destined to play the part of Job in the Biblical CFB play. A beaten fan, at the ripe old age of 22.

    And then, after a teaser in 1995, Navy football did something I and many of my generation assumed wasn’t even possible anymore: they WON. They played tough, disciplined, imaginative football. They beat the Zoombags at a time when a Zoombag win was a mighty special thing (and the notion of seven years of Zoombag pwnership was right out). They gave George O’Leary’s manhood such a dent that he felt compelled to re-pay to the tune of 159-34 over the next 5 years. Yes, they lost a fifth straight heart-breaker to Army; I still remember the tears shed in the pouring rain. But I also remember the joy at learning they earned the first Navy bowl berth in my memory, the “happy to be here” attitude in the early moments of the Aloha Bowl, the “Holy Sh*t – we can beat these guys” sensation in the fourth quarter…

    And then…Ben Fay danced.

    Most of all, I remember the phone call with my closest classmate immediately afterward: “Well, we might as well die now, we’ve seen the greatest Navy football we’ll ever see in our lifetime.”

    Without a doubt, the 1996 team is the best team in Navy history.

  4. Rob

    How can you have a greatest Navy team that didn’t beat Army? Logically, is that an admission that Army has fielded a greater football team than Navy ever has?

  5. DJ

    Unfortunately, I only have memories of 3 teams, so I am biased. I have heard from some oldtimers that while 63 was more celebrated, 54/57/60 were just as impressive, so I don’t know.

    I think 2004 was an important team as it gave PJ’s Navy tenure it’s signature moments: first bowl win, the “drive”, dramatic win at AF, household name with Eckel. However, people forget that New Mexico was not just the only winning team that Navy beat that year, but also the only winning D-1 team they played. They were beat solidly by a .500 ND team and blown out by a below average Tulane team.

    On the other hand, the 2009 teams had a better bowl win (Missouri) in a bigger bowl. Their AF win, while at home, was against a better AF team who beat Houston in a bowl. And they beat ND with the same .500 record, albeit with a slightly softer schedule. Also beat SMU, who won a bowl game. The 4 losses were double that of 2004, but one was a close one at the Rose Bowl champs. Another loss at Pitt, who was one point away from a BCS bowl. The Temple loss at home was bad in name only, as they were much improved and went to a bowl. The Hawaii loss was tough to swallow though.

  6. jgish92

    Tim is only a couple years ahead of me so my Navy Football Fan story is similar to his. In addition, it was April of ’96 when I left my ship in Pearl Harbor and arrived at shore duty in DC. ’96 was a gift from the Almighty. Maybe it’s just my softening memory, but I also feel like the ’96 team did what they did before the schedule softening applied by Chet and PJ in this current run.

    It’s impossible to compare teams from different eras, but the ’96 team will always be my favorite………until this fall.

  7. jgish92

    7 BCS schools, before there was a BCS; granted Rutgers and Wake then aren’t Rutgers and Wake now, and Army was good then. I don’t know, it looks like a pretty challenging schedule to me. Wasn’t Tulane good then? Shaun King, et al?

    10 – 6 W Sep 7, 1996
    -vs Southern Methodist
    19 – 17 W Sep 21, 1996
    -Boston College
    38 – 43 L Sep 28, 1996
    -vs Duke
    64 – 27 W Oct 5, 1996
    -Air Force
    20 – 17 W Oct 12, 1996
    -Wake Forest
    47 – 18 W Oct 26, 1996
    -at Notre Dame
    27 – 54 L Nov 2, 1996
    -vs Delaware
    30 – 14 W Nov 9, 1996
    -vs Tulane
    35 – 21 W Nov 16, 1996
    -Georgia Tech
    36 – 26 W Nov 23, 1996
    -vs Army
    24 – 28 L Dec 7, 1996
    42 – 38 W Dec 25, 1996

  8. Tulane was pretty bad that year, IIRC. That was pre-Bowden. I’m pretty sure Duke was winless. Rutgers & Wake were terrible. Scheduling those teams meant something different before they started getting BCS millions and ramping up their programs.

    Charlie wanted to stop playing I-AA teams and to step up the schedule in general.

