My usual routine is to disappear from the blog at the end of football season as I catch up on the various things that I neglect in the fall. I wasn’t intending to do the same this year, but the real world doesn’t take my plans into consideration. It’s unfortunate, because there has been a lot to talk about over the last few months.
The biggest news, obviously, was Buddy Green’s retirement. I tried more than once to write something up about it, but I quickly came to the realization that I’m not really qualified to do so. A retrospective on a career like Buddy’s deserves insight and reflection from the people who know him best, not some mawkish prose from a blogger he’s never heard of. Fortunately, Bill Wagner provided a proper reflection here, as part of his writeup on Green’s selection for the Steve Belichick Coach’s Award by the Touchdown Club of Annapolis. I’m sure you’ve read it by now, but if you haven’t, you need to.
If you read this blog with any regularity, you probably aren’t surprised when I say that I hold coaches in high regard. To be a successful coach, one must be equal part teacher, planner, strategist, statistician, and salesman, all while putting up with criticism from people who think they know way more about your job than they actually do. It’s difficult, high-pressure work, and only those at the very top of the ladder make any money for their efforts. Most coaches do what they do out of a love for the game and the kids who play it, and that sentiment, along with a love for the Naval Academy, is clearly reflected in Wagner’s profile:
“I could never, ever explain how special it’s been to coach here at Navy,” Green said. “This institution stands for so much and the mission is so important that it’s a real honor to be associated with the Naval Academy. Above all else, I’ve had an opportunity to work with some of the finest young men you would ever want to meet. This is the greatest place and coming here was the best move I’ve ever made in my life.”
That’s a great quote, and the article is one of Wags’ best. I still think there’s a little bit more that could be said, though, when it comes to Coach Green’s on-field impact. While I’m not in a position to speak about the man, I do have a little bit to say about his work, and what it has meant to the Navy football program.
Because it’s so unique (and so misunderstood), Navy’s offense tends to get top billing with fans and media. Right or wrong, the triple option is the team’s identity, and the defense doesn’t always get the credit it deserves for the Mids’ run of success over the last decade-plus. While the lion’s share of accolades might go to the offense, it’s been Navy’s ability to make the offense and defense work together to control games that has led to the success the program enjoys today.
Coach Green came to the Naval Academy after his second stint as defensive coordinator at NC State. The unit he had taken over in Raleigh was mediocre at best, ranking in the bottom half of the ACC and 56th nationally in scoring defense. After only two years, Green had turned them into a top-25 unit that was second in the conference in the same category. When he came to Navy in 2002, he hoped the same approach that worked for him at NC State would succeed at his new gig. It did not.
The 2002 season got off to a promising start, with the defense holding SMU to 7 points and grabbing two interceptions in the Mids’ season-opening win. It didn’t last, though. Injuries plagued the Navy defense all year, and their attacking style only led to pass after pass going over their heads. The Mids gave up 40+ points in each of their next four games, and only held two other teams– Rice and Army– to less than 30. After the season, Coach Johnson and Coach Green evaluated the team’s performance and decided to make some changes.
The first thing that they did with the defense was switch from a 4-3 to a 3-4. This was more of a personnel move than a schematic one; Green’s defenses have always used multiple fronts. The goal was to both make the defense faster, and to help recruiting.
By replacing a lineman with a linebacker, the Mids would give up a little size up front, but would hopefully gain some speed to help them run to the ball. Since Navy was already undersized to begin with, they weren’t sacrificing too much. They could still put four guys on the line of scrimmage if they wanted too, and maybe a linebacker would be a little faster in getting to the quarterback. Besides, there are far more athletes the size of a typical linebacker than there are defensive linemen who can run. Moving to a 3-4 would put more of the best athletes that Navy could recruit onto the field.
The second thing that Johnson and Green did was to put a renewed focus on shortening the game. Navy’s defensive struggles were not entirely their fault; the offense didn’t help matters by committing 35 turnovers in 2002. That put the defense in difficult situations and led to otherwise promising games getting out of hand. Johnson made ball security a point of emphasis for the offense, which led to longer drives. On defense, Green changed to a bend-but-don’t-break approach that was designed to prevent giving up the big play. Opposing offenses would be forced into extended drives of their own, making it difficult for them to open up a big lead. With fewer possessions in the game, Navy would more often than not be in a position to win in the fourth quarter.
The plan worked better than anyone could have hoped. Green’s defense made statistical leaps that barely seemed possible. Navy was 100th in the country in total defense and 108th in scoring defense in 2002. In 2003, they finished 34th in both categories. They had the 14th-ranked pass defense that year, up from 61st a year earlier. Navy won eight games and went to their first bowl game since 1996, an incredible feat considering that the team was 3-30 from 2000-2002. The blueprint for success had been established. Navy, in controlling the clock on both sides of the ball, has put together winning seasons in 12 of the last 13 years, its longest run of success since posting 14 winning records in the 15 years from 1916-1930.
It is said that in any field of human endeavor– whether it’s engineering, art, literature, design, etc.– people often do their best work when given constraints. Limitations force them to be creative in order to meet their goals. The axiom certainly applied to Coach Green; while the general idea was to bend-but-don’t-break, he found all kinds of ways to work within that strategy. Against Army, he kept things simple and made sure his players were fundamentally sound against the option. Against Missouri, he drew up the crazy “Star Wars Defense” with two down linemen and linebackers coming from every direction. Whatever scheme he’d come up with, he would put his players in a position to make plays.
And boy, did they make plays. There’s Bobby McClarin’s diving pass breakup with the “club” against Air Force. The goal line stand against New Mexico. Tyler Tidwell’s three sacks in the Poinsettia Bowl. Ram Vela’s flying leap against Notre Dame. Wyatt Middleton’s fumble return against Army. Jordan Drake’s interception return against Indiana. Clint Sovie’s Temple miracle. So many pivotal moments of the last 13 years were the product of Coach Green’s guidance. Before Buddy Green, Navy hadn’t recorded a shutout since 1994. They hadn’t shut out a I-A opponent since 1981. They hadn’t had back-to-back shutouts over major college opposition since 1955. Under Green, Navy achieved all these things and more.
I haven’t said anything here that most Navy fans didn’t already know. It’s important, though, to lay Coach Green’s accomplishments out there to understand just how much of an impact he’s had on the Navy football program. It is immense, and I hope Navy fans appreciate that. Buddy Green was the right man to lead the Navy defense at the right time.