Secretaries Cup Preview with Coach C.C. Grant and Vickie Fulkerson
by Diane Roberts and Graham Knight
The Coast Guard Bears will play their final game of the 2021 season in week 11 as they host their bitter arch-rivals, the Merchant Marine Mariners, in the annual Secretaries' Cup.
The Bears are 2-7 on the season while the Mariners are 7-1 and coming off of a bye week.
"It's going to be tough," Coast Guard Head Coach C. C. Grant said about the upcoming game, "They're going to be fresh, fresh legs and the whole nine yards. I was watching them on tape. They're obviously very good, very talented team. That quarterback [senior Ian Blankenship] is probably the most talented kid we'll face all year at that position. They do what they do and they do it very well, so we're going to have our hands full."
Blankenship has been a standout star for the Mariners this season. He has been named NEWMAC Player of the Week three times and has accounted for combined 25 rushing and passing touchdowns in 2021.
Merchant Marine is averaging 46 points per game this season, with their only loss coming to an undefeated Springfield team that beat Coast Guard 60-0.
It will be the second Secretaries' Cup for Coach Grant. In the only Division III football game of 202, Merchant Marine beat Coast Guard 24-14. The entire Division III football season was cancelled due to the pandemic in 2020, except for that one game.
Vicki Fulkerson has been covering the Coast Guard Bears and the Secretaries' Cup for The Day newspaper of New London, CT for nearly thirty years.
"It was so crisp and well played," Fulkerson said to BTL about that one game in 2020, "I was so impressed. They went from zero to 60, you know, because they were just like practicing. Some of the seniors weren't even coming to practice. And then, all of a sudden, they went out and played and it was real competitive."
The rivalry game, usually played around Veterans' Day, features some of the same traditions of their Division I brethren at West Point and Annapolis.
"Coast Guard and Merchant Marine have the same, it's not the same kind of march on, but they still do all the pageantry like that Corp of Cadets are marching on," Fulkerson tells, "And then it's Veteran's Day and when it's at New London, I don't know if you've ever been there, but the Thames river's in the background, there's a sub base and there's boats out on the river, and it just gives you a chill. I'm sure, like when you cover Army-Navy, it's such a privilege. It's a privilege."
Overall the Mariners lead the Secretaries' Cup series, 27-13, with Coast Guard's last win coming in 2018.
Fulkerson remembers when she realized how big of a deal this rivalry really is: "So this is my 29th year covering the Coast Guard. So I think when I first started covering the team like I didn't realize what it meant. And then in 1996, Coast Guard went down to Kings Point and won the game and it got Coast Guard into its first NCAA tournament ever. And a man, Bill Schmitz was the coach, and he cried after. I was like, 'Whoa!'
"And Kings Point, it was the my first time going down there for the game, and they had all these bumper stickers that say, 'Beat Coast Guard' and they're like, 'Oh my God, you guys, you've got a bumper sticker!'
"And just like seeing the reaction when they won and it got them into the tournament.
"And it was the final game of the season for a long time. And then they moved it to the beginning of the season, certain conference obligations, but now they're in the same conference again, so it's back at the end.
"And then it's always around Veteran's Day and ESPN has been televising it as part of their Veteran's Day coverage."
Even though the Bears are having a down season, it's still a rivalry week.
"Coast Guard went to play at Springfield and lost 60-0 against the triple option," Fulkerson said, "So, now, here they go against Merchant Marine, who runs the triple option. So the defense is going to have to do a lot better job than they did against Springfield. They're going to have to just really step up.
"I'm sure they learned a lot from that game. If it was, say, the guys' first game ever playing against the triple option or whatever, but I'm sure they learned a lot and I'm sure they've watched a million Merchant Marine games on film.
"And then just because it's such a rivalry, you don't know what the score is going to be. Coast Guard won one, 10-8, one year. You know, they didn't have as good a team as Merchant Marine and Pat Bennett returned the opening kickoff for 80 something yards, and they won 10 to eight."
