I ALMOST FORGOT

I can’t believe I’ve gone two weeks without mentioning the new USNA ads on TV. Gone are the high school AV club, public access-quality gubmint ads with 20 year-old footage. In are snazzy new productions that might be a tad cheesy, but they’re professional looking. At least they aren’t downright embarassing anymore. One thing about the Ram Vela ad… Why would he think about Coach Niumatalolo? Niumat was the offensive line coach! Meh. Creative license, I suppose.

Anyway, the main ad shows a varsity football player, a singer in the gospel choir, a volunteer in Mids For Kids, a varsity soccer player, and some kind of shipdriving simulator. My question is: how many of these things would be considered “secondary, optional, and conditional?” Only one of them looks related to warfare training. The rest appear to the same kind of “distractions” that the Superintendent railed on a year ago. Funny how now they’re what’s being used to get candidates interested in the Naval Academy in the first place. Maybe ECAs are a bit more important than you gave them credit for, eh, Admiral? Shocking.

Self-Inflicted Wounds

This is a blog about Navy sports, not general Naval Academy policy. It’s inevitable that the two subjects will collide occasionally, and when they do it’s usually bad news. Unfortunately, this doesn’t appear to be an exception.

It’s always a nervous time for Navy sports fans when a new Superintendent comes on board. Like everywhere in the Navy, the CO sets the tone for the whole command; at USNA, that includes athletics. No one person has quite the same ability to set Navy teams up for success or failure. Some Supes recognize the value of intercollegiate athletics in fulfilling the Naval Academy’s mission. Others pull out the word that keeps me awake at night: “de-emphasize.” And while I haven’t heard him say that word (yet), the new Supe, VADM Jeffrey Fowler, looks like he’s ready to de-emphasize just about everything. Or as he puts it, “minimize distractions.”

It’s apparent that when VADM Fowler arrived at USNA, he didn’t like what he saw and decided that changes had to be made. It’s hard sometimes to separate rumor from fact, especially living in Florida and not Annapolis. I’m extremely reluctant to discuss rumors as if they are facts on this blog, but a few changes have been reported widely enough that I think they’re worth addressing. These changes will have greater consequences than I think (and hope) were originally intended: mandatory study time each night (preventing mids from attending sporting events), and an end to movement orders to football games.

Last week the Superintendent wrote a letter to USNA alumni to share his vision of what the Naval Academy needs to be. He outlined three main ideas, including this:

Face of the Navy. The Naval Academy is a showplace. Every year millions of Americans view the Brigade in Annapolis or on television and walk away believing they have just seen the best of the United States Navy. We must remember that our midshipmen represent Sailors and Marines who have made the ultimate sacrifice as well as those who are forward deployed in harm’s way. Our behavior as an institution must reflect a commitment to excellence in everything we do.

In this, VADM Fowler is absolutely right. The question, then, is why he would want to lock the “Face of the Navy” behind closed doors where the American people will never see it. Navy sports are the single best recruiting tool that the Naval Academy has. Kids see midshipmen in the stands cheering for their team and want to be part of that camaraderie. I should know; I was one of those kids. Midshipmen attending sporting events are the cheapest, easiest way for the Naval Academy to reach the most people, whether it’s on the Yard or on the road. Tens of thousands of people will be at each football away game. Millions more will be watching on television. When people come to see a game at Navy, in any sport, midshipmen in the stands are what they want to see. When recruits make a visit to the Yard to watch a Navy game and see empty stands with no student support, what are they going to think? There are many ways to become a Naval officer; one of the things that set the Naval Academy apart from the others is the esprit de corps of the Brigade. When you keep midshipmen from attending sporting events, you take away the one way the American people– and potential midshipmen– can witness that esprit de corps for themselves. Want to crack down on appearance and behavior at games? Fine. Want to make sure that midshipmen who are struggling academically are focused on their studies and not the big soccer game? OK. But don’t keep the Brigade as a whole from supporting their friends and classmates on the field. Our sports teams will suffer for it, and the school in general will suffer for it. These two things should be unacceptable to an institution committed to “excellence in everything we do.”

