For all the "we’ve never seen it before" conversation that happens in college basketball every March, the simple truth is we actually have seen most of it before. Sure, the upsets are still exciting and the storylines are still juicy, but rarely do we get a true moment that can withstand the test of time.
In 1986, we got one of those, when Navy made a March run to remember. It came thanks to a perfect set of circumstances that included a coach with a vision, a group of players who chose a life in a service academy over other Division-I offers, and the evolution of one skinny 6-foot-7 wing player into a 7-foot first team All-American.
Their march may have fallen short of the Final Four, but Navy’s run to the Elite Eight in 1986 remains one of the NCAA tournament’s great stories.
On the 30th anniversary of Navy’s Elite Eight run, here is that story.
Football is, and always will be king in Annapolis, and that was certainly the case when Paul Evans arrived as the school’s basketball coach in 1980.
Yes, it’s unfair to say Navy had "no basketball tradition" when Evans took over, but it isn’t that far off. The Midshipmen hadn’t gone to an NCAA tournament in 20 years. Their 14-13 record the season before was filled with a bunch of wins over small Division-II schools.
At the time, the idea of a deep NCAA tournament run wasn’t laughable. It was inconceivable.
"I think our first team at Navy won one Division-I game. And that was against Army," Pete Hermann, an assistant on the 1986 team, said. "If anyone would have said to me then, that in five years ‘you’re going to be playing for the Final Four,’ I would have said, ‘You have lost your mind. You have completely lost your mind.’"
And despite what Evans inherited, the victories did start coming. The Midshipmen went from nine wins in Evans’ first year to 18 in the third year. That third year was especially important, since it was when those who would one day be seniors on the 1986 Elite Eight team arrived as freshmen.
And boy, could those freshmen play. Sticking to his rebuilding plan, Evans recruited locally to drum up interest in the community, signing power forward Vernon Butler from DeMatha Catholic in Hyattsville. At 6-foot-8, Butler was coveted by programs such as UConn, and was such a big-time recruit that Evans actually went to Atlantic City to gamble the day of his commitment because he was too nervous to wait around for the news. Kylor Whitaker came from the West Coast and provided outside shooting.
The improvement continued the following year with 24 wins in 1983-84, which set the stage for 1984-85, the year before the Elite Eight run. In addition to Doug Wojcik’s emergence as a steady point guard, a kid named David Robinson — yes, the future Basketball Hall of Famer — grew into the starting center spot.
The story of Robinson’s development into a future NBA All-Star has taken on mythic lore. Robinson wasn’t some hot-shot recruit pre-destined for success, rather a work in progress when he arrived in Annapolis.
Robinson didn’t begin playing basketball until his senior year of high school, after a growth spurt left him standing 6-7. And when Navy recruited him, they saw him as little more than a role player on the wing.
"Coming in, we had a 6-10 guy, a couple of interior guys already, Vernon Butler was 6-8, 250," Robinson remembered. "So I was just kind of a back-up guy, a guy who’d come in and steal some minutes from them."
We looked like a Catholic junior high team. They were so big.
Navy coach Paul Evans, on playing LSU in the 1985 NCAA tournament
But then another growth spurt happened, and by the time his sophomore year began, Robinson was right around 7-foot. His athleticism was still there, and his basketball skill came around. According to the coaching staff he began to put it all together during the middle of that 1985 season, and by the end of the year, he was a bona-fide superstar. Robinson averaged 23.6 points and 11.6 rebounds per game that season (he had averaged 7.6 and 4.0 the season before), and was the final piece to an almost complete puzzle.
Add him with the already established Butler, Whitaker and Wojcik (as well as reserves like Carl Liebert and Cliff Rees) and the Midshipmen were a complete team, one that could play with anyone. It was something the college basketball world learned that spring, when Navy qualified for the 1985 NCAA tournament, its first in 25 years.
There, the Midshipmen faced LSU, a team that on paper, the Midshipmen had no business matching up against. LSU was coming off a regular-season SEC title, and featured future NBA players like John "Hot Plate" Williams and Nikita Wilson. The Tigers’ size and athleticism were staggering.
"We looked like a Catholic junior high team," Evans remembered. "They were so big."
But for whatever Navy lacked in presence, they made up for with some combination of smarts, skill and basketball know-how. The Midshipmen zone flustered LSU’s shooters all day, while Navy’s starters — who had played together for several years at that point — seemed to be in sync all afternoon. Butler, Robinson and Wojcik combined to score 56 points, as the Midshipmen cruised to a shocking 78-55 victory.
