George Chaump, Navy's football coach, was visiting the home of a recruit in Florida when the Persian Gulf War broke out. Suddenly, the advantages of a military career had become a questionable selling point.
"That was interesting," Chaump said in classic understatement. "It has an effect and mothers get very worried. Mothers quickly set up a wall of defense. It affects the decision and brings a reality of the harshness of war into the home. But if the draft was reinstated, then it would become a plus for us. The academies historically have flourished in the war years, because this is where the best want to go."
Obviously, recruiting athletes for the Naval Academy is a vastly different process from that at the ordinary college. Besides athletic ability, a prospective recruit must have high SAT scores, excellent high school grades, a clean bill of health and some interest in a military career, to the extent that he or she will accept a five-year service commitment, due to become six with the Class of 1996.
"When you add that commitment, you're really narrowing the field," said Dave Smalley, assistant athletic director for admissions. "That's a big chunk of a young person's life. At 18, it's hard to understand that you're committing yourself for more than half the years you've spent on earth."
To find the men and women who want to come to Annapolis is a lengthy process. Chaump's computer contained information on more than 1,100 possibilities this year; the list at present is 858. Basketball coach Pete Herrmann estimates he and his staff check out "hundreds -- the upper hundreds" each year.
"Out of the best 100 basketball players in America, there might be 10 that would qualify for the academy," Herrmann said. "We try to identify players first, and before we ever talk to a coach, we check with the guidance people to see if they can qualify."
The service academies must follow normal NCAA recruiting procedures, but they do have a few advantages. They are able to meet recruits face to face in the junior year of high school, because of the complicated admissions procedures, and there is no limit on the number of athletes who may be recruited in any sport. They are not subject to a letter-of-intent, although they must give recruits comparable notification of acceptance or risk losing them to other schools.
Still, there are many minuses, beginning with that service commitment that restricts potential professional careers. Once accepted, an athlete need not participate in a sport to retain his scholarship and a midshipman may resign at any time during his first two years.
"Whether we like it or not, we're forced to get into a numbers game," Chaump said. "Knowing we won't often get the gifted athletes, we take large numbers and try to sort out the people who can compete against Virginia and Notre Dame. It's a challenge."
"Georgetown can identify five kids it wants to recruit and it will zero in on them all year," Herrmann said. "We're recruiting seniors into March and April, when other schools are already set."
February is a big month for Chaump and his staff, because it is mailing time, when cards are sent to every high school coach in the country.
"The returns only run about 30 to 35 percent, but you have to depend on the coaches," Chaump said. "We sift through the returns and categorize them in a number of areas -- height, weight, speed, position, what we're looking for. It's all a guesstimate. Then there's the category we're most interested in: class rank and grade-point average. We can save time if we can eliminate those who can't qualify."
Chaump's staff sends potential qualifying candidates questionnaires, which are returned to Smalley and computerized. Then the nine assistant coaches hit the road for individual meetings. Navy recruits throughout the country, but emphasizes areas with both football and military concentrations: California, Washington state, Texas, Florida, Michigan, the Pennsylvania-Ohio-Maryland-Virginia corridor. Part-time coaches phone schools in other areas.
"It's far from a foolproof system, but we try to check everyone out," Chaump said. "I've already been to Florida, California, Texas, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Jersey with the coaches."
Herrmann gets help in reducing his pool from the basketball scouting services, which include academic records. He and his assistants see many high school players in summer camps too. Visits are arranged in the fall, with assistant Emmett Davis working the east and Barry Parkhill the midwest.
Eventually, potential recruits in all sports are funneled through Smalley's office. He is the athletic department representative on the admissions board, which reviews each applicant. Smalley said the board has been cooperative in accepting those designated by the athletic interests.
"They know we want to have Division I programs and they know we ought to try to win as much as we can," Smalley said.
Navy has not been winning recently, at least in football and basketball. The big stumbling block is the high academic requirements of the academy. For general purposes, an applicant is expected to record SAT scores of at least 1,120 -- 520 verbal and 600 math. In contrast, the NCAA requires only a 700 SAT and a 2.0 grade-point average.
"That's not cut and dried, but if you get them, you'll probably qualify, and if not, you probably won't," Smalley said. "You can still qualify, based on the full person profile. We also look at performance in high school and what teachers have to say. Someone with 1,050 or 1,100 who is getting good grades and working hard is more likely to succeed here than someone who scores 1,300 but is not an achiever."
Besides possessing the academic qualifications, an applicant must pass a detailed medical examination as well as a physical aptitude exam. Then he must obtain a nomination, which can be obtained from congressmen, the vice president or, in the case of sons and daughters of service personnel, from the president. Another source is the secretary of the Navy, for those who are serving on active duty or in the reserves. This rarely presents a problem.
Many potential recruits -- Chaump calls his a 50-50 split -- are designated for a year at the Naval Academy Prep School in Newport, R.I. There they bone up on math and get an introduction to military life while participating in sports. They also become active duty Navy personnel, which makes them eligible after one year for a secretary of defense nomination.
But there are two sides to the NAPS picture. The athletes are fair game. Chaump grits his teeth as he mentions a 6-foot-5, 265-pound lineman who elected to go to Illinois rather than Navy. And while Herrmann manages a brief smile when he reports that NAPS thrashed West Point Prep, the smile fades as he wonders how many of his six potential players are doing well enough academically to make it to Annapolis.
"Recruiting here is unique," Smalley said. "We have to have a 'special' kid who has interest in wanting to accept all that we give him. That includes obligation, commitment and discipline. We're not going to sell a kid on coming to the Naval Academy to play a sport. We see if there's an interest and, if there is, we develop that interest. It's more difficult in a lot of ways, primarily because there aren't as many out there to pick from. We have to throw more seed on the ground to get the response we want."