Instead, the game will be played at Michie Stadium, on post at West Point in New York, arguably the most scenic football stadium in the country but a place that has hosted Army-Navy just once — in 1943, during World War II.
There will be about 9,000 spectators in the stadium — including about 4,300 from the Corps of Cadets and 4,300 from the Brigade of Midshipmen. Each school will be allowed about 200 VIPs, who will watch from glassed-in luxury boxes after going through rapid-result coronavirus testing that morning at the Thayer Hotel, which sits just inside the gate named for Sylvanus Thayer, known as the father of the academy.
The two athletic directors — Army’s Mike Buddie and Navy’s Chet Gladchuck — began discussing the possibility of moving the game in June, when it became apparent that the pandemic was going to have a major impact on the college football season.
“We had two goals that were absolute,” Buddie said. “The first was to play the game. If we could each play only one game all season, we had to find a way to play Army-Navy. The second was to make sure that the Brigade and the Corps could be at the game.”
It was the second goal that brought about the venue change. As the season moved along, it became increasingly apparent that local protocols would make it difficult to allow very many people into the stadium. Officials in Philadelphia let Buddie and Gladchuck know in October they were virtually certain the game would have to be played in an empty or near-empty Lincoln Financial Field.
The question then became, where to play?
In the end, the only answer was Michie Stadium.
Any other venue, including Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, would be subject to local covid-19 protocols. Michie Stadium is located on an Army post and, as a result, is a U.S. government installation, not subject to local protocols. Navy’s stadium, on the other hand, is located about a mile from Gate 8 of the Yard. It sits on land that is part of the state of Maryland and therefore is subject to local protocols. In fact, after being allowed to attend several home games this fall, the Brigade was not allowed in for Navy’s final home game last week against Tulsa.
“The fact that it was supposed to be our home game probably made it easier to make the decision for both Chet and me,” Buddie said. “But even if it had been Navy’s home game, there still wouldn’t have been any other choice. It just might have made it a little harder for us to get to that conclusion.”
“Home game” in Army-Navy lingo means that side wears home uniforms, occupies the larger locker room at whichever NFL stadium the game is played and marches on the field first — nothing that directly affects the playing of the game. The number of tickets are split evenly for both teams, and the roars alternate from one side of the stadium to the other.
This year will be no different. The Corps of Cadets will sit on the home team side of the stadium; the Brigade opposite. For every Army VIP added to the list of invitees, Navy added one of its own.
“The only advantage that we’ll have is that our players won’t have to travel,” Buddie said. “But it won’t be that different for the Navy players than it is in a normal year.”
Buddie and Gladchuck discussed whether to allow players’ families into the stadium — something they clearly wanted to do if at all possible. In the end, they decided against it for two reasons. “Because our players are so far-flung, many families would have to travel by plane to get to the game,” Buddie said. “That was a concern.”
The other was more basic. Michie Stadium is winterized after Thanksgiving, meaning the plumbing in the upper deck is shut down. “I’m sure the family members wouldn’t have minded going down three levels to go the bathroom,” Buddie said. “But they’d have to interact with the students when they got there.”
Once the decision was made Oct. 23 to move the game to West Point, logistics had to be pieced together: a hotel for the Navy team; testing for everyone coming on post; alerting the Secret Service, which always plans for the president (or this year potentially the president-elect) to come to the game — and figuring out how to tell those who couldn’t come why they couldn’t.
The more than 4,000 members of the brigade will travel by bus from Annapolis to West Point “super early” Saturday morning, according to the Navy Public Affairs Office.
Their destination will make this game stand out after more than 75 years of neutral fields. For security reasons, the Army-Navy games were played on home fields in 1942 and 1943: Navy’s Thompson Stadium, which was on the Yard, hosted the first year, Michie Stadium the next.
The thought of playing on either home field vanished after World War II because the game was too big — and the moneymaking potential too great. It has been played since then in Philadelphia (most years), the Meadowlands, Baltimore, Pasadena, Calif., and D.C. — if you count Prince George’s County as D.C.
In 1999, Sports Illustrated picked Michie Stadium as the third-greatest sports venue in the world — behind only Yankee Stadium and Augusta National Golf Club. I would rank Michie ahead of both those places. It is fantastically scenic, with both Lusk Reservoir and the Hudson River visible from the home side of the stadium and soaring trees dominating the view behind the north end. Most importantly, there is the quality of people who play their home games there.
That will be the case again Saturday — for both teams. The game should be competitive. During a 14-season stretch from 2002 to 2015, Navy (under coaches Paul Johnson and Ken Niumatalolo) so dominated the series that the game lost some of its luster; it was frequently well in hand before the fourth quarter started. That began to change in 2014, when Army hired Jeff Monken — a former assistant under Johnson at both Navy and Georgia Tech — and he turned the program around.
After losing close games in 2014 and 2015, Army finally broke the streak in 2016 and then won again the next two years. In doing so, the Black Knights won back-to-back Commander-in-Chief’s Trophies for the first time. Navy won, 31-7, last year to reclaim both the CIC and, as Niumatalolo put it, “our dominance.”
In this strange fall, the Mids are 3-6 and have struggled to find an effective quarterback, with last year’s starter, Malcolm Perry, now playing for the Miami Dolphins. Niumatalolo has tried everyone this side of Roger Staubach to replace him. Army also has used a multitude of quarterbacks — six in all — but that has mostly been because of injuries. The Black Knights, who had nine of the 12 games on their original schedule wiped out by the coronavirus, are 7-2 but have not played nearly as challenging a slate as Navy.
All the Army-Navy traditions are expected to be in place Saturday: the march-ons, the parachutists, the flyovers and, of course, the playing of the alma maters at game’s end.
It won’t feel the same. It won’t be the same. But it will be Army-Navy. And there’s still nothing else in sports quite like it.