The quarterback, Bill Byrne, finds it difficult to speak above a whisper. The coach, Gary Tranquill, is even more pensive than usual. The star running back, Napoleon McCallum, isn't talking at all. It's so quiet you can hear a pen marking the Ls in the record book.
Navy has experienced just about everything that can go wrong in one football season, and all in the plural: penalties, interceptions, bad breaks and upsets. That three of the losses have come by a total of eight points is cause for some hard thinking among the Midshipmen. They think they very well could be 4-1, which is more like what they expected when McCallum returned for a fifth year as a Heisman Trophy candidate and Byrne returned from a broken leg.
"We don't feel like a 1-4 team," said a subdued Byrne, clearly dismayed by the team's dreadful start.
Navy is a team in trouble, and so, perhaps, is Tranquill, whose record at Annapolis is 14-23-1. Although Navy administrators will not discuss the length or amount of Tranquill's contract, he is believed to be in the fourth year of a five-year deal, and terms appear to be flexible on both sides for the final year.
Navy plays host to Lafayette, its second Division I-AA opponent, today at 2 p.m. at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, and a loss clearly would be disastrous for Tranquill and the Midshipmen. They are heading into the heart of their schedule, with games against Pittsburgh, Notre Dame, Syracuse, South Carolina and Army. A strong finish probably would erase the memory of losses to Division I-AA Delaware, Indiana, North Carolina and Air Force and give Tranquill some job security.
"I don't think we're a 1-4 team, either," said Tranquill, who also says the only pressure he's under is self-imposed. "They think they can win, and something has to get them over the hump. If we had gotten blasted three or four times, maybe we wouldn't see any light at the end of the tunnel. So maybe there's even more frustration because we've been so close."
Winning at Navy always has been a bet-you-can't proposition, but it has been done, most recently by Tranquill's predecessor, Virginia's George Welsh. He had a 55-46-1 record in nine years at the Academy and went to bowls in three of his last four seasons.
Nor is Navy helped by comparisons with Air Force, 6-0 and ranked 10th, and Army, 5-0 and ranked 19th.
Winning seasons at the service academies seem to depend on the fine art of doing a lot with a little, and a certain amount of good fortune, both of which seem to missing this year at Navy.
"You need luck here," said a Navy coach not connected with the football team. "And you have to be able to steal a couple of games here and there. They (Navy administrators) don't care about the resume. They want to know if you're lucky."
Some of this season's ill luck has included a two-point conversion called back by a penalty in the opening loss to North Carolina that would have tied the game with 54 seconds left. Against Delaware, Byrne threw two interceptions, and another conversion was called back by a penalty. In a 38-35 loss to Indiana, Navy led, 35-31, but allowed the Hoosiers to score with 56 seconds left. Against Air Force, Navy was deep in Falcons territory three times in the first quarter, failed to score and never recovered.
Navy also squandered opportunities with critical mistakes in each loss. There were 18 penalties and six interceptions in the first two games. Against Indiana, the Midshipmen had the ball with 56 seconds left, with three timeouts remaining. They failed to use a single timeout as precious seconds slipped away, and the game ended with Navy on the 30, throwing an incomplete desperation pass.
Bad breaks and mistakes, however, do not entirely explain it. Navy's lone victory came against a Virginia team ranked 20th in the country at the time, showing that the Midshipmen have the potential to beat decent teams.
"Nobody is more disappointed than I am," said Navy's athletic director, Capt. Bo Coppedge, who won't discuss Tranquill's contract, past or future. "I have never seen our young men put forth such an effort and not get the results. What it boils down to is crucial errors at crucial times."
Timing has indeed played a part. When the defense has performed well, as it did against Air Force, the offense has not produced. Or just the opposite. "Inconsistency is as good a word as any," Tranquill said.
As for doing a lot with a little, it is not as if Navy doesn't have the athletes. In fact, it may have more quality players this season than ever.
The Midshipmen went 4-6 last year in spite of McCallum's broken leg and Byrne's broken ankle, one reason for the great expectations this season. McCallum probably should be given an award for his performance against gang-tackling defenses: he has managed to gain 557 yards on 118 carries and has scored six of Navy's 11 touchdowns.
Byrne, a junior who led Navy to upsets of North Carolina and South Carolina and a tie with Pitt before suffering his injury against Notre Dame last year, shoulders some of the responsibility. Last year, he set a school record for single-season touchdown passes, with 11. This year his passes have lacked velocity, and he has thrown off balance and missed a number of open recievers. He has completed 66 of 145 passes for 784 yards, five touchdowns and six interceptions.
"I started slow, and so did the team," Byrne said. "I know you can't put it on one person. But I'm the most influential person as the quarterback, because I touch the ball all the time."
Tranquill also has come under criticism from the media for unimaginative game plans, particularly against Air Force, which limited McCallum to 67 yards on just 15 carries.
"When something doesn't work, it looks like a dumb call," he shrugged. "When you win, it looks great. When you lose, you look like a dummy."
And when you lose to Army, you really have a problem. So far, Tranquill is 2-1 against the Cadets, but winning this year's game is probably essential.
Tranquill, still a popular figure on campus among students and administrators, is an easygoing fellow who says he is not bothered by all the criticism.
"There is no pressure on me," he said. "Look, I've been around. If it isn't good enough, it isn't good enough. I'm not going to worry about it."