During the Army-Navy indoor track meet last winter, two naval officers sat on a bleacher discussing the hiring of George Chaump as Navy football coach, in place of Elliot Uzelac.
"We may not be very good next year," one said, "but at least we'll be rooting for the team instead of just complaining about the coach."
During Uzelac's three seasons, Navy won only eight of 33 games. Six times the Midshipmen were beaten by Division I-AA schools. Worse, their wishbone offense was boring to watch. Not once in those 33 games did the Midshipmen complete more than 10 passes. During the 1987 and 1989 seasons, they were unable to win a home game.
Chaump has restored the enthusiasm that left Navy football with the departure of George Welsh after the 1981 season. Whether Chaump can produce the first winning campaign since 1982 is something else, but he has a few things going for him.
Foremost is the spirit of the Midshipmen, led by senior quarterback and co-captain Alton Grizzard, a highly recruited athlete who, like his teammates, was shackled by the dictates of Uzelac's wishbone offense.
"It's more of a team effort this year," Grizzard said. "There's a new attitude and everybody's eager to play. Army and Air Force had success with the wishbone, but for some reason it didn't succeed here. Now we're taking a different route and I think it'll be a lot more exciting. I'm expecting sellouts right from the start."
For his part, Chaump is unreserved in his praise for Grizzard, who not only can run and pass but has the leadership qualities for which the Academy is famous.
"Grizzard is a fine athlete, but his greatest quality you can't measure," Chaump said. "That's enthusiasm, the ability to inspire others to do better. He's probably the most exceptional leader anywhere in America."
Although Chaump earned a reputation for razzle-dazzle offensive formations during four winning seasons at Marshall, no one quite knows what to expect when the Midshipmen run out to face Richmond Sept. 8 on the new Bermuda grass field at refurbished Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
"We've been working on a couple of plays it should really be fun to run," said offensive tackle David Britt. "One is a triple-reverse pass. I don't know if we'll ever use it, but things should be a lot more interesting."
"The other coaches say Coach Chaump can get bored quickly and then sparks start to fly," said wide receiver B.J. Mason. "I'll probably see more passes coming my way in one game than I did all last year."
With a vital touchdown catch in the 19-17 victory over Army, Mason was recording one-quarter of the scoring receptions for a team that threw only 166 times, completing 74.
Although Grizzard had greater success running the ball, nobody doubts that he can pass well enough to make Chaump's pro-type offense click. And should misfortune strike Grizzard, there are able backups in senior Gary McIntosh, sophomore Brian Ellis and even plebe Jason Van Matre.
More of a problem is building an offensive line that can pass block well enough to give the quarterback the time necessary to throw the ball. Injuries to starting guards Carl Voss and Michael Davis, plus the change from wishbone to drop-back passing, have complicated things.
Two probable starters, junior tackle David Britt and junior guard David Lillefloren, have not played one down of varsity football. Another, junior guard Dan Dunaway, saw limited duty last season as a tackle.
"It's a challenge," Chaump said. "The experts say that drop-back pass protection is the hardest thing to teach. But I think we can adequately teach it to make it effective and a key is the fact that our quarterbacks can run out of there."
"We don't have a lot of time and they have to continue to get better," said offensive line coach Charlie Donnor of his fledgling pass blockers. "Learning to pass block in a drop-back style takes a lot of repetition. One plus is the fact that all these guys are willing to work very hard at it."
There are other shortages, of lesser import, on the defensive line and at linebacker. Two of the starting linebackers, Duke Ingraham and Chris Beck, are sophomores with very limited experience.
"The number one priority is to be lucky in terms of keeping players healthy," Chaump said. "You can coach against penalties and coach against turnovers, but you can't coach against injuries. It's the one thing we as coaches fear."
There are positive notes on the injury front, with defensive tackle Chris Janke healthy after ankle surgery and tailbacks Rodney Purifoy (shoulder surgery) and Ivan Bullard (reconstructive knee surgery) running well after serious operations.
Injuries do not figure to pile up on the Midshipmen the way they have in the past, because Navy has dropped Pittsburgh and Syracuse from its schedule and no longer must face those powers the week before or after Notre Dame. In 1988 Navy lost on successive weekends to Air Force, Pittsburgh, Notre Dame, Syracuse and South Carolina.
"We're not playing anybody we can beat without a top effort," Grizzard said. "But the schedule does seem a little lighter. We don't have to go back to back against six bowl teams, like we have in the past. That makes it very hard to recover."
There is more at stake this fall than laying the foundation for a winning team in the future. The Academy is trying to fund sky boxes and premier seats at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium and it will take an exciting season to persuade Navy followers to make the necessary commitments.
It also is the 100th anniversary of the first Army-Navy game. Navy won the 1890 inaugural, 24-0, and Athletic Director Jack Lengyel noted, "We're going into the second hundred years with a lead" -- 42-41-7.
1989 RECORD: 3-8.
COACH: George Chaump (first year at Navy; overall 57-32-2).
OFFENSE: Multiple pro-style.
TOP PLAYERS LOST: WR Shane Smith, HB James Bradley, FB Don Ferraro, S Bob Weissenfels, LB David Lowe, NG Andy Kirkland, CB Steve Tazza, T Mike Kirchner.
PLAYERS TO WATCH: QB Alton Grizzard (team-leading 626 yards rushing, 1,109 passing), senior; TB Rodney Purifoy (620 yards rushing), junior; WR Jerry Dawson (17 receptions), senior; LB Bill Bowling (92 tackles), senior; LB Anthony Domino (90 tackles), senior; K Frank Schenk (12 of 17 FGAs), senior; T Greg Hlatky, senior.
TOP NEWCOMERS: LB Javier Zulaga (freshman from Indianapolis); QB Jason Van Matre (freshman from Pensacola, Fla.); FB Brad Stramanak (freshman from Johnstown, Pa.); DB Michael Riggins (freshman from Snyder, Tex.); OL Max Lane (freshman from Norborne, Mo.).
PROJECTION: After winning only eight games in three years with a wishbone offense, Navy is going to the air under Chaump, who had considerable success with a pro-type offense at Marshall. Grizzard figures to move the ball and he has good wide receivers in Dawson and B.J. Mason. The offensive line has been decimated by graduation and injuries, and there is a further complication in the shift to drop-back pass blocking. On defense, there is a shortage of depth at tackle and linebacker, but the secondary should be strong. A schedule in transition presents a solid shot at a first winning season in eight years. -- Robert Fachet