Thursday, December 22, 2005 | Phil McConkey is an old Navy wide receiver and helicopter pilot 27 years removed from his game-winning, 65-yard touchdown catch in San Diego’s first Holiday Bowl, a 1978 Navy 23-16 upset of Brigham Young.
He makes his home in San Diego now and works as a partner in GGET San Diego, an equity firm, so it was easy for him to stop by Navy’s practice Tuesday at UCSD.
McConkey was stretching on the sidelines as the 2005 Midshipmen (7-4) prepared to reprise the Naval Academy’s inaugural Holiday Bowl appearance – this time in San Diego’s new San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl. Navy plays Colorado State (6-5) at 7:30 p.m. tonight at Qualcomm Stadium.
“I learned these stretching exercises when I was 18 years old at Navy,” McConkey said. “I still do them every day. Look … I’ll be 50 pretty soon and I can still almost do a full split.”
Other than graying hair, McConkey looks fit enough for battle (the tired war analogies in sports can be used with academy football players) or run a few pass patterns for the Midshipmen against Colorado State.
He explains he learned the stretching routine he lives by at Navy from the late Steve Belichick, an assistant football coach for 33 years. He’s better known now to the civilian football world as the father of Bill Belichick, the coach of the three-time Super Bowl champion New England Patriots.
“Steve Belichick was the toughest coach or instructor I ever had,” McConkey said. “His offseason program was the toughest thing I’ve ever done. He would make you run until you fell. But there wasn’t an ounce of anything but the truth that came out of his mouth.”
So, maybe it was Belichick that offered both McConkey and the Holiday Bowl their first brushes with greatness that they’ve come to be known for – one as a Navy sports legend and the other as a San Diego sports institution in a Navy town.
Navy’s comeback from a 16-3 halftime deficit to beat Brigham Young started a long-standing Holiday Bowl tradition of dramatic games.
Later, McConkey, after serving five years as a helicopter pilot, won a Super Bowl ring with the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXI. He caught a 6-yard touchdown pass from Phil Simms in that game, a 39-20 rout of John Elway’s Denver Broncos at Pasadena.
“When Navy played in the Holiday Bowl, there weren’t as many bowl games as there are now,” McConkey said. “For us to come to San Diego, it was the Rose Bowl, the Super Bowl or whatever bowl all wrapped up into one. We were ecstatic to be in that first bowl game.”
Times have changed at Navy and in college football the past quarter-century.
When McConkey’s team appeared in San Diego, it was Navy’s first bowl game since 1963 Heisman Trophy winner Roger Staubach led the Midshipmen to the Cotton Bowl.
Now, the Poinsettia Bowl is one of 28 bowl games sanctioned by the NCAA and Navy is making its third straight bowl trip under coach Paul Johnson.
This year’s team, led by senior quarterback Lamar Owens, who directs the triple-option offense that led the nation in rushing with 305.2 yards a game, has been focused more on recent history. Navy won the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy, the most prestigious prize in academy football that goes to the winner of the round-robin games between Navy, Army and Air Force. Navy beat Air Force 27-24 on Oct. 8 and Army 42-23 on Dec. 3.
“We’re just starting to learn about that 1978 game and that (McConkey) is the one who caught the touchdown pass,” Owens said. “We want to keep the winning tradition going. We won the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy and we’re in a bowl game. We want to pass this on to next year’s seniors.”
Many of the players are making their first trip to San Diego, but Owens was here two summers ago when he trained on a destroyer. They may not fully appreciate Navy’s history in the Holiday Bowl, which as a successful event led to the birth of a second San Diego bowl game, but the players see San Diego is a Navy town.
“We feel it’s going to be a homefield advantage for us,” Owens said. “It’s great to be in a bowl game here.”
Time will tell if it will be as great of an experience as it was for McConkey and his teammates.
“It’s been a huge part of our lives for 27 years,” McConkey said. “We still talk about it and we embellish it. That’s our prerogative, too.”
Tom Shanahan has been writing about San Diego athletes at the professional, collegiate and high school levels for 27 years. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions (www.sdhoc.com). You can e-mail him at