Television networks spent the past week low-lighting poor sportsmanship as a ratings tool to promote traditional college football rivalries. Fight scenes were exploited because animosity sells. It’s fed by vitriol spilling over to social media.
But that’s not the Army-Navy Game that will be renewed for the 118th time on Dec. 9 in Philadelphia. The most intense rivalry in college football might include trash-talking typical of 18-to-22-year-olds, but cheap shots and post-game excuses aren’t part of the experience.
The best way to measure the intensity combined with respect that civilian school rivals can learn from is to look at the Army-Air Force and Navy-Air Force games. Those contests earlier this year were the other two legs in the round-robin competition for the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy.
“We respect them as opponents and also as brothers in arms that will be protecting and serving this country,” Air Force senior linebacker Grant Ross explained to me a few weeks after the Falcons lost to Army, 21-0. “We have that baseline of great respect for them.”
The Army and Air Force Cadets and Navy Midshipmen don’t have to assert their manhood with taunting or posturing. They don't grab their crotch like Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield, the presumed winner of the Heisman Trophy this year despite a mission statement that includes selecting a winner based on "the pursuit of excellence and integrity." Not when they’ve shared similar experiences that began with boot camp and continued through elite academics and military training for an officer upon graduation.
Air Force’s loss to Army on Nov. 4 was the Falcons’ first at home to the Black Knights since 1977. The shutout ended a scoring streak of 307 games that was the fifth longest in the nation and dated back to 1992. It also meant Air Force, which won the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy in 2016, went 0-2 against its chief rivals. Navy edged Air Force 48-45 in October.
In other words, there was a lot of frustration that could have boiled over. But the comments from Ross and his teammates were equally respectful moments after the loss as they were weeks later. They didn’t need a couple of days to cool off and reflect.
“They’re a really good football team,” quarterback Arion Worthman said after the game. “Their defense was incredible came and hit us in the month. We had good preparation Monday through Friday, but you can’t duplicate game speed and intensity. We couldn’t match their intensity. They hit us in the mouth early and often and it showed.”
Air Force coach Troy Calhoun is reticent talking football matchups, but he didn’t spare his words praising Army.
“They played really, really well in all facets,” Calhoun said after the game. “When that happens you have a decisive game, which is what occurred today. We didn’t run the football well at all today, and that’s a credit to the opponent.”
Air Force kicker Luke Strebel also explained to me another healthy respect the academies have for each other.
“We love seeing Army and Navy doing well,” he said. “If they only lose one game to us, that’s great.”
I admitted to him I fell short in that area: My two favorite teams are Michigan State and whoever is playing Michigan.
This is one of those year’s as Army (8-3) and Navy (6-5) both have winning records entering their winner-take-all game for the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy. Civilian school rivalries could learn from the balance of intensity and respect.
If you read this and doubt the Army-Navy Game can top the intensity of Ohio State-Michigan or any of another traditional regional or in-state games heavily promoted by TV, listen to Dick Vermeil.
He’s best known as a Super Bowl winning coach with the St. Louis Rams, but he was 1-1 against USC as UCLA’s coach in the cross-town rivalry. Between his NFL stints with the Philadelphia Eagles and St. Louis Rams, he worked as a college football analyst. That included three Army-Navy Games in the 1990s.
He once said, “It’s the only game where you see all 22 players knock each other down on the opening kickoff.”
But they also help each other up. And after the game, they join their opponent to sing both schools’ alma mater. The winner goes second. That’s an honor earned and respected by both sides.
Follow Tom Shanahan’s stories on Twitter: @shanny4055