ANNAPOLIS, Md. - Off to its best start in 25 years, unbeaten Navy has proved that it's possible to win without a 300-pound lineman or an athlete whose sole purpose for attending college is to hone his skills for the NFL.
"We're not the biggest guys, but we play with a lot of heart," quarterback Adam Polanco said. "Coach stresses that for us to win, we have to be in better shape and play harder than the other team."
When Paul Johnson accepted the daunting job as Navy's football coach in December 2001, the Midshipmen had enjoyed only two winning seasons in 19 years. Johnson knew he couldn't alter the academy's stringent entrance requirements or arduous military obligations, so he set out to change the one thing he could control: the sense of doom that shrouded the once-proud program.
"I think the hardest thing was getting the attitude and work ethic changed," Johnson said this week. "But I think we've got the work ethic back. These guys work pretty hard. Like I tell them, the more you invest, the harder it is to lay down."
Their diligence has paid off. After going 8-5 last year and playing in the Houston Bowl, the Midshipmen are 3-0 for the first time since 1979. Suddenly, tailgating and the pregame fly-by isn't the only attraction at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium on a Saturday afternoon.
"The school, the town, everyone's into it now," senior fullback Kyle Eckel said. "The atmosphere is better when you win. Last year we picked up a lot of fans, and now the ball's rolling. It's catching on."
Johnson took over a team that went 1-10 in 2000 and 0-10 in 2001. Navy won its first game in 2002, then dropped 10 straight before beating Army in the finale.
"That first season was the longest year of my life," Johnson recalled. "I felt like we were getting better; we just weren't winning any games."
The resurgence began in earnest last season, when Navy beat Air Force and Army to win the Commander-In-Chief's Trophy for the first time since 1981. Led by senior quarterback Craig Candeto, who ran for 1,112 yards and 16 touchdowns, the Midshipmen rolled to their first winning season since 1997.
But could it last? That was the challenge facing Johnson and the Mids this year, and at this point it appears the answer is a resounding, "Yes, Sir!"
"Last year we were fighting to win, fighting for respect, and we got some," Eckel said. "But coming into this season, people were saying, 'Craig's gone, it was a fluke -' things like that."
After rolling past Duke and Northeastern at home, Navy blew away Tulsa last Saturday, 29-0. Heady stuff, but Johnson isn't overly excited about being unbeaten in September.
"We can still lose eight games," he said.
Johnson came to Navy after an amazing five-year run at Georgia Southern, where he went 62-10 and won two Division I-AA championships. His success at Navy can be attributed to hard work, a solid coaching staff and an uncanny knowledge of the finer points of the triple-option attack.
"We've been running this offense for a long time," said Johnson, who served as Navy's offensive coordinator in 1995-96, "and a lot of different guys have had success."
The hope is that the run will continue.
"As long as coach Johnson is here and the players react to what he's teaching them," Polanco said, "this program will be a winner."