That upset by the Bears over Merchant Marine was in 2010, by the way.
Being part of the rivalry as a long-time assistant, Coach Grant knows he doesn't have to do much to get his squad motivated for the final game of the year.
"You don't have to say too much to get the kids amped up for the game," Grant said, "We'll be excited for it. I'm sure Merchant Marine is going to be excited to be here. It's going to be a beautiful weekend, so, we're looking forward to it."
Diane Roberts talked to Vickie Fulkerson, a sports reporter from The Day newspaper out of Norwich, Connecticut, where she has covered the Coast Guard Bears and the Secretaries' Cup for nearly thirty years. Here is their full conversation:
Diane Roberts: So, let's let's start with the Coast Guard. They're on a six-game losing streak. Struggling offense, if you want to call it struggling; they can't get anything going. What do you make of what's happening?
Vickie Fulkerson, The Day: I don't know. They have a lot of talent. They shoot themselves in the foot a lot. Two weeks ago against M.I.T., they drove up and down the field and they had two field goals blocked. And then they were, like, one for five in the red zone. So, they they get down there, they drive up and down the field, they're leading in total yards. Like last week, against WPI, they fumbled going into the end zone. They keep having field goals and kicks blocked, which the head coach can't figure out why. You know, he looks at it on film, but . . . So, they have a lot of talent.
One of the things, and I don't know if this is true of Merchant Marine too, but with the COVID year, a lot of teams had guys redshirt after the COVID year, and the NCAA gave that year back to everybody. Well, you can't do that at a military academy. So Coast Guard has been playing people [teams] all year, Catholic, and in Springfield, they have like hundreds, like 150 guys on their roster. And Coast Guard has about 52, or something like that. So, they need to, you know, catch up a little bit, get some recruits.
It just, I don't know. I guess the whole military academy is such a unique situation, but you can't redshirt. You're an ensign now. So they have a lot of talent, but it just hasn't translated, and it makes you feel bad for the kids.
Diane Roberts: Who work very hard! We know this on The Academy Football Report, we cover academy football and we hear it over and over.
Vickie Fulkerson: Yeah, they get up at five o'clock in the morning and scrub the floor and do all that stuff before they even get to practice.
Diane Roberts: I wonder if you think it has anything to do with discipline, confidence, coaching. Where's the . . . break?
Vickie Fulkerson: Well, that whole year, so. Say they had football last year, the quarterback was this young man, Tafari Wall, he's a junior this year, but last year he would have at least contributed and gotten on the field and gotten some reps and, you know, backed up the quarterback last year, if not shared time with him.
And, now, this year he goes in cold. So now he's a junior, he starts this year. He's never taken a snap of college football before. He started out really strong. They won their first game up at University of New England.
And then, just, I don't know if he was taking it personally, maybe? He seemed like he lost some confidence, like he just wasn't connecting. And then they decided, OK, we're going to run the ball more. It just never gained momentum for some reason.
Diane Roberts: Yeah, they didn't quite gel. And it's funny you mentioned Tafari Wall, because that's where I want to go next. So Tafari Wall is out. And Joe Armentrout, a freshman, is in. Coach Grant made the switch about two games ago.
Vickie Fulkerson: Yeah, during a bye week.
Diane Roberts: How is that starting to play out in your eyes?
Vickie Fulkerson: So just when you're like, "Oh, Tafari, he's such a nice kid," and then they have a luncheon every week, every Wednesday. And so the freshmen came to the luncheon the week that he got named, he got named starting quarterback on Monday and he came to lunch on Wednesday. And he's just as nice as the other kid!
He [Armentrout]'s from San Diego, he's very confident. Tafari is like 6'4" and Joe is about 5'10", 5'9", but he he has a quick release and he's really quick. He can get out of the pocket and, you know, get a first down. Tafari is like a real big kid, and he has like a longer release, kind of. This kid [Armentrout] just gets rid of it real quick.