When announcing these and other policy changes to the Brigade, VADM Fowler used the example of the Eisenhower Battle Group, which recently had a 7-month deployment with only 15 days of liberty. “Our midshipmen need to understand that’s what our Sailors are going through, and that’s who they’re going to lead,” he told reporters. I’m sure that VADM Fowler has been on enough deployments like that to understand what they do to people. They are draining, to say the least. I remember standing watch in CIC on my last deployment while my ship was pulling into Bahrain. Like several other ships, we had a telescopic video camera (with a monitor in CIC) that we used to help ID contacts and as a navigation aid. While making my way from station to station to make sure that everyone was doing their jobs, I noticed that the camera operator had locked the camera on something in the distance. It was a tree. I told him, “FC3, I don’t think that staring at that palm tree is going to keep us from hitting a fishing boat in the channel.” His response? “Sorry sir, I just forgot what a tree looked like.” I chuckled to myself because after 62 straight days underway, I think I had, too. That’s what a long deployment will do to you. The Sailors and Marines returning from cruise are exhausted. If you try to turn the Naval Academy into a 4-year deployment simulation, then the Ensigns and 2nd Lieutenants that you send to the Fleet will be exhausted too. That’s the last thing that our Sailors need. They need junior officers who are focused, excited to be there, chomping at the bit to get qualified, and injecting some energy into the Fleet. This doesn’t mean that USNA needs to be a “country club,” but it does mean that locking down the Brigade just to make them feel like they’re on a deployment probably isn’t the best approach.

Among the other changes that VADM Fowler is reportedly making is limiting what extracurricular activities are available to midshipmen. I’ve heard rumors about what ECAs might be on the chopping block, but as they’re only rumors at this point I won’t pass them on. I will say this, though: I hope the Supe is very, very careful about what ECAs are deemed as too “distracting” from Naval training. There’s a familiar quote that has been the basis for the training curriculum received by every Naval officer in this country’s history. Every plebe commits this quote to memory in order to remember what he or she is to become at the end of 4 years in Annapolis. As many of you already know, it begins like this:

It is by no means enough that an officer of the Navy should be a capable mariner. He must be that, of course, but also a great deal more. He should be as well a gentleman of liberal education, refined manners, punctilious courtesy, and the nicest sense of personal honor.

Naval officers that have served this country for generations were trained according to this philosophy, including the Superintendent himself. What VADM Fowler may consider “distracting” now could just as easily have been considered essential for over two centuries, through peace and war. Saying that “we are a nation at war” is no excuse to limit opportunities for midshipmen to grow and develop themselves in all kinds of endeavors. Naval officers are supposed to be renaissance men. They are expected to try new things and be exposed to the world around them. ECAs are as much a part of the shaping of Naval officers as their EE class. To tamper with that philosophy is to tamper with success.

There’s a lot more to this than just changing liberty policy. Those things come and go. This is a more fundamental shift in the idea of what a Naval officer should be, and I am afraid that it isn’t for the better. “Minimizing distractions” is one thing. Tunnel vision is another.

Jason Tomlinson Didn’t Graduate

That piece of WTF information comes courtesy of Bill Wagner at The Capital. It was Jason’s choice, not the result of any military or academic shortcoming.

I have no idea what he was thinking. I think it is a huge mistake. He has probably heard that a million times by now from friends and advisors, so I’m sure he doesn’t need some dude who doesn’t know him running his piehole on the internet about it. But I will say this: I spent four years rooting like hell for him. I’m not going to turn my back on him and condemn him now. I will continue to root for him in whatever he does. I just hope he knows what he is doing.

No word yet on how the Navy will have him repay the cost of his education.

In other news, don’t miss Christian Swezey’s excellent piece on Sander Gossard and other prior enlisted football players. It’ll make you proud. So will Irv Spencer’s beard!

Loose Change

Lots of chatter popping up in the last couple of days:

