Unrivaled: Navy’s 1985-86 Elite Eight Team Tops All Service Academy Squads

Carl C. Liebert ’87 had to convince his own mother Navy’s season wasn’t done.

On the morning of Navy’s 1986 second-round NCAA Tournament game in the Carrier Dome, Peggy Liebert recapped the Midshipmen’s magical season to her son as if it were over. Liebert, a starting forward on the team, remembers his mother noting how much the team achieved and how the program was set to do something special the following year.

This occurred in the hotel just a few hours before Navy tipped off against No. 8 Syracuse on the Orangemen’s home court. While few basketball observers held little hope the Midshipmen would advance to the Sweet 16, Liebert was a stunned to find doubt within his own family.

“I said, ‘Mom, we still have a chance,’” Liebert said, laughing.

The seventh-seeded Midshipmen not only stood a chance, they shocked the basketball world by claiming a 97-85 victory over the second-seeded Orangemen on 16 March 1986 in front of a Syracuse friendly crowd. The Orangemen boasted four future NBA players but two of them (center Rony Seikaly and point guard Dwayne “Pearl” Washington) fouled out as Navy avenged a 22-point loss to Syracuse on 7 December 1985.

Navy defeated Cleveland State 71-70 in the Sweet 16 before falling 71-50 to Duke in the Elite 8. The 1985-86 Midshipmen remain the greatest service academy men’s basketball team 35 years later. None of its service academy peers have ever won an NCAA Tournament game. The 1985-86 team won three and was No. 17 in the final Associated Press poll that year.

David Robinson ’87 led the NCAA in blocked shots and rebounding his second-class year, the 1985-86 season. He also claimed his second of three Colonial Athletic Association Player of the Year awards that campaign. Robinson, a two-time National Basketball Association champion and one of the NBA’s 50 greatest players, might have been the biggest attraction on the Navy squad but he was supported by a cadre of teammates whose mettle was tested and hardened in the preceding season.

Although the 1985-86 squad reaped the rewards of a rejuvenated program, the seeds for success were sown during the early 1980s when Coach Paul Evans arrived. Members of the Elite 8 team point to the seasons immediately prior to their run as the genesis of their rise. While the foundation was laid by the 1982-83, 1983-84 and 1984-85 squads, the two Syracuse games during the 1985-86 season illustrate the growth, selflessness and unity that resulted in an Elite 8 showing.

Kylor Whitaker ’86 was Navy’s starting shooting guard on the Elite 8 team. His 13 points per game average was third best on the team behind Robinson (22.7) and Vernon Butler ’86 (16.4). Whitaker said it took every member of the team, support from the Academy’s administration, the Brigade of Midshipmen and the coaching staff for Navy to reach its potential. He attributed the team’s run to an ego-free lineup, game plans tied to the Midshipmen’s strengths and a commitment by the players to execute Evans’ scheme.

“So many pieces had to be just right to fit that we captured lightning in a bottle,” Whitaker said.

In the final minutes of the second-round NCAA Tournament game, Evans substituted reserves as a stunned Carrier Dome crowd fell relatively silent compared to Navy’s appearance three months earlier. Twelve players saw action for Navy that day including senior Tony Wells ’86 who, while only starting a handful of games his collegiate career, was lauded by teammates for his selflessness and leadership.

As the last seconds ticked off the scoreboard, Liebert saw his brothers and parents celebrating behind the Midshipmen’s bench. He said the victory over Syracuse was the culmination of an effort years in the making and the product of dedication following a second-round loss to Maryland the year before.

“I remember tears of joy in my eyes,” said Liebert. “We had all showed up in that moment. This win was shaped in the work we put in the spring.” 

A Culture of Winning

Although Navy’s historic 1985-86 run was hardly predictable, a breakout season shouldn’t have been surprising. Navy hadn’t earned an NCAA Tournament bid in 20 years when Evans arrived for the 1980-81 season. The Midshipmen had only had seven winning seasons in the previous two decades and hadn’t won more than 14 games in a season since the 1959-60 team went 16-6.