But the the amazing thing is that Tafari Wall has been this kid's mentor the whole season, week one through seven. There's three quarterbacks on the team: Tafari and two freshmen. So now he [Wall]'s like the leader. He's like the ringleader of these two freshmen. He's telling them, "Oh, here's how to get to dinner on time. Here's how to march correctly. Here's how not to get in trouble at the Coast Guard Academy." He's like their hero, right?
So now this kid comes in and takes Tafari's place, but Tafari is still acting the same. He's still their leader. They still look to him like, What do I do now? Even though this kid is the starting quarterback, Tafari's still like his hero.
So Tafari, CC Grant said that the very first day, that Monday, he tells Tafari he's not the starting quarterback in the morning. By that afternoon, at four o'clock when they went to practice, he was his same old self, his same gregarious self. He said, he came, he was still like, "All right, let's go!"
So, now he's the backup quarterback. But he also started going in for like a few plays, like at wide receiver every game. So the very first game that he is not the starting quarterback, I think they were down 14-0, Tafari, goes in at wide receiver, catches a 12 yard touchdown. The kid, Joe, throws him a touchdown pass in the end zone. He's 6'4", he goes up, he catches it. And just how happy the kids were for him, the celebration after that touchdown was like they won the Super Bowl or something. Tafari came back down the sideline, and he chest bumped every kid on the team like they were just so happy for him because they they care about him so much. He's such a selfless kid that the kids care about him so much.
Diane Roberts: Vicki, it makes me wonder what does this say about him as a person, as a player, as a leader, that the other players feel this strongly about him?
Vickie Fulkerson: Because he works so hard, like he was out there all summer, like, "OK, I'm going to be the starting quarterback." And he was out there throwing and, you know, he had spring football and he knows all the plays, and he's waited his turn to be the starting quarterback. And now it's not him anymore. So isn't he disappointed?
So, for the next week's football luncheon, I had him come and I was like, "Well . . .?"and he's like, "Well, you don't have to be the quarterback to be a leader." That was his quote. He's like "I can still be a leader. I want to do whatever I can do to help the guys out. I don't have to be the quarterback."
But that's like his comfort zone. He's been a quarterback, his whole high school career, you know?
Diane Roberts: Wow, what a tremendous young man.
Must be hard for him, and the rest of the players, given where the Bears are, essentially losing the entire season except for one game last year. Not doing so well this year. Also been tough on CC Grant, ostensibly his first year as head coach. Right? I mean, how is all of that playing out?
Vickie Fulkerson: Yeah. C.C. he's been he was on Bill George. Bill George was the head coach from 1999 through 2019, 21 seasons, and C.C. was on his staff that whole time. Actually, another Division III rivalry, C.C. went to Cortland and Bill went to Ithaca, and they and C.C. were on the Cortland staff and Bill, you know, just knew of him. And he's like, "I want him to come here and coach with me." So he brought CC with him when he came, and he's been the defensive coordinator this whole time.
And so he knows, you know, what it's like around Coast Guard and how to, you know, some years there's going to be adversity. You know, they've had a few losing seasons, but they've had some good seasons too. So I think he's a stand up guy. He's very, you know, he's got patience and I think he'll be fine. Just like that whole Covid thing.
And then he was the head baseball coach before he became head football coach. So he lost a season of baseball due to COVID. Then he lost a season of football due to COVID. He's going to kill Bill for retiring right when COVID hit.
It's a, you know, it's a lot to sort out, but I think he'll he'll do great. He's a great guy.
Diane Roberts: Well, we've got this, you know, rivalry Coast Guard and Merchant Marine. You know why is this game so important?
Vickie Fulkerson: I think the the the the two military academies, you know, there's five military academies in the country and Coast Guard and Merchant Marine are the two Division III academies that have football. And I would say they go after a lot of the same recruits, right? Like this week's luncheon, a kid was saying, "Yeah, it was between here and Merchant Marine," you know? So I'm sure they I'm sure they go after a lot of the same recruits that that want to be in the military but still play football, but they're not good enough to go to Army or Navy, so there's a lot of great athletes on both sides.
