Sometimes it pays to have friends in high places. And in the case of the United States Naval Academy, they can thank their relationship with New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and head coach Bill Belichick, both of whom have close ties to Annapolis.
The Patriots came to the aid of the Midshipmen football team this week. When the 40 annual college football bowl games were announced, it meant that 80 college football teams started scrambling to make flight and hotel reservations for their respective trips. In the case of Navy, they were scheduled to play in the Auto Zone Liberty Bowl in Memphis.
Robb Dunn, the Naval Academy’s deputy director of athletics for administration, handles all of the logistics when the Midshipmen travel to away games. He knew that all flights, especially around Christmas, were going fast. Navy usually flies with Southwest Airlines; but Dunn knew that there were no planes available this time of year.
Not much was available on short notice and those available were charging exorbitant prices for the flight. So that’s when Naval Academy’s Athletic Director Chet Gladchuk stepped in.
Gladchuk and Kraft, the Patriots owner, have known each other for several decades, since Gladchuk’s time at Boston College. They had previously spoken about the Patriots’ Gillette Stadium as possibly being the venue for the annual Army-Navy game or perhaps the Academy’s game against Notre Dame.
Gladchuck told the Baltimore Sun that Kraft has always been eager to help. “We’ve spent a lot of time talking about the possibility of playing a game up there in Foxborough,” Gladchuk said. “Through that dialogue, we’ve developed a relationship and (Kraft) has a standing offer that ‘anything we can do to help, just let us know.’ This situation lent itself to a real unique opportunity for Navy football.”
Gladchuk asked if it was possible for the Midshipmen to use one of the Patriots’ two aircraft that they use to fly to their own away games. Kraft gave his blessing and put the Academy in touch with the company that manages and operates the aircraft, known as Team 125.
So, the two sides worked out a sweetheart deal and rather than flying much more expensively in a cramped cabin, the Navy football team flew cheaper in much nicer accommodations.
“Compared to any commercial airline, the Patriots plane is another world. You’re talking 205 premium seats. Everyone onboard feels like they’re sitting in first class. Of course, the service is incredible. Everything about that plane is top-notch,” Dunn said.
And what better way for one of the service academies to fly than in a red-white-and-blue aircraft? Of course, it has the requisite Patriots logo and six Super Bowl trophies painted on the tail.
Navy and the Patriots have always had a tight relationship since Patriot head coach Bill Belichick took over duties in 2000. He grew up at Annapolis as his father Steve was a coach and scout there for 36 years. The elder Belichick was the longest-serving assistant coach in the Academy’s history. Bill learned the football ropes from his father and as a young boy would help QB Roger Staubach warm-up before his Heisman Trophy year.
Belichick was asked to be the keynote speaker at the Naval Academy this past summer as they honored two long-time coaches who passed away within a week of one another, Rick Forzano and George Welsh.
In the last season, when the Midshipmen fell to a 3-10, it was their defense that let them down. Head coach Ken Niumatalolo reached out to Belichick for advice. Belichick is known for coaching great defense — the fact that he’s won more Super Bowls (six) than any other coach certainly speaks for itself. Niumataolo said he felt like a struggling artist speaking with Picasso. Navy turned it around this season and on the strength of their defense went 10-2 and is ranked #23 in the country. Yes, it pays to have friends some times.
In this case, having friends saved the Navy team a lot of money and allowed them to fly in style.