Evans’ first two Navy teams went 9-16 and 12-14. His third team rocketed to an 18-8 record but missed the NCAA Tournament and the National Invitational Tournament (NIT). In 1983-84, Navy set a program record with 24 victories. However, the Midshipmen were again denied postseason play for failing to win their conference tournament.

Butler started as a freshman on the 1982-83 team. He would graduate in 1986 as the program’s leading scorer and rebounder although Robinson would claim those crowns the next year. Butler and a host of players on Evans’ teams leading up to 1985-86 were instrumental in creating the culture of success at Navy. Members of the 1985-86 team credited players a few years ahead of them for initiating the program’s rise. Among those who helped lay the foundation are former players (with their service rank): Captain Cliff M. Mauer ’84, CEC, USN (Ret.); Lieutenant Commander Mike Jones ’84, SC, USN (Ret.); David A. Brooks ’83; Robert K. Romaine ’84; Captain James M. Kuzma ’83, USN (Ret.); and Lieutenant Gary D. Price ’84, USNR (Ret.).

“The guys that laid the foundation for us and paid their dues were the generation right before us,” said Butler, one of five Navy men’s basketball players to have their jerseys retired. “Those guys were the foundation for turning around the program. We reaped the rewards for that. A culture of winning is what happened in that first season and setting a higher standard for ourselves.”

Navy entered the 1985-86 season No. 19 in the AP poll. The Midshipmen would fall to St. John’s 66-58 to open the year. The Red Men (now the Red Storm) had four future NBA players and was ranked No. 4 in the final AP poll. The Midshipmen’s non-conference schedule also included a victory over Penn State, the December loss at Syracuse and a 67-64 victory over DePaul and an 82-64 loss to preseason No. 1 Georgia Tech in the Cotton States Classic in Atlanta. 

Doug Wojcik ’87, the starting point guard on the 1985-86 team, said the team entered his second-class season committed to building off the success of the previous year.

“Winning was the biggest thing,” said Wojcik, who now is recruiting coordinator for Michigan State’s basketball team. He also has served as head coach at the University of Tulsa and the College of Charleston. “We liked what happened in 1985, we wanted more of that.”

Liebert said the team’s goals were to win every home game, win the Colonial Athletic Association championship and cap the season by cutting the nets at the Final Four. Navy’s loftiest aspiration was posted on a sign above the door in the Midshipmen’s Halsey Field House locker room, Liebert said.

A victory over LSU in the previous year’s NCAA Tournament and the scars of missing postseason plays the two years prior to that motivated the Midshipmen in 1986. Navy would win 16-consecutive games between 25 January and 21 March. The team would finish the season 30-5 overall and 13-1 in league play.

The roots of the Midshipmen’s memorial run stretched back a few years, but their legacy was cemented at the Carrier Dome. 

Stunned Silence

Navy’s players credited Syracuse for getting Midshipmen in foul trouble and setting the game’s pace in the December game. For many basketball pundits, the rematch would be a formality with the more talented, higher-ranking Orangemen using their home court advantage to advance to the Sweet 16.

Butler recalled a Syracuse cab driver asking him and Robinson if they thought they had a fighting chance against the Orangemen. However, it was the Midshipmen who dictated the style of play. Syracuse had no answer for Robinson and Butler who dominated the interior in March 1986. Navy trailed Syracuse by eight at halftime in the first game but led 32-31 after 20 minutes in rematch.

With the Orangemen in foul trouble, the Midshipmen took control of the game with a series of alley-oops to Robinson in the second half to run away with the victory. A Butler alley-oop to Robinson over Seikaly—who picked up his fourth foul on the play—demonstrated Navy’s dominance and precision execution.

With Robinson and Butler running the floor, Navy made the most of its fast-break and interior opportunities. If shots didn’t fall, the Midshipmen made the Orangemen pay from the line. Navy converted 41-of-52 free throws while Syracuse only attempted 20. When Syracuse’s zone defense clamped down on the big men, Whitaker, Wojcik and Cliff Rees ’88 shouldered the offensive load. Rees scored 14 points on 2-of-4 shooting from the field. He made all 10 of his free-throw attempts.