Navy’s 1985 run eventually ended the following game against Len Bias and Maryland, but thanks to the LSU win, the tone had been set for the next season.
Navy returned all five starters. They also had the confidence that they could play with anyone in college basketball.
"The cat was out of the bag," Butler said.
The 1985-86 season was set to begin, and excitement was high. Still, Carl Liebert wasn’t totally ready for what greeted him when he walked into the locker room for the first time that fall. There, like he always did, Coach Evans had put the team’s goals on a plaque that hung in the locker room.
This time however, in addition to all the usual stuff, there was one surprising note at the bottom.
"It said, ‘Undefeated at home.’ It said, ‘Win the CAA,’" Liebert remembered. "And it said, ‘National Champions.’ When we saw it, half of us said ‘Holy crap! We’re at the Naval Academy!’"
The tone had been set, and from the day the 1985 season ended against Maryland, the focus immediately shifted to getting back to the NCAA tournament the following season. Workouts intensified that summer. Players pushed themselves harder. And just to make sure his team was prepared for March, Evans front-loaded the schedule with tough out-of-conference games against the likes of Syracuse, Georgia Tech and DePaul, as well as a season-opener against St. John’s, which was coming off a Final Four appearance.
To this day, Evans remembers that game for one reason.
"We got beat by St. John’s, a good St. John’s team, and we were right there, and nobody was happy (with the result), including myself," Evans remembered. "It wasn’t like ‘Well, you played well against a good team.’ I thought we should have won, and I think the kids did. And I think that got us off to the season pretty good. We were ready to play, and thought we could play with anybody."
The Midshipmen continued to carry that mindset into March, and entered the tournament with a 27-4 record overall. In a lot of ways, that was a mark of the Midshipmen of that era; they might not have been the most talented group individually, but collectively they pushed each other to get better each and every day.
There were no egos, just a burning desire to win.
"To the credit of all my teammates all the way down to the bench, we didn’t have friction amongst the bench. ‘I should be playing ahead of –‘ … We didn’t have of that," Whitaker said. "From the 12th man all the way to the top, to David, everybody knew their role, everybody maximized their strength, and the strengths combined were much better than any team with (superior) athletic talent."
I think that got us off to the season pretty good. We were ready to play, and thought we could play with anybody.
Paul Evans, on starting the 1986 season with a tough non-conference schedule
Navy entered the tournament as a seven-seed, and opened with a relatively easy win over Tulsa. Next came a matchup with second-seeded Syracuse in Round 2.
The game itself was interesting for a few different reasons, starting with the location: The Carrier Dome. Back then teams could play tournament games on their home courts, and Syracuse had gotten an advantageous draw. It was something that the Navy coaches and players weren’t all too happy about.
For Syracuse the home game didn’t matter, at least relative to who they were playing. The Orange had already beaten Navy earlier that season, and a rematch left a large segment of the fan-base underwhelmed. Many wondered if it was worth going to the game, since it fell on St. Patrick’s Day.
The local media got into the action, and couldn’t help but take cheap shots at Navy.
"I’ll never forget that Coach Evans put up an article in the locker room," Cliff Rees said. "A local Syracuse writer had written a story about how Syracuse had beaten us so badly not too long before, and the article said something to the effect of, ‘Does anyone expect a bunch of short-haired nerds to come in and compete with Syracuse?’"
Just about everyone in Syracuse thought the Orange were going to cruise to an easy victory, but that doubt — about a 27-win team, that had been to the second round of the NCAA tournament — fueled Navy in the pregame locker room, with one player especially fired up: David Robinson.
Understand that on most days, Robinson was one of the quietest guys on the team, a gentle giant off the court, who let his play do his talking for him on it. But the slights from both fans and media had lit a fire in Robinson that most of his teammates had never seen.
NAVY’S 1986 NCAA TOURNEY RUN
|First||No. 10 Tulsa||W, 87-68||30 pts, 12 rebounds|
|Second||No. 2 Syracuse||W, 97-85||35 pts, 11 rebounds|
|Sweet 16||No. 14 Cleveland State||W, 71-70||22 pts, 14 rebounds|
|Elite Eight||No. 1 Duke||L, 71-50||23 pts, 10 rebounds|
When many questioned how he would match up with Syracuse center Rony Seikaly, that was all the motivation he needed.
Robinson was ready.
"He said if Rony Seikaly gets in double figures, then I didn’t do my job," Liebert said of the Syracuse center who would go on to be an All-American. "His preparation for that game was unlike anything I’ve ever seen."
