Zemek's Navy-East Carolina thoughts

Coaches--as motivational masters--know how to willfully deceive players. Athletes--as motivated competitors--know how to tell themselves the right lies. These two realities will help the Navy football team on Saturday, when the Midshipmen face the East Carolina Pirates in the 2006 season-opener.

Coaches have to lie to their players, emotionally if not literally. When the ship is going down, coaches have to clap, smile that brave and strained smile, and prevent themselves from blowing a gasket... at least on many (if not most) occasions. When everything's going wrong, coaches have to say, "It's all right, son." Conversely, when everything is oh-so-right, coaches often blister their charges by telling them how much they're doing wrong. It's all part of the fine art of keeping young people motivated.

Athletes themselves engage in a similar process of deception, with the only difference being that it's directed toward their own selves and nobody else. The athlete--no matter how dire the situation or how lopsided the match up--will tell himself he has a chance at winning, and that he's the best player on the field. Athletes have to have this weird and seemingly warped sense of their capabilities and capacities. It's not really lying--same goes for coaches--but it's not exactly a psychology that is honest in the most immediate or literal sense. Deception is part of the motivational school in sports: always has been, always will be.

So as Navy gets ready for the first game in the Brian Hampton era, Coach Paul Johnson and his players must all gather 'round and engage in a willful bit of self-deception. And with a bunch of lawless Pirates trying to storm the virtuous sailors in Annapolis, I know just the ploy the Navy boss can use on his players.

The trick? All Coach Johnson needs to tell his boys is this simple fact: East Carolina lost at West Virginia by just five points last season.

Put that on a banner, trumpet it from the rooftops and the deck of every air craft carrier, and print it out on T-shirts: "EAST CAROLINA LOST AT WEST VIRGINIA BY FIVE POINTS LAST YEAR!"

The scoreboard says it plainly: West Virginia 20, East Carolina 15. The team that ran roughshod over (or, more accurately, past) Georgia in Atlanta (and the Dawgs' backyard in the Sugar Bowl) was the same team that barely scraped by East Carolina University at home in Morgantown. Wow--East Carolina must be pretty loaded!

Navy's players may or may not know this, but if they don't, they shouldn't read it: when West Virginia played East Carolina last season, the Mountaineers--a top-team team at the end of the 2005 campaign--hadn't yet begun to show anything special as a team. With Adam Bednarik, and not super-fast thoroughbred Pat White, quarterbacking West Virginia's offense, the Mountaineers struggled to score. It was only after Bednarik got injured that White quickly and decisively turned a slumbering offense into a juggernaut.

It's true enough that for East Carolina--a middle-tier program in Conference USA--losing by five at West Virginia, with or without an explosive Mountaineer offense, still represented the Pirates' best game of the 2005 season. Moreover, the competitive nature of that one game gives Navy legitimate reason to fear the Pirates, who--with a complete, mistake-free game--are indeed good enough to upend the Midshipmen on Opening Day of 2006.

But with that having been said, Navy's speed on the edges--a smaller-scale version of the speed Pat White brought to West Virginia's attack after Adam Bednarik's injury--is precisely what should enable the Mids to outrun and outflank ECU with the triple option. If Brian Hampton is everything he's made out to be, his first real live game should be a victorious one.

But don't tell this to Hampton or the rest of the Navy team: as far as they know--and as far as Coach Johnson will describe it--East Carolina nearly beat No. 7 and prodigiously talented West Virginia on the Mountaineers' home turf last season. With this bit of drummed-up motivation in hand, Navy will play with the urgency and humility it needs to dust off the Pirates... and, for that matter, the many other tricky opponents who will come Navy's way throughout this 2006 campaign.


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