The Midshipmen were fueled by their improvement since the lopsided loss in Syracuse and the skepticism surrounding their chances in the rematch. A local columnist suggested the Orangemen had little to fear from a “bunch of short hairs.”

“That week of practice was awesome,” said Liebert, who is CEO of KWX, a holding company for the Keller Williams realty firm. “We felt a little disrespected. We were resolved that we had work to do.

“From the tip to the end of the game, we played to our potential.”

Wojcik made Washington earn his team-high 28 points, hounding the dynamic point guard from the first whistle. Facing a tenacious perimeter defense and a shot-blocking nightmare inside, the Orangemen could not sustain offensive efficiency. The combination of Wojcik, Robinson and Whitaker overwhelmed Syracuse, Liebert said.

“They put on a show,” he said. “We had never had them all click on all cylinders in a game like that.”

Evans wasn’t among those shocked at the game’s outcome. He said Syracuse’s 101-52 victory over Brown University in its NCAA Tournament opener two days earlier benefited his team.

“They looked at us like we weren’t much better than Brown,” Evans said. “They were overconfident going into the game. That worked in our favor.”

Butler commended Evans for setting high standards and pulling the best out of each player. The 1985-86 team reached its potential because the players saw something greater than themselves when they took the floor.

“He was demanding but if he wasn’t at that level, we would have underachieved,” Butler said. “If you weren’t playing team ball, hitting the open man, you weren’t on the court very long.”

While the Midshipmen celebrated, the Syracuse faithful in the cavernous 30,000-seat Carrier Dome were stunned.

“We were up by double digits with five minutes left and you could hear a pin drop in the Carrier Dome,” Butler said.

Robinson finished with 35 points, 11 rebounds, three steals and seven blocked shots. He made 21 of 27 free throws. Butler added 23 points on 9-of-11 shooting and nine rebounds.

Syracuse’s four future NBA players—Seikaly, Washington, Rafael Addison and Sherman Douglas—combined for 45 points and 18 fouls.

“We knew we had it in hand with two-three minutes left,” Whitaker said. “We got to enjoy those last moments of stunned silence. We got to take it all in.”

Vice Admiral Albert H. Konetzni ’66, USN (Ret.), was the team’s officer representative. The submariner admits he had limited basketball knowledge when then-Superintendent Admiral Charles R. Larson ’58, USN (Ret.), asked him to be the liaison with the team.

However, Konetzni said he got a better appreciation for personal sacrifice and teamwork traveling with the team and attending practices. The second Syracuse game was an emotional whirlwind for Konetzni.

“When we beat them, I cried like a baby,” he said. 

A Great Ride

For 35 years, members of the 1985-86 Navy men’s basketball team have been linked by a magical spree unduplicated by any other service academy squad. They remain close and in frequent contact with one another. There are several text chains where the former players and coaches are updated on family additions, career milestones and stories featuring their exploits.

They’ve had reunions and group gatherings, including one at Chicago’s Wrigley Field a few years ago. Members of the teams preceding the 1985-86 team are invited, too.

Wojcik said retaining ties to college friends isn’t uncommon but being a part of such a special club will always connect the players and coaches.

“Winning creates those bonds,” Wojcik said.

Whitaker, who works for a medical company and lives in Northern Virginia, said the memories and affection for that team endure for Navy fans because it was so unexpected. For basketball royalty—Duke, Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky—Final Four appearances are demanded by their fan bases. For one glorious season, recollections of a packed Halsey Field House, the Brigade meeting the team bus at T-Court and Annapolitans basking in the glow continue to be shared with wonderment.

“It was a great ride,” Whitaker said. “I am amazed at how many people remember that Navy basketball team 35 years later and how special it was. I’m so blessed to have been a part of it.”

Source: Shipmate: March-April 2021