In 1950, the man who did more to build Navy football than any other, Eddie Erdelatz, began his first season as the Midshipmen’s head coach. Roger Staubach is the most famous Navy football player of all time, and the zenith of the program arrived during Staubach’s career, in 1963. However, the person who assembled the program that ripened into a national power was Erdelatz. His patient stewardship led to a pair of New Year’s Day bowls – and victories – in the 1950s. By the time Wayne Hardin replaced Erdelatz in 1959, Navy had become a power, a team ready to succeed in future years.
Hardin enjoyed six substantial seasons at the helm in Annapolis. His 1960 and 1963 teams were two of the best in Navy history. George Welsh coached for nearly a decade and enabled the Midshipmen to become the premier service academy program of the 1970s. Paul Johnson coached for six seasons in restoring Navy football and bringing the Commander-In-Chief’s Trophy back to Annapolis on an annual basis. Ken Niumatalolo is about to begin his eighth season as one of the best caretakers in the program’s existence. Since 1950 and the arrival of Eddie Erdelatz, Navy has not only benefited from the guidance of great coaches; it has more specifically benefited from the guidance of great coaches who stuck around for several seasons, lending continuity and stability to every aspect of the program.
In the 1940s, though, Navy managed to win in a different way. Before the start of Navy’s greatest era as a football force, the Midshipmen did really well… just not in a manner we’re conditioned to expect.
The performance of Navy in the 1940s must obviously be seen against the backdrop to World War II. It was important that Navy played well during this point in time, much as the same was true for Army. This was a point in history when service academy football teams owned more stature, but the emphasis on playing for the Navy and the country was more pronounced.
Yet, even though World War II offered a very specific and poignant competitive subtext for anything Navy football did on the field, it remains that the Midshipmen thrived despite an unusual coaching dynamic.
Consider, for a moment, the fact that from 1941 through the rest of the 1940s, Red Blaik towered above most of his peers as one of the elite coaches in college football history. Blaik was the rock on which the house of Army football stood, a sure and unchanging presence while so many other aspects of the sport changed. Army was built and sustained by one man, and Navy began to hit the big time in the 1950s under Erdelatz, so the way in which Navy won during the 1940s clearly stands out for the ways in which it deviated from the traditional path.
From 1944 through 1949, Army hit its stride under Blaik, and only when Erdelatz arrived in 1950 did Navy snap a six-year winless streak against West Point. However, from 1939 through 1943, Navy won five straight against Army, and beat Blaik in each of the legend’s first three Army-Navy Game appearances as a head coach. What makes this period more fascinating is that this five-game streak against Army and the three-game run against Blake were achieved by two different head coaches.
From 1931 through 1949, Navy never had a coach who lasted more than three years in succession. In 1939, Swede Larson replaced Hank Harwick, a man who coached just two seasons at Navy. Larson was able to beat Army in 1939 even though his first Navy team finished with a losing record (3-5-1). In 1940, though, Navy beat Army as part of a 6-2-1 season that boosted the program’s profile. A year later – in Larson’s third and final season – Navy went 7-1-1 and finished 10th in the final Associated Press poll.
When Larson left after the 1941 campaign, it was reasonable to think that the gains made the previous few seasons would be lost, and in 1942, Navy did slip to 5-4 for the year, even though it once again managed to frustrate and ultimately defeat West Point in the one game that really mattered. However, if people in and around the program were worried about new coach John Whelchel and his ability to win big, those doubts were shattered in 1943, when Annapolis went 8-1 and capped the five-game winning streak against Army. Navy finished No. 4 in the polls, and so when Oscar Hagberg took over for Whelchel in 1944, there was less reason to doubt what the Midshipmen were doing. There was less reason to question their ability to succeed despite rapid and continuous turnover at the head coaching spot.
Sure enough, Hagberg kept Navy in the season-ending top 5 in each of his two seasons in Annapolis. Army beat Navy in both 1944 and 1945, because Army had two of the greatest teams of all time in those seasons. However, Navy beat almost everyone else those two years. Hagberg lost only twice to non-Army opponents in his two seasons on the job. From 1940 through 1945 – a span of six seasons – Navy lost only 12 games, an average of two losses per season, all under three different coaches. Taking away Whelchel’s 4-loss season in 1942, Navy lost eight times in five seasons from 1940 through 1945, an average of barely more than 1.5 losses per campaign.
Sometimes, programs manage to win despite a lot of internal changes. Wisconsin has recently won under Bret Bielema and Gary Andersen, and the Badgers will now test the “coaching turnover laws of physics” by seeing if they can win under new head coach Paul Chryst. While we wait to see if Wisconsin can improbably win while whipping through head coaches left and right, we can know – with the certainty afforded by history – that in the 1940s, Navy football managed to win under three separate coaches. What was seen in Annapolis during those years is something that just doesn’t happen very often in the modern age… or any age at all.