The big discussion at Navy this week was whether football coach Charlie Weatherbie would rip off his shirt at the pep rally Thursday night to inspire the Midshipmen with his bare-chested exhortations.

"I've seen Coach Weatherbie on the treadmill a lot the last few weeks," said one senior as he stood beside the enormous Navy bonfire, complete with Army effigy. "I say his shirt is coming off."

As Weatherbie took the microphone, the mile-wide expanse of the Severn River, leading to the Chesapeake Bay, lay behind him. In front, across the athletic fields, were the towering ramparts of the Naval Academy, stretched out like stern gray bluffs along the river. Some Mids were in full regalia, others in blue-and-gold fatigues.

"We need everything you've got for all four quarters," Weatherbie boomed to the brigade. "On third and fourth down, we need you to yell so loud you drown out the Army signals. . . . There's only one way to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Army-Navy.

"And that's to kick some Army tail!"

The bonfire was lit. The stuffed Army donkey was engulfed in flames. Then, a spectacular fireworks display exploded over the Academy for a quarter-hour. Finally, a firetruck wet down a 70-yard tarp so hundreds of loony Mids could strip down to their shorts and do full-sprint belly flops. Many slid 50 yards and had the washboard stomachs to do it again.

"Those are called 'carrier landings,' " explained one sane Mid, fully clothed on the near-freezing night. "Until last year, the tradition in the dorms before the Army-Navy game was to stuff towels under our doors, fill the long halls up an inch deep with water and then do 'landings' down 'em--sometimes on mattresses."

Why stop such wholesome destruction of military property?

"Too many bad injuries."

And this is safe?

"By our standards."

The crowd cheered it all--entertained, amused, even inspired. But throughout the hour of pep chants, explosions, crackling flames and a thousand scrubbed smiles, Weatherbie's shirt stayed on. "Too much belly to do that any more," said the coach, pulling up his jersey to demonstrate.

Actually, Weatherbie still looks as fit as a player. The real reason he didn't make a spectacle of himself, as he has in the past, may be because the Naval Academy desperately needs to do anything--short of rewriting the Navy Hymn--to change its luck.

If ever a team in a classic rivalry was snakebitten, it's Navy. In the '90s, the Midshipmen have outscored Army by 29 points. Twice, Navy has won easily. Yet in the other seven games--each a nail-biter--Navy has found a way to lose. Seven defeats by a total of 24 points.

Navy has lost because it missed an 18-yard field goal attempt as time ran out. Navy has lost because it inexplicably passed up a clinching field goal try; Army held at its goal line, then drove 99 yards to win, helped by a 28-yard pass on fourth and 24.

Increasing the strain on the Mids (4-7) on the eve of the historic 100th is their frustrating '99 season. It's as if every Akron or Hawaii on Navy's schedule has suddenly been endowed with Army's cursedly good fourth-quarter luck. How do you go 1-6 in games decided by seven points or fewer? Isn't the Navy supposed to perform better under pressure? Isn't that the whole idea?

Don't mention that last-play incomplete pass in the end zone against Air Force. Don't mention the blown 23-point lead at homecoming. Above all, don't mention the name Perry Hudspeth in Annapolis these days. He's the head linesman whose bad spot in South Bend cost Navy a season-salvaging upset of Notre Dame.

Perhaps what's best about Navy is that, despite its 7-15 record the last two seasons, the Mids almost certainly will play a game at noon today in Philadelphia that'll make you want to stand at attention. They may be a yard short on talent, size and even luck. But no team will give more or lose harder.

This 100th anniversary game is getting the hard-sell hype you'd expect. There's a special logo, a lithograph, a Web site, a coffee-table book, a video and a throwback jersey. But that's not what's special about the game.

"The Army-Navy game has a great history of being a true representation of what the United States is all about. It has the atmosphere of our country," said Weatherbie, in his fifth year at Navy. "These two teams just fight their tails off to beat each other, yet they know someday they'll be on the same team.

"It's inspiring to watch and to be part of."

As the bonfire was dying out, some seniors still were watching the festivities. One was Mark Zamadis, a star on the baseball team and roommate of place kicker Tim Shubzda, the most likely Mid to have the whole game on his shoulders.

"Tim may get a little nervous, but he's not exactly a typical 'kicker.' He wants to be a SEAL," said Zamadis. "Anybody who wants to do that has to be sort of crazy. That helps. He'll be fine."

None of Navy's players is exactly typical. They're future engineers, physicists, pilots. The offensive line majors in economics (three), English (one) and oceanographic engineering. All could have taken easier roads. But they are fascinated by what is difficult, by finding their limits, by leadership, by living where the buck stops.

That's how it's been for 100 years. If we're lucky, it'll be that way another 100. That's why the Army-Navy game, no matter who wins, always makes us want to stand up once a year. And salute.