Robinson was great early and so was the entire Navy team. Despite playing in what amounted to a true road game, in front of 30,000 fans dressed in Orange, the Midshipmen took a 32-31 lead into halftime.
While the rest of college basketball was stunned, Navy was exactly where it expected to be. This was the moment the Midshipmen had spent four years waiting for, a situation they were prepared for thanks to their NCAA tournament run a season before, and that brutal out-of-conference schedule early in the year. There was nothing Syracuse could throw at them that they weren’t prepared for.
And Coach Evans let them know it.
"Coach Evans said, ‘We’re going to win this game,’" Liebert remembered. "They punched us and we’re still standing. Let’s give them a counterpunch."
‘Does anyone expect a bunch of short-haired nerds to come in and compete with Syracuse?’
Navy player Cliff Rees, remembering an article in a Syracuse paper prior to their tournament game
The Midshipmen were fired up, and used an 18-7 run in the middle of the second half to not just win the game, but blow the roof off the Carrier Dome. The grand plan that Evans had first put together when he arrived at Navy was on full-display that day; Syracuse was unable to keep up with Navy’s fast-break offense. Specifically the big men.
"I think one of the things with the fast break, obviously we’re not going to recruit guards at that level who can beat other guards down the floor," Evans said. "So our philosophy with our fast break was most big men don’t run up and down the floor well, so our big men are going to beat you up and down the floor."
That’s exactly what Navy did, as Robinson finished with 35 points and Butler with 23, all while Syracuse’s big guys battled foul trouble and fatigue. Seikaly finished the game with just four points, as Robinson fulfilled his pregame prediction that he would shut down the Syracuse center.
Navy eventually went on to a 97-85 win. At the time, it was the most points the Orange had allowed to an opponent at the Carrier Dome.
It was off to the Sweet 16, but before Navy could get there, well, there was a celebration to be had. The Midshipmen arrived back on campus a little after midnight, and when they got there, there was a surprise: The entire brigade, all 4,500 Midshipmen, greeted them at the gates of the university.
"When we came back … everybody was out there partying, celebrating," Robinson remembered. "It was during midterms. Everyone had watched the games, and it was pretty cool. That was, for us, I think we realized that week how much it meant to us, what we were doing."
The Midshipmen were rock stars on campus, but in a lot of ways, that school-wide celebration might not have been the best thing for them as they began to prepare for their Sweet 16 matchup. Fellow students began hounding the players for autographs, while the national media descended upon Annapolis to cover what had become the biggest story of the tournament.
It left Navy mentally exhausted by the time the team left the academy to head to the Meadowlands for the Sweet 16.
"We kind of ran out of gas that next weekend," Evans said. "And that may have had something to do with it. The kids hadn’t been through that before, and the reason they hadn’t been through it was because the academy doesn’t allow it in a lot of situations. But in this situation the academy allowed it, in this situation they were available after practice each night, and there was more pressure on them than they were used to."
It didn’t help that their Sweet 16 opponent — Cleveland State — posed a tough stylistic matchup for Navy as well.
Like the Midshipmen, the Vikings had turned into a media darling, after knocking off Indiana and St. Joe’s to become the first 14-seed to advance to the second weekend of the Big Dance. On the court, Cleveland State was led by a small point guard named Ken "Mouse" McFadden, who triggered a frantic, full-court press that had left opponents flustered.
When the game tipped off, Navy was able to handle that full-court press, but the Vikings also countered with something that the Midshipmen weren’t totally prepared for. In the half-court Cleveland State packed things in on defense, which limited Robinson and Butler’s touches in the paint, and essentially challenged Navy to try and beat the Vikings from the perimeter. Whitaker handled the first part (scoring 23 points), but the Midshipmen couldn’t seem to get into a rhythm offensively.
They trailed by five with under seven minutes to go, and even after battling back, were down by one after Cleveland State hit a floater in the lane to take a one-point lead.
From there the Midshipmen rushed the ball up-court, and after a frantic loose ball led to a tie-up, Navy got the ball under its basket with a few seconds to play. Evans called a timeout.
That was, for us, I think we realized that week how much it meant to us, what we were doing.
David Robinson, on celebrations back on campus after their first two tournament wins in 1986
Evans began to run through the plan for Navy. Whitaker would inbound the ball, and look for Robinson for a quick catch and shoot. If that wasn’t there, Whitaker was given two or three other options.
Unfortunately for the coach, the senior Whitaker wasn’t having any of it. In a moment that Navy’s players and coaches still joke about, Whitaker stopped his coach mid-sentence and altered the game-plan on the fly.