And then so you don't realize how intense it is until, you know, they really have a strong dislike for each other. Sometimes I think they respect each other and that they both are academies and they both work, you know, they both put the work in and they both represent the United States of America. But there's really a pretty good rivalry going on between them.
Diane Roberts: This is what we love about sports and what we love about football, college football, academy football, of course, is those rivalries. I think they mean more at a place like a military academy than they do the NCAA at large. That's just my my two cents.
Any memorable moments for you from past Secretaries Cups?
Vickie Fulkerson: Yeah, I was going to say, so this is my 29th year covering the Coast Guard. So I think when I first started covering the team like I didn't realize what it meant. And then in 1996, Coast Guard went down to Kings Point and won the game and it got Coast Guard into its first NCAA tournament ever. And a man named Bill Schmitz was the coach, and he cried after. I was like, "Whoa!"
And Kings Point, it was the my first time going down there for the game and they had all these bumper stickers that say, "Beat Coast Guard" and they're like, "Oh my God, you guys, you've got a bumper sticker!" And just like seeing the reaction when they won and it got them into the tournament.
And it was the final game of the season for a long time. And then they moved it to the beginning of the season, certain conference obligations, but now they're in the same conference again, so it's back at the end. And then it's always around Veteran's Day and ESPN has been televising it as part of their Veteran's Day coverage. And it's only amplified it because they have like professional announcers and everything.
Diane Roberts: It's kind of tough this year, though, because Coast Guard is in a down year and Merchant Marine is in an up year. The Mariners' only loss was to undefeated Springfield, and Coach Grant has said that Mariners quarterback Ian Blankenship is the most talented quarterback they'll face. So already before the game has even begun, there's that big challenge.
Vickie Fulkerson: Yeah, Coast Guard went to play at Springfield and lost 60-0 against the triple option. So, now, here they go against Merchant Marine, who runs the triple option. So the defense is going to have to do a lot better job than they did against Springfield. They're going to have to just really step up.
I'm sure they learned a lot from that game. If it was, say, the guys' first game ever playing against the triple option or whatever, but I'm sure they learned a lot and I'm sure they've watched a million Merchant Marine games on film.
And then just because it's such a rivalry, you don't know what the score is going to be. Coast Guard won one, 10-8, one year. You know, they didn't have as good a team as Merchant Marine and Pat Bennett returned the opening kickoff for 80 something yards, and they won 10 to eight.
So, well, the last couple of years have been really high-scoring.
Diane Roberts: But can I put you on the spot? First of all, who do you think's going to win? Do you dare say and do you dare give us a score? I don't think we're going to see another high scoring affair, right?
Vickie Fulkerson, The Day: But last year was so well played like even even though it was COVID, and that was the only game both teams played like, it was so crisp and well played. I was so impressed. They went from zero to 60, you know, because they were just like practicing. They, like some of the seniors weren't even coming to practice. And then, all of a sudden, they went out and played and it was real competitive. So I don't know.
I was going to say, like, like 28-27 Coast Guard, or something to get get all those field goals straightened out and all the defense on the same page.
And I don't know, it might be higher-scoring than that, though it's been really high-scoring in the last couple of years.
Diane Roberts: Whenever rivals get together that happens, though, you throw all the records out the window, you throw all the tendencies out the window because the rivalries get together and then they just go at it.
This game is going to feature the Station 17 uniforms. Tell us a little bit about those.
Vickie Fulkerson, The Day: The Station 17 uniforms -- this will be the the fourth time that Coast Guard has worn them this year. So this this actually -- I had to look it up because they don't tell you exactly the year -- but before the Coast Guard was the Coast Guard it was the Life Saving Service and they had a lifesaving station at Pea Island, which is in the Outer Banks in North Carolina. And it was the it was the first all-Black lifesaving station and the commander, the commanding officer, was a man named Richard Etheridge, and he was the first black commanding officer. And but he was appointed--I looked it up--he was appointed in 1880, so they have uniforms this year that are paying homage to to the Pea island lifesaving station, which was Station Number 17.
