NAVY BEAT Army three in a row in the early '60s. So West Point put the skates on Dale Hall, big, stoic, by-the-book coach. Tried to lure Vince Lombardi, but he'd been there, done that, and besides, he had a dynasty brewing in Green Bay.
So Army hired Paul Dietzel, who had won a national championship at LSU. Called his defensive guys "Chinese Bandits." Sent them screeching, swarming after the quarterback, from unorthodox angles.
Had Wayne Hardin, the Navy coach, drooling. First time he faced Dietzel, in '62, he had Chinese calligraphy stenciled on every gold Navy helmet. "Beat" on one side, "Army" on the other.
Dietzel wasn't shocked. Angry, but not shocked. First time they'd met, Dietzel had proposed swapping gifts, autographed photos. Dietzel sent Hardin a portrait he signed, "Best wishes, Paul Dietzel."
Hardin sent him a 8-by-10 of himself signed, "Beat Army!!!"
"I threw it away, that really hacked me off," Dietzel recalls in the CBS documentary, "Marching On, the 1963 Army-Navy game." It is a solemn, sanitized film, the game played 15 days after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.
JFK loved football. Played jayvee at Harvard until back miseries ended that. Played those sweaty, serious games of touch football on the lawn at Hyannis Port. Loved the Army-Navy game. Changed sides at halftime because that was tradition, but he was a Navy guy, PT-109, so his heart stayed on the Navy side.
The film has that halftime scene from the '62 game, JFK walking through a corridor formed by cadets and midshipmen. This fan comes out of the stands, wobbling to within 10 feet of the President of the United States before he's wrestled to a stop. Grim foreshadowing, indeed.
You watch the film you get glimpses of the wizardry of Roger Staubach. Talk about extending plays. Jolly Roger scampers right, scampers left, retreats, steps up, finally throws a dart downfield for another Navy first down. Navy 34, Army 14.
Hardin recalls walking under the stands, on his way to the jubilant clubhouse. "The president is in his limo, driving by," he says. "He rolls down the window and gives me a big thumbs-up."
Staubach, bless his heart, remembers the harsh culture shock of plebe year at the Academy. "You had to shine your shoes every day," he groaned. "But then I realized you had to put discipline into your life."
Back in the day, this was big-time football and the Daily News treated it appropriately. One writer (me) to Annapolis, one writer to West Point the week before the game. Slept in the Oar House, alongside the river. Ate steaks and the best ice cream in America.
Got a thorough scouting report on Army from Steve Belichick, Navy assistant coach. Too bad he didn't pass his warmth and wit along to his son Bill, who is in the film.
Hardin always had some trickeration prepared, but he let us watch practice after we pledged not to write about the weird stuff, like the time he painted the receiver helmets fluorescent orange, saying his quarterback was color blind. Huh? How did the guy pass the Naval Academy physical?
Back to the '63 game, a classic that ended clumsily, chaotically, controversially. The government had mandated a month of mourning for the slain president. The NFL played that weekend and Pete Rozelle never shed that cloud of shame. The Army-Navy game was in doubt, until Jackie Kennedy gave her approval, knowing how much it meant to her husband.
"I told my guys," Hardin says, "to play a game fit for a president."
Navy did, and so did Army. The Cadets took a 7-0 lead, but the Midshipmen, wearing the slogan, "Drive for Five" on their jerseys, tied it 7-7 before halftime. Army found a way to muffle Staubach, but fullback Pete Donnelly scored three times for Navy and the Middies led 21-7.
Army scored and quarterback Rollie Stichweh ad-libbed a two-pointer and it was 21-15. Stichweh somehow recovered an onsides kick and here came Army downfield. Marched inside the 10 with 98 seconds left, bedlam in the stands, the ground shaking, Stichweh pleading for timeouts so he could call signals that could be heard.
Three running plays gain 5 yards. Time for one last play. Stichweh pirouettes away from the center and begs for one more timeout. The officials ignore him, time runs out, Navy's Tom Lynch grabs the football. Game over, Navy wins.
In the film, Stichweh talks about his failure to get that one last play off. "At West Point there are only three answers, yes sir, no sir and no excuse sir," he explains. "It was my job to get that final play off so the answer is 'No excuse, sir.' "