Whitaker had no interest in those two or three other options.
Navy had an All-American center in the middle. And the ball was going to him.
"Just as we were about to break, I said to the team; all the starters were sitting down, and the coaches are circled around, and I said, ‘Look, there’s only one option: Dave, I’m throwing it to you. Get open.’"
And to his credit, Evans agreed. He altered the lineup to get an extra big body on the court in case there was an offensive rebound.
Thankfully for Navy, that big body wasn’t needed.
Each player had to be a little bit better, a little bit sharper, and I don’t think we were able to step up to that challenge.
Robinson, on the loss to Duke in the Elite Eight
Whitaker took the ball. When the whistle blew, the players went into motion, including Robinson, who ran off a screen, and for just a brief moment was left open. That’s all Whitaker needed as he got the ball into Robinson, who caught it, came down and hit an acrobatic leaner, to give Navy a one-point lead with just five seconds to play.
The Midshipmen bench went crazy, and after a timeout, Cleveland State’s last-second shot bounced off the back of the rim. Navy survived with a 71-70 victory over the Vikings, a win that defined the Navy team as well as anything.
"They had all played together, they knew their roles," Evans said. "So they’d come out of a timeout or any situation, and we’d say, ‘OK, we’re going to do this.’ And they went out and executed."
Next up in the Elite Eight was Duke.
Duke wasn’t quite the "Duke" it is today, but still fighting for the national respect that the Blue Devils are routinely now given. In 1986 coach Mike Krzyzewski was in his sixth year at the school, and his seniors had battled from a losing record as freshmen, to the brink of a Final Four in their last year on campus. Guys like Johnny Dawkins and Jay Bilas had almost literally helped Coach K build the Duke program from the ground up, and Krzyzewski, (a former Army player and coach), wasn’t going to let them overlook the Midshipmen.
Although no one knew it at the time, it was the worst possible matchup for Navy.
The Blue Devils were clearly more talented than the Midshipmen. They were on a mission to get Coach K to his first Final Four, and it showed early. A game that started out with so much promise got out of control by the middle of the first half.
"I think the difference in that game was that we ran into a team that could put extreme pressure on each individual," Robinson, who finished the game with 23 points and 10 rebounds said. "I think that was the difference for us. Each player had to be a little bit better, a little bit sharper, and I don’t think we were able to step up to that challenge."
By halftime, the score was 34-22, and the Blue Devils never let up. By the middle of the second half, Evans began emptying his bench to make sure that everyone on his roster got a taste of NCAA tournament play.
"Duke was successful that day for the same reason they’ve been successful for the past 30 years," Whitaker said. "Duke is as disciplined as they are talented. And when you put two teams on the floor that are both disciplined and both execute well, then it comes down to talent. Their talent out-executed us.
"Not that on any given day we couldn’t have beaten them. But it wasn’t our day."
Although no one knew it at the time, that night at the Meadowlands in New Jersey served as the beginning of the end of Navy’s glory run of the mid-to-late 1980s. It also served as the high point for service academy basketball since.
Almost as soon as the players returned to campus, things changed. Butler and Whitaker — cogs during the back-to-back NCAA tournament runs — graduated as seniors, and Evans went out the door too, accepting the head coaching job at Pittsburgh a few days later (one of his first hires was a young assistant coach named John Calipari).
Pete Herrmann took over as head coach, and Robinson returned for his senior year, but as he evolved into the National Player of the Year, the team had changed too much around him. The Midshipmen were still good, but not great, and lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament after a 26-win regular season.
Since Navy’s Elite Eight run in 1986, basketball success has been fleeting for service academies, as Army, Navy and the Air Force have combined to win zero tourney games over that 30-year stretch. Heck, Army is still looking for its first tournament berth period, which is somewhat amazing considering that two of the greatest coaches ever — Bobby Knight and Krzyzewski — worked there.
"None of us really had an ability to grasp when we were going through that timeframe, that it would never be duplicated," Butler said. "There have been a lot of great teams and great coaches at the Naval Academy since then, but how rare is it that you have that group of guys come together with that type of coaching staff and you have a guy who grows to over 7-feet tall over that timeframe and becomes a top 50 NBA player of all time?"
Maybe, for the 1986 Navy Midshipmen, it isn’t what they did. But how they did it. And who they did it with.
"It was really a perfect blend of all facets of people, athletes, the academy," Whitaker said. "I think it has created a bond. Not that we’re on the phone every day with everyone, but when we do get together we always have that smile that we accomplished something that is unique and not only on the basketball floor but in life."