By Camille Powell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 9, 2009
It is 3 o'clock on Wednesday afternoon, and Navy's defensive coordinator is sitting where he is always sitting. Buddy Green is in a chair inside the defensive staff room, his feet up on a table and a pair of reading glasses perched on his nose. Assistant Joe Speed, who coaches the Midshipmen's secondary, sits on his right, and the two men quietly go about studying film and drawing up alignments.
"Any time of the day you can come by and I'm in that chair. Four in the morning, and I'm there," said Green, who's in his third decade as a college coach. "It doesn't matter where you coach, you better have your guys as prepared as you can. But it's even more important here."
The Midshipmen (3-2), who travel to Rice (0-5) on Saturday, are best known for their triple-option offense. But over the past season and a half, as Coach Ken Niumatalolo often points out, their strength has been their defense. That was certainly the case this past Saturday, when Navy held Air Force's offense to a pair of field goals in a 16-13 overtime win; Green was presented with one of the game balls.
Coaching football at a service academy, particularly on the defensive side of the ball, presents a certain kind of challenge. The average weight of a Navy defensive lineman is 251 pounds. Navy's starting outside linebackers stand 5 feet 9 and 5-11, and neither weighs more than 200 pounds.
"We go to a school that demands a lot academically and militarily, so our time [devoted to football] is slim compared to other schools," junior safety Wyatt Middleton said. "We don't sleep as much or eat as well as all the other athletes. So what's important is that we understand the game and we know our assignments and we know what to do. Our coaches work really hard to make sure they always put us in the right position to make plays."
That starts with Green, who came to Navy in 2002 when Paul Johnson was hired as coach and stayed on when Niumatalolo was promoted to replace Johnson in December 2007. The hallmark of his defense isn't the scheme -- Navy runs a 3-4 -- but is the passion and relentlessness with which the Midshipmen play.
"They're very sound. You're not going to get big plays against them, and they're not going to make errors," Ohio State Coach Jim Tressel said in early September, before the Buckeyes' 31-27 victory over Navy in the season opener. "They play fast, and they play at you. . . . There's no doubt that they know what they're doing. You're going to have to earn every inch against them."
Green, 56, played defensive back for Lou Holtz at North Carolina State in the early 1970s, and later did two stints as defensive coordinator at his alma mater (1990-93 and 2000-01). In between, he served as head coach at Tennessee-Chattanooga, where he helped develop a wide receiver by the name of Terrell Owens. (Incidentally, in interviews over the years, Green has described Owens as humble and shy, and a player who rarely caused problems for the coaches.)
But Green has always considered himself to be a teacher, first and foremost. His first job after college was teaching high school English in North Carolina; he wrote a play called "High Hopes" that his students performed, and he had a handful of poems published by a regional literary magazine. (Neither the play nor the poems were about football.) He also coached football, baseball and girls' basketball.
"You have to teach players, so when they go out there they don't hesitate," said Green's son Todd, who works with the Navy football program as an assistant video coordinator. "You can take someone that might not be as fast running a straight-line 40-yard dash, but you can play faster if you know what you're doing. You can play like a 4.3 40 if you know in your mind: 'Boom! This is what's coming.' "
At practice, Green is intense and demanding. The older Midshipmen look for visual clues to decipher his mood; if Green takes off his visor, "you know something is wrong," safety Emmett Merchant said. But if he's walking around making small talk, "that's how you know Coach Green is happy," Middleton said.
During the winter, Green was briefly hospitalized with an infection in his small intestine; the pain was so bad that he could barely walk. But he still attended Navy's two-week-long conditioning program, with sessions starting at 5:30 a.m. on one of the outdoor turf fields. He drove his car up to the field and watched.
"I don't know if defenses should reflect their coordinators. But I think in this instance, the tough personality he has, we definitely look to him for inspiration," said Rashawn King, a three-year starter at cornerback who's now serving as a graduate assistant coach. "He gets after you. He challenges you. But he lives it, too."
On Thursday evenings after practice, the defensive backs gather in Green's office to watch tape, and he lets them order pizza if they won the previous game. And at the academy, pizza "is definitely a treat," Merchant said.
Niumatalolo encourages his coaches to find some balance in their lives; he doesn't want them spending 24 hours a day in the football offices. Green, however, is a challenge. During the offseason, he likes to play golf with his son, and Green plays often enough to keep his handicap around 6. But he never picks up his clubs during the season. And he's always the first coach to arrive at Ricketts Hall and he's one of the last coaches to leave every day.
"I have no idea what time he gets here, and I don't know if he leaves," Niumatalolo said. "He's always sitting in that same spot, in that office, in that chair, either doodling or watching tape. You always know where to find him. You don't have to look too far."