A few minutes after Navy beat Army last December, Athletic Director Chet Gladchuk had an order for Capt. Greg Cooper, the academy's deputy director of athletics. "Go get the trophy," Gladchuk told him. Two days later, Cooper flew to the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, where he gladly accepted the Commander-In-Chief's Trophy from the Falcons.

But later that day, when Cooper arrived at Colorado Springs Airport with the trophy delicately packed in its metal box, airline officials told him they couldn't fit the box through the boarding door or into the cargo hold of the jet taking him back to Baltimore. Airline personnel suggested shipping the trophy to Annapolis, where it would arrive in three or four days.

"You don't understand," Cooper told them. "I'm not going back to the academy without it."

So Cooper did what any proud Midshipman would do. He rented a U-haul truck, strapped down the trophy in back and drove more than 1,700 miles from Colorado Springs to Annapolis.

"I never realized there were so many country-western radio stations between here and Colorado Springs," Cooper said. "It was a labor of love, but we were eager to show the Midshipmen what they'd won."

For the past 10 months, the Commander-In-Chief's Trophy, which is given annually to the winner of the football competition between Army, Navy and Air Force, has sat in a glass case in Bancroft Hall, which houses more than 4,000 midshipmen at the academy. Navy hadn't won the trophy since 1981, but by beating Air Force, 28-25, and Army, 34-6, the Midshipmen were able to claim ownership of the 21/2-foot, 170-pound trophy topped by three footballs.

Navy will try to take the first step in retaining the trophy Thursday night when it plays Air Force at Falcon Stadium. The Midshipmen are off to their first 4-0 start since 1979; Air Force is 2-2, having lost to nationally ranked California and Utah. Navy plays winless Army in Philadelphia on Dec. 4; the Falcons play the Cadets in West Point, N.Y., on Nov. 6.

"We've had that taste back in our mouths," Navy quarterback Aaron Polanco said. "It means so much to all of the midshipmen and the entire fleet. It just means so much to everyone involved."

Navy has won the trophy in consecutive seasons only once, in 1978 and 1979. Air Force, which had won the trophy for six consecutive seasons before losing it last season, has won the trophy 16 times since it was first awarded in 1972, more than Army (six times) and Navy (six) combined. The competition has ended in a tie four times (the winner the previous season retains the trophy).

"It's important," Navy Coach Paul Johnson said. "It's a big deal for everyone involved because you're representing your armed service and it's bragging rights for a year."

Losing the trophy hasn't sat well with the Falcons, who have beaten Navy in eight of their past 10 meetings. Instead of the Falcons' seniors visiting President Bush this past spring, the Midshipmen's senior class went to the White House. In the glass case where the trophy was held at the Air Force Academy, it has been replaced with a photo of Navy's players shining the trophy. Under the photo are the words: "reestablish dominance."

"It just makes me think of how much I hate Navy," Air Force fullback Adam Cole told the Gazette in Colorado Springs. "It's almost like they are holding our stuff. It doesn't really belong to them."

Air Force Coach Fisher DeBerry has used all kinds of tactics to motivate his players this week. When Air Force players arrived at their locker room on Sunday, they found pictures of Navy fullback Kyle Eckel, with the words "Eckel for Heisman" written on them. Navy officials said they haven't promoted Eckel for the Heisman Trophy. The senior ran for 176 yards and one touchdown against the Falcons last season.

Also, Air Force players were apparently told that Navy's players were given commemorative rings for winning the Commander-In-Chief's Trophy last season. Johnson said his players were only given rings for playing in the Houston Bowl.

"It kind of made me mad because of how big a deal they are making it," Air Force safety Mark Carlson told the Gazette. "If we bought one of those every year, we would have tons of rings. They can buy all they want, but we are going to come out and beat them" this week.

Johnson has told his players not to respond to the Falcons' comments. Asked after yesterday's practice if the Navy and Air Force football teams had a mutual respect for each other, Johnson grinned and said, "I think Army and Navy have pretty good respect for each other."

Johnson said he wouldn't use the same motivational tactics as DeBerry this week.

"They seem to be doing a good job motivating our" players, Johnson said.

Coach Paul Johnson and the Midshipmen celebrated with President Bush in April after winning Commander-In-Chief's Trophy for first time since 1981.Geoff Blumenfeld leaped into the arms of John Skaggs after Navy's 28-25 win over Air Force last season.