  • In the “ignorance is bliss” category, we have PJ’s Monday presser. Talk about a list of things you wish you didn’t know… Kaipo’s in a neck brace, none of the punters are consistent, the secondary’s all hurt, and Greg Thrasher is in PJ’s doghouse. Yeesh. I guess there’s a silver lining in that Rashawn King is recovering well from his shoulder injury, but anyone who didn’t like PJ’s media day optimism can feel better knowing that it’s back to business as usual.
  • Navy will once again be an NCAA lacrosse tournament quarterfinal host this year. The ability to host events like these were a big reason why Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium made the switch to FieldTurf, so it’s nice to see that move pay off. It’ll be nicer if it’s a Navy home game this year.
  • The unending football conference affiliation talk resumed as Chet talked to Ron Snyder about the difficulties of finding bowl games as an independent. Conference membership means a lot more than bowl game access, though. I still don’t think that this will happen anytime soon, if at all.
  • Navy’s been sold out of Army-Navy tickets for a while. Now Army is too. If you want tickets, looks like you’ll be headed to Stubhub or eBay.
  • Scout.com’s Temple site previews Navy (subscription required). For those without a subscription, it’s very complimentary, saying that Navy “might be the second-toughest team on the schedule.” In case you’re wondering, Temple plays Penn State this year.
  • Some Air Force Academy grad wants to play pro baseball. I don’t really care that much as long as this doesn’t become a habit; the Air Force will do what it thinks is best for itself. But will people PLEASE stop comparing every scrub that wants to turn pro to David Robinson? By the time Robinson played his first game in San Antonio, he had already been an Olympic medalist, a Naismith Award winner, a Wooden Award winner, on the cover of Sports Illustrated, and led Navy to the Elite Eight in the NCAA tournament. That is a far, far cry from being one of thousands of players struggling to find a place in minor league baseball. Robinson is one of the best players in the history of his sport. Karl Bolt is not. It makes a difference when the Navy or Air Force is considering an athlete’s fate.
  • Bill Wagner offers a look at college recruiting, including Billy Lange’s approach.
  • ESPN.com talks Patriot League basketball as part of their “Shoot Around” series.

Making Lemonade

With the recent introduction of Cindy Timchal’s first full recruiting class, about the only thing left for the fledgling Navy women’s lacrosse program to do is to play their first varsity game. That will probably happen in February, and I’m sure it will be a feel-good event with plenty of smiles and comments about what a great day it is for Navy sports. I’ll probably join in the celebration. My celebration, though, won’t be without concern.

I have nothing against women’s lacrosse. My unease is over any sport being added. It just seems to run counter to everything that’s been said about adding another varsity sport at the Naval Academy over the last few years. One of the best things about the athletic department at Navy is their openness, especially when compared to a lot of other schools. The “Ask the AD” section on Navysports.com, for example, is a great way for fans to get straightforward answers to their questions. Questions about adding another varsity sport are among the more common topics. Here’s one about ice hockey:

Q: An April 8, 2004 article on USCHO.com mentioned the Naval Academy recently received funding for a new hockey arena. This appears to be a big step in the direction of hockey becoming a varsity sport at the Naval Academy. In a previous response to a similar question, you said “…the two biggest hurdles we have to cross are finding appropriate resources and an adequate facility.” With the facility problem out of the way, what else stands in the way? Is there a possibility of fielding an NCAA Division I hockey team for the 2005-06 season? I would be interested in any information you can give me on your progress. Thank you. – asked by: Lance Wheeler –

A: Lance, the biggest hurdle we have is generating the annual resources necessary to sustain a competitive Division I hockey program. The operating budget can be close to half-a-million dollars for travel, uniforms, equipment, staff, supplies, and other related expenses. One thing we don’t want to do is field a varsity team without a chance to succeed.

I’m not into doing anything half way, and supporting 30 programs at this time is a real stretch on our resources. Taking on the addition of ice hockey would be another stretch, and the money would have to come from existing allocations. Unless we can find a way to generate supplemental funding in a realistic and legitimate way, we’re going to have to continue to study ice hockey as a potential varsity sport. I am, however, ambitiously approaching this project in hopes that varsity status could become a reality somewhere down the road.

Note the comment about the “real stretch on our resources.” But that’s for hockey; everyone knows that hockey would be a huge financial commitment as far as coaching, facilities, recruiting, equipment, and travel. Adding a women’s lacrosse team should be a little less demanding, right? The women’s lacrosse section seems to have disappeared from the site. There is a question about it tucked away under “Lacrosse,” though:

Q: Will Navy ever field a women’s lacrosse team? The sport is growing tremendously. – asked by: Dan Collins –

A: I think the Club women’s lacrosse program has done an outstanding job over the last few years, and I believe that women’s lacrosse in Maryland, at any institution, is a natural. Right now, however, we’re fielding 30 Division I programs, which is a stretch on our resources and support. There are a number of Clubs that would like elevation to varsity status, but it’s going to be difficult to do that until we find more opportunities for funding. I would, however, like to see it happen in the short term, if possible.

