Studying history on the road
Interactive tour exposes Auburn, Davidson and East Carolina players to military
Brandon Suggs was the very picture of concentration as he steered a destroyer out of San Diego Harbor.
Suggs, a junior forward with the East Carolina men’s basketball team, was totally focused as he was forced to follow all the navigational markers, avoid oncoming ships in the narrow channel and negotiate steep waves upon entering the Pacific Ocean.
At one point, the 6-foot-6 product of Powder Springs, Georgia turned the wheel too sharply and the ship suddenly rolled. It would have been a catastrophic mistake out on the water, but fortunately Miles was operating inside a ship simulator located within Luce Hall on the campus of the Naval Academy.
Miles and all his East Carolina teammates took a turn steering Naval vessels as part of extremely realistic simulations. In the span of about an hour, those Pirates players gained a deeper understanding of what manymidshipmen will be doing when they graduate from the Naval Academy.
“It was really cool, very intense,” Suggs said afterward of the ship simulator experience.
On Thursday, the three visiting teams participating in the sixth annual Veterans Classic toured the Naval Academy to gain a better understanding of the institution and learn more about the daily lives of the midshipmen there.
Players and coaches from Auburn, Davidson and East Carolina climbed aboard a Yard Patrol boat, stepped inside a helicopter and poked around a Humvee. Along the way, they interacted with members of the Brigade of Midshipmen as well as various Naval officers they encountered.
“I found the tour to be a very insightful experience with regard to the honor and integrity of these midshipmen,” said Bob McKillop, the 30th-year head coach at Davidson. “It clearly gives you a great understanding of just how committed these young, aspiring military officers are, along with the discipline required to attend a service academy.”
All the visitors were clearly captivated by the noon formation in front of Bancroft Hall, which is conducted daily with military precision. There was complete silence as the brigade, regimental and company officers yelled out orders and the midshipmen responded.
A pep band began playing Anchors Aweigh as the assembled marched up the steps and inside Bancroft Hall. Auburn, Davidson and East Carolina players then ate lunch in King Hall alongside the midshipmen.
“It was everything we wanted it to be. Certain things need to be taught — patriotism, love of country, an understanding of the freedoms we enjoy,” Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl said. “I think it’s our job as coaches and teachers at the university to give our studentathletes an opportunity to learn those things.”
Pearl believes the exposure to various military equipment gave his players a deeper understanding that midshipmen their age would very soon be commissioned officers leading men and women into harm’s way.
“This is hallowed ground because of what happens here, the training that takes place throughout the year,” Pearl said. “We play to win, and we don’t like to lose. These guys here at Navy — if they lose, they lose their lives. There’s a huge difference. I cannot put into words the admiration and respect I have for these young men who are going to serve our country.”
Auburn is coming off an appearance in the Final Four, a breakthrough campaign that concluded with a 30-10 record. The Tigers suffered significant losses with six key members of the rotation either graduating or leaving early for the professional ranks.
However, Pearl has brought in a highly rated recruiting class led by swingman Isaac Okoro, who is already considered an NBA prospect. Auburn will meet a Davidson program that has been a consistent winner under McKillop, whose 2008 squad led by the incomparable Stephen Curry advanced to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament.
“This was an honor for Auburn basketball to be asked to participate in this event. When I got the call, I didn’t even hesitate,” Pearl said. “I didn’t look forward to playing Davidson because that’s a really good team that is really well coached, but we felt compelled to support this event.”
Pearl pointed out that a key component of the original mission of Auburn University, as set forth in the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890, was to teach military tactics. To this day, Auburn boasts one of the top-rated Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) programs in the country.
“We’re going to have a really good turnout of fans who have traveled from all over the country to see our team play here at the Naval Academy,” Pearl said.
Ninth-year Navy head coach Ed DeChellis established the Veterans Classic for a two-fold purpose. First and foremost, bringing some of the elite programs in Division I to the Annapolis service academy vastly improves the visibility of Navy basketball. Second, the event promotes awareness of Veteran’s Day, which is this coming Monday.
“We have more than 20 million veterans in this country and they deserve to be honored as much as possible,” DeChellis said. “I hope this event brings some sort of recognition about all the great veterans who have fought for our freedom. Basketball games are the vehicle we’re driving, but hopefully people see the big picture and underlying message behind what we are doing.”
Naval Academy athletic director Chet Gladchuk addressed that very topic when welcoming the three visiting teams on Thursday morning, speaking passionately about the importance of honoring the nation’s military veterans.
Clint Bruce, a former Navy football player and Navy SEAL, addressed the players on Thursday evening in Memorial Hall — a sacred place that contains a complete honor roll of the 2,660 Naval Academy graduates who have died in military operations.
“Clint Bruce always gives a very powerful speech. He talks about doing the job, staying the course, holding fast,” DeChellis said. “When things are done wrong by Navy SEALS, people lose their lives.”
McKillop is a proud American and agreed to bring Davidson to the Veterans Classic to support the cause of which DeChellis and Gladchuk both spoke.