Navy's National Reach: The World War I Years

The Navy football program is a national program, given its identity as a service academy. The program has regularly played San Jose State to create a trip to California every now and then, but the program's connection to the West was even stronger during World War I years and shortly thereafter. It's worth appreciating this part of the Midshipmen's history.


Our story begins in Seattle, Washington.

The record books show that the Washington Huskies did not play in the Pacific Coast Conference – the league that would ultimately be known as the Pac-12 – until 1916. However, Washington played football several seasons before then, and in those seasons, Washington never lost a game in which Gilmour (Gil) Dobie coached. The Huskies won 52 games without a loss under Dobie, and in their 1916 campaign, they broke into the PCC with a 6-0-1 record. Dobie finished his Washington career with a 58-0-3 record, marking him as one of the best coaches in the history of college football, especially in the first third of the 20th century. Dobie would later win multiple national championships at Cornell in the early 1920s, but before leading that Ivy League school to untold college football riches, Dobie made another stop on the coaching trail. It would pay off for Navy in both the present and future tenses, shaping an era in Navy football history that deserves to be talked about.

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In 1917, Dobie came to Annapolis to coach Navy. If there was any sense that coaching on the opposite coast of the country was going to require an adjustment period or leave Dobie out of his element, Midshipmen fans were happily shown that any worries about such a matter were unfounded and unwarranted. Dobie might not have gone unbeaten at Navy, but he never lost more than one game in any of his three seasons on the job. From 1917 through 1919, Navy lost a total of only three games without any ties. The program grew, and people in and around the academy noticed. Four years later, the school that watched Dobie go to Navy did the Midshipmen a favor.

The 1923 Navy team was not an incredible team or a resoundingly imposing one. The Midshipmen went 5-1-2 during the regular season. Their loss, to Penn State, came by a lopsided 21-3 margin. They tied Army, 0-0, a result that might have ensured a better record than the 6-2-1 Cadets, but fell short of the team’s hopes.

At that point in the history of the Rose Bowl – an event which was about to mark its 10th edition (having been played in 1902 but not again until 1916) – organizers matched a West Coast team against an Eastern team. The Big Ten-Pac-10 (and later Pac-12) lock-in had not yet emerged. The Rose Bowl, alone as a bowl game until the arrival of other games in the 1930s, was a truly national game, one which invited Notre Dame and Pittsburgh and Penn State; Alabama and Georgia Tech; and Michigan and Ohio State to Pasadena. Big names from various corners of the Eastern half of the country helped build the Rose Bowl’s reputation as The Granddaddy.

Given that the Rose Bowl attracted signature names before the arrival of the Big Ten-Pac-12 agreement in the 1940s, and created some of the most memorable contests in the first half of the 20th century, the idea that it would pick an Eastern team without the very best record in the country might strike an observer as an oddity. Yet, when the Rose Bowl picked the Washington Huskies as their West Coast team for the 1924 game (following the 1923 season), a door was opened in Annapolis.

Washington, having benefited so much from what Gil Dobie did during his time in Seattle, and knowing that Dobie then led Navy to three distinguished seasons during the time World War I ended and then gave way to the transitional period the world faced afterward, extended an invitation to Navy to play in the Rose Bowl. The Midshipmen gratefully accepted, and while this action completed the circle that was first drawn with Dobie’s career at Washington and subsequent move to Navy, it also created an irony.

In 1923, Dobie – at Cornell – had put the finishing touches on another 8-0 season, his third in a row at the school. Dobie won his third straight national championship in Ithaca, New York, and while we recognize Cornell as an Ivy League school today, the conference was decades from being formally established. The schools which comprise the Ivies today played each other during the seasons – perhaps not a full boat of games, but certainly somewhere between three games and a handful – but league play and standings did not yet exist. Therefore, since the Ivy League was reticent to get involved in bowl games (much as it is now reticent to stage a conference tournament in college basketball), the idea of a team with an Ivy League affiliation playing in the Rose Bowl would not have been realistic. In 1923, though, Cornell was an independent. Washington conceivably could have extended an invitation to play none other than Dobie and Cornell.

Perhaps, then, Washington gave the invitation to Navy not just because of a measure of both gratitude and recognition for what the program had achieved – or for the fact that Seattle, as a coastal city (with Navy bases in the larger Puget Sound region), was important to the U.S. Navy’s place on the West Coast, but because Gil Dobie loomed as a powerful opponent in a revenge game. You can have a fun little conversation about that point, but it offers a fascinating backdrop to the 1924 Rose Bowl, and to the mystery involved in a 5-1-2 team making the Granddaddy instead of 8-0 Cornell, or the Penn State team that beat Navy in 1923. (Side note: Penn State played in the 1923 Rose Bowl, so there was likely a desire to invite someone else from the East or elsewhere in the country.)

Navy and Washington tied in the 1924 Rose Bowl, playing to a 14-all standoff. Given that the Midshipmen were viewed by some as a side that didn’t have quite the gleaming credentials of other potential invitees, the result bolstered Navy’s reputation. It marked a satisfying – if not complete – moment for a program whose World War I era reputation stands up well in the larger run of college football history.



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