Once again we get a comment about a “stretch on our resources” and the need for an additional funding source. Well, we have a women’s lacrosse team now. Does that mean we received the funding for it? According to Chet in the official release announcing the team, “resources have been allocated.” That doesn’t sound like a new funding source to me; that sounds more like rearranging what we already had. There’s no mention of a new funding source in Bill Wagner’s writeup, either. There was something else, though:

Bolstering the case for adding women’s lacrosse is the fact Naval Academy leaders recently decided to increase the percentage of females in the Brigade of Midshipmen. That figure is growing from 17 to 20 percent, which means there will be approximately 150 more women in the brigade within a few years.

And there’s the key. Without a new revenue stream to apply to a women’s lacrosse program, the push to add women’s lacrosse wouldn’t have come from inside the athletic department. It had to have come from above; that means the superintendent.

VADM Rempt made it his mission to change the culture of the Naval Academy. More specifically, he wanted to change the way female mids are perceived by their male counterparts and create a better environment for women in general. Among the more high-profile examples of this were the changing of the lyrics to the alma mater and pushing the (COUGHridiculousCOUGH) Lamar Owens sexual misconduct court martial. Rempt’s aforementioned decision to increase the percentage of women admitted to USNA is another measure taken to reach that goal.

Adding a women’s lacrosse team would be a good way to account for 35-40 of the 150 women that the Naval Academy will add over the next four years. I firmly believe that athletics programs help to attract good candidates who otherwise would not consider the Naval Academy. That being said, I have two basic problems with the whole situation:

In case you haven’t been able to tell, my first problem is with the money and resources needed to maintain the team. If a new funding source hasn’t been identified, that means women’s lacrosse is being funded by budget cuts for the other 30 varsity teams. It isn’t like any of them were rolling in cash to begin with, either. Being forced to tell existing programs to suck it up is a lousy way to start a new program. Hopefully this won’t lead to any of our other sports eventually going the way of the now-defunct fencing team. That might be a little on the drama queen side, and it’s pure speculation on my part; but I’d still watch my back if I played squash or sprint football.

Money isn’t the only resource that’s at a premium. Land is too. As in practice fields. Where is this team going to practice? With football, men’s lax, men’s and women’s soccer, sprint football, platoon drill, and intramurals, grass is in pretty short supply on the Yard. If any club sport wants a field to use, they’re apparently going to have to reclaim more land from the Severn.

The second problem is that VADM Rempt’s plan isn’t going to work. (CAUTION: Non-sports-related rambling ahead.) The Supe was right about one thing: the Naval Academy could be a better environment for women. I wrote in another post here that people with an axe to grind against athletes at USNA use the mistakes of one as an indictment against all of them. The same can often be said for women. When one screws up, there are some who start grumbling about women in general. One woman is left being held indirectly accountable for the mistakes of someone else, even if in reality she’s a model midshipman. The way to eliminate that kind of mindset is not to admit more women. In order to admit more, the school will have to lower admission standards for women so that there are more to choose from. Doing that is going to mean more “screwups,” which will reinforce bad attitudes rather than eliminate them. The answer is to be even more selective so that the ones that do come to USNA are a bunch of fire-breathing ass-kickers ready to shine. Opinions are personal decisions that are made by individuals.  They aren’t going to change by authoritarian means; to make the attempt will only breed resentment. The culture will change when these people realize that their ideas are being proven wrong. Jennifer Harris singlehandedly changed more attitudes as her name was etched into the walls of Memorial Hall than any superintendent could ever do. As they say from the moment you first step onto the yard as a plebe– leadership by example. It’s what every midshipman respects.

It’s ironic that the timing of all this talk of a new “flagship” women’s program is at a point when the Navy women’s soccer team just completed the most successful season in any women’s sport in the history of all three service academies. They were Patriot League champions, had a win over a top 10 team, were a legitimate top 20 team themselves, and advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament. Add a nationally respected coach and one of the finest facilities in the country… If that isn’t a flagship program, then what is? This isn’t the time to be cutting their budget. This is the time to scrape together as much money as we can find to try to add to the momentum.

My concern over the women’s lacrosse team should not be interpreted as malevolence. These women are still going to be wearing the Blue and Gold, and as such they will be one more team for me to live and die by. My worries are no reason not to offer the support and admiration I give to every other team. But it’s that support of the other 30 teams that causes me to worry about the effects of the 31st.

It isn’t like there’s anything sinister behind this. Hell, I could be completely nuts and there actually was a new funding source. I doubt it, though. So for now I can only sit back and cheer the team on while Chet G. tries to make lemonade out of the apparent lemon that was handed to him. Time will tell if he succeeds.