College Football: Why Army vs. Navy still matters — and always will
(Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Move over, Michigan-Ohio State. Adios, Alabama-Auburn. College football’s best rivalry goes down today in Philadelphia.

The way the American public consumes is unrecognizable from the way it was when the Army Black Knights and the Navy Midshipmen first met on the field in 1890. The 24/7 coverage, endless debate of a playoff, and constant comings and goings of coaches and players alike have turned what was once a popular amateur pastime into a monster business consuming not just Saturdays in the fall, but the entire calendar in the process.

Rivalries, once limited to state lines have become national events, games that take place in the southeast part of the country drawing major interest and ratings in the north. Some say this change is for the better, some for the worse, but it’s certainly changed since the first meeting held at The Plain at West Point more than a century ago.

But throughout the changes, throughout the transformation, Army-Navy has, and always will be, college football’s finest rivalry.

The 118th showdown between the Knights and Midshipmen goes down today at snowy Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia (3:00 PM, CBS), the final matchup of the college football regular season. Despite the addition of numerous conference championship games, it has still maintained that spot as the years have gone by.

“Army-Navy is special because it represents those who serve our country. Many families have members who have served in one of the Armed Forces so there is a broader connection across the country than a typical Regional or conference rivalry,” explains Joseph Fitzhenry, a Saratoga Springs, NY resident and 1983 West Point graduate. “Regardless of records, a rivalry game like this is always entertaining. The broad connection across many families and all 50 states make this a game that is connected to a wide swath of our society. As long as we have men and women willing to sacrifice a portion of their lives to protect our freedoms, the game will always be relevant.”

Fitzhenry is one of many who have witnessed the showdown over the years, his favorite memory being the 3-3 tie in 1981

“Navy had beaten Army my first two years at West Point so a tie felt like a victory since Army went 3-7-1 that year and Navy went 7-4-1,” Fitzhenry explains. “That Navy team ended up playing Ohio State in a bowl game that season and only lost by 3 points.”

Commemorating both the game and Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day, New York Giants offensive coordinator and West Point graduate Mike Sullivan sent his regards to the modern day Black Knights during his weekly statements on Thursday.

“The sacrifices of those people and of all of our service men and women throughout the years, we’re not able to do what we’re doing here without them,” Sullivan said. “So, I think we all and I’m remised for not mentioning that, that we all ought to remember what happened on Dec. 7. Last thing I’ll say, go Army, beat Navy!”

At first, it’s easy to cast away Army-Navy for a so-called fancier rivalry. This, for example, is only the fourth time since 1996 both teams enter the game with a winning record, and their ties to a small-time conference or, in Army’s case, independence, national championship implications have been low in recent years.

But the annual December showdown between the service academies is unlike any other thanks to the way it transcends the game of football.

For instance, unlike other rivalries throughout college football, it’s not like you’ll be seeing anyone on the Linc’s field playing for the Eagles, or any other NFL team, anytime soon. These players will take on an assignment bigger than any pro game plan: protecting our great nation.

Both academies, in exchange for their free undergraduate education, require a service commitment upon their graduation. While there have been exceptions, such as Navy’s prolific quarterback Keenan Reynolds (who became a Baltimore Ravens draft selection in 2016), football takes a backseat to service in an era where someplace the game above all else.

Through this game, in a time when football is seen as a business first and foremost, a lost art is on display: pure love of the game.

“You’ve got two schools that, as passionate as they both are about sports and football, it’s not everything for them,” Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo told Ryan Mayer of CBS Local Sports. “We want to win in the worst way, but there’s a bigger calling, there’s a bigger mission for that one day, just everything about it. I love how it touches the whole country. There are a lot of great rivalries, but most of them are regional in various states. This one, it touches our whole country.

In a time where our nation could be described as divided, we need this game now more than ever. Sometimes, college football rivalries bring out the worst in humanity, evidenced no better…or worse…perhaps by the poisoning of Auburn’s famous Toomer’s Corner trees by an overzealous Alabama fan.

Sure, there’s competition between Army and Navy, like any college football rivalry, competition happily on display when ESPN’s College GameDay descended on Philadelphia this morning. After all, what’s a rivalry without a little trash talk and school spirit?

There is, however, a mutual respect between the two. Those on the field and in the stands know what the other is going through. No one knows pressure better than they, those who protect our right to live as we please. Three hours to temporarily forget the rigors and pressure of military service are best spent partaking in arguably the country’s most beloved sport.

“Your time at the academies is short, but your connection to the Brotherhood of Arms is forever,” Fitzhenry says. “After you graduate you will be on the same team defending our country, but for this weekend you are representing your respective academies. Have fun, enjoy the camaraderie, be safe, and as always, Go Army! Beat Navy!”

As for the casual fan, they need not choose a side, simply allowed to partake in the national pastimes of football and love of country. Of course, the top fan of honor is none other than the Commander in Chief, as Presidents of the United States have regularly attended. While sitting President Donald Trump is not expected to attend this season, he became the first president-elect to attend last year, witnessing Army end Navy’s 14-year monopoly on the rivalry in a 21-17 thriller.

“They’re the best we have to offer,” 44th President Barack Obama said on-air while visiting CBS’s booth during the 2011 game. “What we’re reminded of is that as important as sports are, these guys are going to be in life or death situations voluntarily protecting our country. They’re going to be on the same team. It constantly makes you grateful for being here in America and these incredible young people.”

So keep your Auburn-Alabamas. Cast aside Ohio State-Michigan. This is, and always will be, the finest rivalry in sports.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffMags5490