At the end of the football season, I like to take a step back and look at how each service academy program is doing relative to each other and the college football world in general. A “state of the union” of sorts. First on the list: Army.
2008 was a season that began with optimism. Most seasons do at any school, I suppose, but not at Army. Not since Todd Berry took the West Point football program and gave it a tombstone piledriver from which it has yet to recover. Since Berry’s 0-13 debacle, the hope amongst the Army faithful was that one day, option football would return. After all, even a coaching legend like Bobby Ross failed to reverse the Army team’s fortunes. Army fans decided that there was no other recourse; it’s option football or bust. So when it was revealed that Jim Young had been seen helping out at Army football practices, well… That’s enough to work any Army fan into a frenzy. Young, of course, is the Army coach who took over in 1983. After a 2-9 season that saw the Cadets average a paltry 12 points per game, Young switched to a wishbone offense and found immediate success, winning 8 games (including the Cherry Bowl) and more than doubling point production for the season. His presence could mean only one thing: that option football was returning to West Point. So why not have a little optimism? Even if getting to a bowl game was still a bit pie-in-the-sky, it seemed reasonable that Army would at least be more competitive, right?
Apparently not. Not to start the season, anyway. What was thought to be a winnable game against Temple turned into a 35-7 blowout loss. I-AA New Hampshire came to Michie Stadium a week later and dominated the Black Knights in a 28-10 win. Army had the week off after the New Hampshire loss, but it did them no good as Akron came to West Point and dealt out a 22-3 thumping of their own. Army fans, players, and coaches had to believe that those were three winnable games at home; instead, Army was outscored 85-20. With another loss on the road at Texas A&M, Army started the season 0-4. That’s not how it was supposed to go.
While there was disappointment on the field, there was drama off of it. Carson Williams, the team’s returning starter at quarterback, was benched after three games in favor of sophomore Chip Bowden. Army’s prize recruit in its freshman class, Indiana quarterback Paul McIntosh, left the school. Both the West Point Superintendent and athletic director allegedly came to the Army locker room and berated the players for their supposed lack of effort. And then there was the all-too-ominous kiss of death vote of confidence given to head coach Stan Brock by AD Kevin Anderson. By the end of September it was getting to be apparent that Stan Brock’s second season as Army’s head coach would be his last.
But then a strange thing happened; Army started to play better. It began with a 44-13 rout of Tulane in New Orleans. Fullback Collin Mooney led the way with 187 yards rushing and 4 TDs. Army won again a week later, topping Eastern Michigan 17-13 behind Mooney’s 229 yards. The Black Knights had a 24-10 lead on eventual MAC champion Buffalo before falling in overtime, 27-24. A 14-7 win over Louisiana Tech a week later, and Army had won 3 out of 4 games going into the first leg of the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy round-robin against Air Force. Army lost a tight game to the Falcons, and lost another close one to an explosive Rice team that would go on to win the Houston Bowl. Rutgers had Army completely overmatched, but for six straight games, Army was doing what the faithful thought they should. They were competitive. And what better way to announce the resurgence of Army football to the world than a win over their biggest rival on the season’s biggest stage? The Mids had lost Paul Johnson to Georgia Tech, after all. Besides, Army was able to hang with “teams that are a lot better than Navy,” right?
It didn’t take long for everyone in the stadium to realize that wasn’t the case. Shun White’s touchdown run on Navy’s third play from scrimmage deflated whatever high spirits Army might have had coming into the game. While some stubborn Army alums continued to make the laughable assertion that Navy’s athletes were “no better than ours, if not worse” (!), it felt as if every play in the 2008 edition of the Army-Navy game served as an argument to the contrary. White’s run was the most obvious example, but some of the best demonstrations of the talent gap came when Army had the ball. The Black Knights had open plays, but simply weren’t fast enough to take advantage of them. While the Mids were clearly focused on bottling up Mooney, their linebackers were fast enough to keep any Army play that went outside from doing significant damage. In the last two years, Army has scored a total of three points against Navy.