So they have it on the helmets and on the uniforms in there. They're like this really deep navy blue pants and jerseys. And then they have a set with like white pants and white jerseys too, that they were on the road a couple of times.
But it's just been really important to them to, you know, for this part of history. And then ESPN picked it up and they're they're doing a big, with their Veteran's Day special, they're they're doing a big special and they actually went to Pea Island and did some filming there and on the Coast Guard team, there's like a freshman whose, I don't know, great grandfather was stationed at Pea Island and was one of the commanding officers there. And they've got like this connection and it's really interesting.
Diane Roberts: That is fascinating. I was going to ask you if you had any knowledge of any players who either have any connection or who have spoken to you about what it means to be wearing those uniforms. I'm not sure if earlier in the season you had an opportunity to interview any of them, but what does it mean to them to be wearing something so historical? Primarily the African-American and players of color? What does it mean to them?
Vickie Fulkerson: Yeah, and C.C. is African-American, and he's the first black head coach for football at Coast Guard. And so he narrated a video about it, and he makes fun of the sports information staff that keeps interrupting practice to make him narrate. He's like, "What am I, James Earl Jones?" But it is really important and to represent the history of the Coast Guard, you know, for them and also they report that they're very comfortable unifiorms and they won the first time they were on.
So I think they like wearing them. It's something different.
Diane Roberts: Vicki, thank you so much for joining us. Thank you for taking the time. We know you're busy. You cover high school sports there, you cover Coast Guard, you do a lot in the community, I'm sure. So thanks for being there with me and really appreciate you and enjoy the game this weekend.
Vickie Fulkerson: Oh, thank you so much.
Diane Roberts: Thank you so much. You're so knowledgeable.
Vickie Fulkerson: I was going to say, . . . so Bill coached for 21 years, Bill George, and I covered the team that whole time so we became friends. He wrote a book, it's like his memoir. But I think a big part of it is about Coast Guard/Merchant Marine. It's leading up to the one year's game where a Coast Guard won in 2014. And it's so like there just by reading. I read through his manuscript and they're so obsessed by this game. Like, they'll be playing someone else the week before, but they'll put in some players for the Coast Guard game.
And then Bill's email address to do with the book is 42, something that has to do with 42-31, which was the score of the game. And they're just obsessed.
Diane Roberts: When you were talking about, like everything you were saying about Coast Guard, like you were talking about, you know this that their special team woes, them shooting themselves in the foot, and the defense not coming together and sputtering offense and all that. So I cover Navy and I and it's like, yeah, a lot of parallels because they have been shooting themselves in the foot, you know. The first couple of games, the defense couldn't get going. Then the defense got going and the offense is like . . . Between seven games last year. In the first two or three games this year, they hadn't scored more than seven points. I mean, they just couldn't get offense going, and that Navy's all about offense.
And so then they got the offense, but then their special teams would give up, you know, kick returns or punt returns or make these huge special teams gaffes. So, it's a lot of what you're saying that I mean, and I think that's even more frustrating when when they're doing it to themselves. When you put your best and you lose.
Vickie Fulkerson: And Coast Guard and Merchant Marine have the same, it's not the same kind of march on, but they still do all the pageantry like that Corp of Cadets are marching on, and it does. And then it's Veteran's Day and when it's at New London, I don't know if you've ever been there, but the Thames river's in the background, there's a sub base and there's boats like out on the river, and it's just like it just gives you a chill. I'm sure, like when you cover Army-Navy, it's such a privilege. It's a privilege. Like, I brought my grandma to a Coast Guard games a couple times and she would cry every single time. That wasn't even march ons or anything.
Diane Roberts: Wow. Vicky, thank you. Thank you so, so much. We appreciate your time and your expertise.
Vickie Fulkerson: Thank you, Diane. Appreciate your time. Bye.