  9. Ned67

    1963–being a Plebe during that football season was heaven..lost one regular season game, to SMU (but beat Army in 150’s that weekend!) so had carry-on every weekend…Roger was on every magazine cover and we played for nat’l championship in Cotton Bowl..that team has to be tops

  10. Tim and I must be classmates, because Saint Schenck is my favorite Navy football player in all history. He made THE KICK that prevented our class from seeing four consecutive losses to Army. We couldn’t watch, but we watched anyway, and he split the uprights!

    And much as I love the ’96 team, my vote goes to 2009. A tough defense, a prolific offense, and a second victory over Notre Dame in three years!

  11. Gary Knight

    As much as I enjoyed watching every home game of the 2009 team, the 1963 team had to be the greatest! I was in high school and the papers were filled with Roger’s weekly exploits. The Cotton Bowl was a hard fought game, and Texas definitely deserved to be #1. But that 1963 team was legendary!

    Too bad Roger had to go play for the hated Cowboys!

  12. EKWJR

    63 and before is very, very tough to call.. you did a great job of describing those earlier teams…

    the 63 team, when I was 12 years old, was the first Navy team I remember… I was from the desert Southwest and even there Roger Staubach was a household name and national hero, which tells how big a deal that Navy team was…in fact, watching that team started my dream to become a midshipman someday…

    since 63, two teams stand taller than the rest IMO:

    78 and 04

    there obviously have been some other fine teams, especially 96 and then the 2003 and on run, but these two are the most Special so far IMO…

    it remains to be seen if the win over Missouri in Houston last December is a springboard to greater things, but that win has potential to mark another historic rise, much akin to the 2003 win over Air Force…I sure hope so…

  13. navyrugger

    What greater things are we talking about here? top 25 or something? That is great for Navy in today’s game. But back in the day Navy was a player on the national scene. I don’t think you can make the case for years that don’t meet that standard.

  14. EKWJR

    top 25 votes and more appearances in the lower tier top 25…but we’re gonna find out real quick against maryland if it is possible…

  15. Ron Buschbom

    I was on the 63 team and we had some great players. we had to play both ways and didn’t have the inequities of size and talent the teams of today face. since I have a conflict I say the 2004 and 57 teams are my favorites.

  16. nick markoff

    we played on both sides of the ball… and against nationally ranked teams and we were # 2 in the nation.. The 63 team wins because of those requirements alone.


    The 57 team was the best. The write up should have mentioned Tony Antony and Pete Jokonovich who were the real steady performers. No one ever ever could run to their sdide.

  18. Turner Taylor

    What about the greatest Navy game? I know a lot that come close, but I can think of none as unpredictably spectacular as the 1950 Army game. If memory serves correctly, Army #2 in the country, undefeated, #1 in offense, three plus touchdown favorite. Navy with one win entering the game. At halftime, I think Army had minus17 yards of offense! Navy scored all the points in the game, including Army’s two when it intentionally gave up a safety. At the time, that game was called the “upset of the century”. Greatest team? ’63 Tee

  19. navy68

    I see that the ’63 team has a couple of ringers voting… lol… I too voted for ’63…. How’s Fred doing? best game I ever saw was the Army win that season….. Pitt game close second

  20. Ray Snyder

    I vote for the 1963 team. Compare the schedule played that year against all others. No comparison.
    The schedules in recent years takes those teams completely out of the competition. “57 was a great team also.

  21. Actually, if you’re going to compare schedules, the ’63 team’s doesn’t stack up as well as some of the others here, including ’57. If I was ranking the schedules of these teams, I’d put the ’43 team’s at #1.

  22. Navy41

    Ray-You really can’t compare eras, which makes this discussion fun but impossible. Not sure it is fair to say recent teams should be out of the competition because there are more good players now than ever before (IE the Central Michigans and the East Carolina’s of the world are very good now and weren’t back then).

  23. fish79

    Our 78 team may not have posted the best record (although the strength of our schedule was probably tuff to beat) and we may not have fielded the most physically talented roster. What made that team great was an indomitable wiil to overcome adversity and find a way to win. It was a shared bond throughout the roster, inspired by a senior class with a cast of characters the like of which may not have been seen in Annapolis since 79.

