Patriotism is fashionable again, so rush out and get yourself a congressional appointment to the service academy of your choice. Because with Army and Air Force undefeated and with Navy having a Heisman Trophy contender, the only thing better than being a peacetime cadet or plebe is being an academy football star.
A good degree, a guaranteed job and serving the flag have become considerable selling points again for the U.S. Military, Naval and Air Force academies, and if you don't think that's accurate, then check out the Cadets' 4-0 record; the Midshipmen's national all-purpose rushing leader, Napoleon McCallum, and the Falcons' No. 12 ranking and 5-0 record.
Air Force had a staggering 42,000 letters of inquiry this year, antiwar sentiment is so old it's textbook material and young urban upwardly mobiles are substituting free education for free love.
Navy's athletic director, Capt. Bo Coppedge, said, "What do you call those people? Yuppies. They're interested in achievement and eating those thick steaks. So they want to get a good education and a good job and that's what the service academies offer."
It really wasn't all that long ago that the academies' representatives were told to stay away by some high schools. Now, with the rise in the number and quality of prospective cadets and plebes, the academies' football teams are suddenly finding it's a lot easier to recruit than it was in, say, 1968, when the corps couldn't march onto the field without getting pelted with orange peels.
"Our coaches went to one high school where the guidance counselors were so against the war in Vietnam that they wouldn't even let us talk to the kids," Coppedge said. "Educators in general were liberally oriented everywhere, and they didn't believe in us. We were war mongers."
Part of the military's football resurgence is due to a more competitive attitude among the athletic programs. Navy's Coppedge, who retired from active service in 1970, became the first athletic director at a service academy to hold the post as a civilian rather than as part of a service tour of duty. One of the first things Coppedge tried to do was improve the military image on high school campuses and turn the Naval Academy's long recruiting arm to athletics, instead of simply relying on walk-ons from the entering plebe classes.
Army now has 450 field officers involved in academy-wide recruiting, and 1,000 cadets each year are sent to speak at high schools. A recent survey at West Point showed that only 1.69 percent of the entering cadets selected the academy because of its athletics, but third on the list was overall reputation, which is helped considerably by athletic teams. At Navy, 82 percent of the plebe class played a varsity sport of some kind in high school.
"We still rely a great deal on the individuals who just come out for football," Army Coach Jim Young said. "If interest in the academies is greater in the country, it's bound to carry over to football."
Economics has played a large part, as well. Education costs are rising, and student aid isn't. All service academy cadets and plebes are on scholarship, and with no declared war, the required tour of duty as an officer afterward is a comforting assurance of employment rather than a drawback.
"The costs of education are not getting any less expensive, and we're in a period of uncertainty about scholarships," said Lt. Gen Willard Scott, West Point superintendent. "The military academies are all on scholarships. I wouldn't discount that, as the attitude toward academies has swung, so have the athletic teams."
None of this is to say that the academies are going to start stealing talent from Oklahoma. The academies are never going to be able to get the large linemen or the skilled blue chip players, simply because nationwide recruiting is so intense and the academies' service commitments usually preclude professional football careers. So they have settled for careful screening to find athletes who may have been overlooked, and have come up with quite a few.
Navy's McCallum was largely unrecruited out of high school and suddenly blossomed in his junior season. He leads the nation this season with an average of 222.5 all-purpose rushing yards a game, and is threatening to break Darrin Nelson's all-time NCAA record.
With the new wave of conservativism nationwide has come new respect for the students. Air Force quarterback Bart Weiss like to tell the story about the time his roommate was pulled over for a traffic infraction and the policeman called him "sir."
McCallum gave up the chance to be a potentially high NFL draft pick by remaining at the academy rather than transferring to a non-service school, and has, on occasion, been a reluctant Midshipman because of it. But he took undisguised pleasure in being called "sir" when he took his girlfriend for a walk recently.
"There are a lot of people who feel it," he said. "You see examples of kids on the streets and you don't like what they're doing, so you come to the academy to be different. You want to change a little, get yourself on the right road . . . Respect comes faster because you're in uniform. They do say 'sir' to you. My girlfriend thought it was weird, but it's neat. Respect is something that comes from working hard.
"It's earned, so it's nice to have."