That Was the Rivalry That Was: Decline of the Army-Navy Game

IT may be too harsh to call the Army-Navy football game ``the rivalry that time forgot,'' but certainly the contest's stature has declined considerably in the postwar era. When played Saturday at Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium, halfway between West Point and Annapolis, the game will bring together squads with identical losing marks of 3-7.

Army has lost to Boston University, a lower-division team, and Navy counts among its defeats a 59-21 spanking by Bowling Green, a good team but no Penn State or Nebraska.

As a colleague has pointed out, this is far cry from the days of Doc Blanchard and Glen Davis at Army, when the Black Knights were rated No. 1 in the country. Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside played on the nation's top team in 1944 and `45, but the intervening years have brought much change to college football and the academies.

For one, the growth of TV coverage and intersectional games has spread the glamour once enjoyed by ``national'' schools - Army, Navy, Notre Dame, and others - among many colleges. Nowadays, one sees countless games, hyped as significant, before Army and Navy roll into Philadelphia.

The move toward heavy specialization (the so-called two-platoon system) probably hasn't helped the academies either. Victory today doesn't necessarily go to the fittest and most versatile, but to the biggest, fastest, and strongest. (The academies, however, sometimes match up size-wise. Army's offensive line averages 275 pounds, making it the heftiest in Cadet history.)

Then there are the decidedly military-related factors:

* The Vietnam War, which removed the romance from attending the academies. (Many young people grew antimilitary during the 1960s and `70s.)

* The elimination of the military draft, which once kept military service (and indirectly the academies) in many minds.

* Postgraduate military obligations - now six years at West Point - required of academy graduates. This virtually precludes anyone with serious pro ambitions from attending the academies, although scattered exceptions remain.

Ironically, the Air Force Academy has in part eclipsed its service brethren. Whereas Army and Navy have avoided conference commitments, which would greatly limit their scheduling options, Air Force has benefited from membership in the Western Athletic Conference, which has given it a realistic goal that Army and Navy don't have - a league championship. Air Force also is a good fit for the WAC, which isn't quite at the level of other major conferences.

Air Force has won the Commander in Chief's Trophy, given to the winner of the annual three-pronged service academy rivalry, more regularly than Army or Navy in recent years, including this season. Army has had its good teams, though, gaining invitations to three bowls - Cherry, Peach, and Sun - during the 1980s.

EVEN if Army-Navy has slipped from the realm of a ``don't-miss'' classic, it remains something of a national treasure. ABC continues to put it on national TV with the schools accommodating by playing in December to avoid going head-to-head with bigger games. ABC's contract to televise the game runs out next year, but then CBS picks it up for five years.

No matter what the caliber of competition, fans - including the full corps of Cadets and Middies in attendance - know they will see a fiercely contested game played by real students.

And perhaps no other rivalry is more even. Army has won 44 times, Navy 43 times, with seven ties.

Recently the games have gone down to the wire: The outcome was decided in the last 12 seconds in 1992, and the last six seconds a year ago.

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