    It was also this team that proved to the school and Navy fans that Navy really could win at this level in the modern era. After lackluster and disappointing results dating back to 64, many were questioning whether Navy belonged at this level of NCAA football. The 78 team put Navy back on the national football map after a long drought, much like the 96 team did after the mid 80’s to mid 90’s doldrums.

    Omnis Viri

  24. kevin

    Based on Mike’s write-ups 1910 can’t be beat. They didn’t get scored on all season. Can you imagine if that happened now?

    In 2nd place is 1957

  25. navyrugger

    The 78 team was a great one and the first bowl team since 63, but the schedule was actually not that strong. UVA, UCONN, Boston College, and Air Force were the first four games and they were all terrible. UVA was 2-9 and lost to VMI, Air Force was 3-8, UCONN was still 1-AA and BC was 0-11. Duke was 4-7. Syracuse was 1-7 when we lost to them and ended up 3-8. William and Mary was 5-5-1 playing a mostly 1-AA schedule. The only teams that were any good were Pitt, ND and Florida State. We beat Pitt and got smacked by the other two.

  26. Gotta be ’63…and I need to point out that was the class of 64!!! I was priviledged to spend the ’60 thru ’63 seasons at USNA, and challenge any pundits out there to top Bellino thru Staubach!

  27. John H. WITZMANN 58

    One must remember that at the conclusion of the 1957 season Coach Eddie Eardalatz claimed that the1957 squad was the best he ever coached. This would disqualify all of his previous teams. Incidently in later years Coach Steve Belecheck continually gave credit to ” Eddie as a coach who was BEYOND HIS TIME”. Witz.

  28. tony a

    thanks larry boyer from pete me igot a big laugh from your comment you too Barbara ITS TOUGH GOING BACK THAT FAR ITS A FLIP OF THE COIN ON THE QUESTION I LIKE NAVY

  29. JimBear

    You guys are lost., the best team was who can forget .. ahh.ahh.. the1926 Mids ! Led by Navy Bill Ingram one of the most innovative coaches in his time., He mixed single and double wing formation with reverses and men in motion. Tom Hamilton, a three sport athlete at Navy, who played both tailback, wing back, defense and led the nation in drop kicked field goal.Who can forget.,.. wait…wait..it’ll come to me… the speedy Alan Sharpley.
    You think we’re loaded with slots now well in my day we had shapley, caldwell, Hannegan,. Ransford and Schuber in the backfield!!
    Frank Wickhorst blocked for Red Grange before he came to Navy daggamit…where’s my dentures.. Wickhorst is a Hall of Famer.

    Ok, enough fun.While the few left who may have watched this team is probably gumming apple sauce in a nursing home right now I pick the 1926 Mids. 9-0-1 and outscored oppenents 236-88.

    As much as I love the current teams these guys have the biggest pelt on the wall. A piece of the National Championship. That is something no other Navy team will do. Sorry Deli.






  31. Anonymous

    Say what you want regarding strength of schedule for the ’78 team, but they played only 3 games at home that year. The team started the season on the road for FOUR straight games, then home for 3 in a row, to compile a 7-0 record(after beating a Pitt team that had won the National Championship just 2 years prior) and a #11 National ranking. The defense was #1(statistically) in the land at the time. Then, ND in Cleveland, @ Syracuse and @ Florida St., before finishing the regular season in Philly against Army. Of course the thrilling, come from behind win vs. BYU and their 2 future NFL QB’s(Jim McMahon and Mark Wilson) in the first ever Holiday Bowl to cap a glorious year!

  32. Norman (Bat) Masterson

    I vote for the 1963 team. Bruce Abel was my roommate and 2nd class year was first string quaterback until Staubach got in for a play.

  33. Wayne Lynn

    Certainly the greatest Navy team in the last 65 years was the 1963 team. Read the book The President’s Team for independent corraboration. Pre-WWII teams are hard to compare. It was a different sort of game then.

  34. Harry Hurst

    ’57 had the best line of any Navy team and all four starting backs were AP Back of the Week – only matched by the Four Horseman. The depth of this team was unmatched.

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