Navy Football: Paul Dashiell

When looking at Navy football from all angles, one story that can’t be excluded is the tale of the program’s first great coach in the 20th century. Before there was Erdelatz and Hardin; before the succession of coaches in the 1940s we looked at last week; Paul Dashiell made Navy a football name to be respected. We remember one of the people who laid the foundation for Annapolis football.


Our story begins in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1901.

The great power of the first decade of the 20th century was, without question, the University of Michigan. Fielding Yost became the towering figure of the first quarter of the so-called American Century in college football. Amos Alonzo Stagg and Glenn “Pop” Warner also became larger-than-life men in that part of the sport’s history. Warner displayed more longevity and Stagg had a game named after him, but Yost was the best coach of the three, owning his era before Knute Rockne ushered in the new period when Notre Dame, not Michigan, became the signature power in the Midwest.

How great was Yost? He did not lose in any of his first 56 games at Michigan. Not until game 57 – against Stagg’s University of Chicago squad got him – did Yost experience a Michigan game in which he walked off the field a beaten man. Even then, in that loss to Chicago, Michigan’s defense did not give up a single point. Chicago won, 2-0. That’s how Yost’s first loss in Ann Arbor occurred.

We bring up Yost because those first five seasons at Michigan unfolded from 1901 through 1905. The Wolverines won at least 10 games in all of those seasons, at least 11 in four of them. At that point in college football history, seasons were not regulated in terms of length. Even if seasons did stretch longer, it was not particularly commonplace for teams to register double-digit win totals in single seasons. Michigan – the winner of the first Rose Bowl game in 1902 by a score of 49-0 over Stanford – created such a dud of an event that the Rose Bowl did not stage a second engagement until 1916. The Wolverines weren’t just better than the competition; they existed on an entirely different plane relative to 98 percent of the competition.

This forms the prelude for an appreciation of Navy coach Paul Dashiell, the first great Midshipmen coach of the 20th century.

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From 1897 through 1899, Bill Armstrong guided the Midshipmen to 20 wins against only five losses. However, over the next four seasons under three different coaches, the Mids slipped to a collective record of 18-21-3. As the 1904 season began, someone needed to reset – and firmly establish – expectations for the program.

Dashiell became that man.

In 1904, Navy rebounded with a 7-2-1 record. The Midshipmen allowed only 3.8 points per game, recording six shutouts along the way. Navy allowed nine points in three games, and its “worst” defensive performance of the whole season came in the finale against Army. The Midshipmen conceded 11 whole points… but since Navy got shut out, that was more than enough for Army to prevail. Nevertheless, in very short order, Dashiell had restored something which was missing the previous four seasons. Heading into 1905, Navy had a right to think it could do even better.

That’s exactly what the Midshipmen did. They improved and reached a milestone that seemed impossible at the end of 1903.

If you thought Navy’s defense was outstanding in 1904 with that 3.8-points-allowed-per-game average, the Midshipmen were legitimately (and more to the point, precisely) twice as good in 1905. Dashiell’s defense conceded only 1.9 points per game, never allowing more than six points in a game and recording eight shutouts. The only wonder of the 1905 season is that Navy didn’t go 12-0. Nevertheless, the double-digit-win season that Michigan and Yost turned into an ordinary event in the first decade of the 20th century became Navy’s proud possession in 1905. The Midshipmen stormed to a 10-1-1 record, their only defeat being a 6-5 loss to Swarthmore on October 28.

If the Mids found that game and its outcome hard to accept, give the team and Dashiell credit: Everyone in the locker room turned the page. Navy fought past Penn State, 11-5, the next week, and by getting through that game, the team’s confidence was fully restored. The Midshipmen won their next three games by a composite score of 68-6 to reach the 10-win mark. The team could not beat Army in the finale, but the Midshipmen did not lose, either. A 6-6 tie wasn’t everything Navy wanted, but Army was forced to acknowledge the considerable improvements its opponent had made in the intervening year between meetings.

With 10 wins in a season, Navy became a target in 1906, with Dashiell back for what would be his final season – both in Annapolis and as a college head coach. Bearing that bulls-eye was not supposed to be easy, and it wasn’t. Yet, all things considered, Navy handled the season with great resilience and determination. The Midshipmen did lose twice, but even then, their defense could not have been better, allowing only three points in each defeat. (The scores of both losses were 5-0, so obviously, the defense did not allow either safety against Princeton and Penn State.)

Improbably but genuinely, Navy’s defense managed to become still better in 1906. The offense – which had averaged over 20 points in 1905 – regressed and averaged under 13 points per game. Navy endured two scoreless ties in 1906, and the offense labored through six games in which it did not score a touchdown. Navy scored fewer than six points in each of those six contests. Given that record of offensive futility, a rational person would have expected a crash-and-burn season, a “come down to earth” narrative after the soaring successes of 1905. Yet, Navy went 8-2-2 in 1906. The defense, as mentioned above, improved upon an already remarkable standard of excellence.

The Navy defense did not allow a single touchdown in that 1906 season. Two field goals were all the defense allowed, since the rest of the scoring done by opponents consisted of four safeties. Six points allowed by the defense, eight by the offense or special teams. That’s how six games with virtually no offensive production can be overcome.

The lasting point of satisfaction for Dashiell and Midshipmen everywhere is that when the time came to face Army for a third time, Navy got it right. After losing in 1904 and tying in 1905, Dashiell deserved a win, but the thing about “deserving” anything in life is that you have to work hard enough and well enough to put yourself in position. Navy did just that, blanking Army, 10-0, to give Dashiell the perfect send-off for his career. Dashiell put the “D” in Annapolis, and as a result, he lost only five of his 34 games as Navy’s head coach.

The postscript to Dashiell’s career at Navy is that the program was on very sound footing when he left. Joe Reeves went 9-2-1 in 1907, and Frank Berrien went 9-2-1 in 1908. Paul Dashiell had taken a drifting program and turned it into a powerhouse, winning 10 games in a season at a time when few college programs ever managed that feat.

If you’re going to compile a list of great Navy coaches and achievements, Paul Dashiell and the teams of 1904 through 1906 certainly ought to be in that number.

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