The 34-0 pounding delivered to Army was the last straw. Maybe Army had made progress over the course of the season, but they were getting no better relative to the one school they just have to beat. On December 12, Stan Brock was fired.
It was an exercise in the inevitable. When athletic administrators take it upon themselves to make on-field football decisions, you know the end is near. That’s exactly what happened over the offseason; it sure wasn’t Stan Brock’s decision to go to an option offense. How do we know? Well, just ask him what he thinks about the option:
“I don’t think a 100-percent triple option is the answer,” Brock said. “If it was, Navy would be national champions because there’s nobody that runs it better than Navy, nobody. …
“There’s a lot of positive things that are part of that offense and some other things, you have to be able to do when the situation arrives,” Brock said. “You have to be a well-rounded offense.”
Army actually scored more points per game running their old offense against a tougher schedule in 2007. If the head coach didn’t even believe in the new offense he was running, then it could hardly be considered a surprise that the players struggled with it. And so, out went Brock, and a search–one that Army fans feel should have happened the last time they hired a coach– began.
From comments he made in the media at the time, it was apparent that Anderson was determined to hire an option coach. Based on some names that were floating around (which may or may not have had any merit), being an “option” coach was more important than being a “good” coach when it came to qualifying criteria in the search. Fortunately for Army fans, they have found a bit of both in Rich Ellerson.
Ellerson isn’t an “option coach” in the truest sense of the phrase; he’s made a name for himself as a defensive innovator. But even though he was never the guy drawing up the Xs & Os of the triple option himself, he believes in the spread option and has been dedicated to it as a head coach. Ellerson was the defensive coordinator at Hawai’i from 1987-1991. The Rainbows’ offensive coordinator at the time was, of course, Paul Johnson. Ellerson might have been a defensive assistant for his entire career, but he knew a good offense when he saw one. When he finally got the chance to be a head coach himself– first at Southern Utah, and later at Cal Poly– he knew what offense he wanted to run. When Ellerson was named the head coach at Cal Poly in 2001, he hired Gene McKeehan away from the Naval Academy to be his offensive coordinator. McKeehan installed a spread option offense that would become among the most prolific in I-AA under the direction of succeeding coordinators Ian Shields and Joe DuPaix. While DuPaix is on Ken Niumatalolo’s staff as the slotbacks coach, McKeehan and Shields have followed Ellerson to West Point and will add their expertise to Army’s coaching staff.
The spread option, combined with Ellerson’s defenses, were a winning formula for Cal Poly. Once a Division II power, the Mustangs had only one winning season in the six that preceded Ellerson’s hiring. Ellerson went on to post a 56-34 record in San Luis Obispo, including two appearances in the I-AA playoffs. That’s especially significant, since Cal Poly’s conference– the Great West Football Conference– does not receive an automatic invitation. Of course, that also tells you a little bit about Cal Poly’s competition– it stinks. But don’t get hung up on that. A school with the academic challenges of Cal Poly taking down I-A San Diego State twice in three years and beating traditional I-AA power Montana in a 2005 playoff game says a lot about its coach. It says a lot about San Diego State too, but that’s a different story for a different day.
So if you’re wondering if Rich Ellerson is a good coach, don’t bother. He is. But if there’s a lesson to be learned in service academy football, it’s that being a good coach is not the same thing as being the right coach. Navy fans might not have anything nice to say about Gary Tranquill, Elliot Uzelac, and George Chaump, but believe it or not these guys were good coaches. Gary Tranquill has long been a respected offensive mind. He was the offensive coordinator for George Welsh at Virginia, Nick Saban at Michigan State, and Bill Belichick with the Cleveland Browns. He was recently hired for the same position at Boston College. Elliot Uzelac is another well-respected offensive coach who has been the offensive coordinator at four different BCS schools, including the 11-1 Fiesta Bowl champion Colorado team in 1994 (the year of Kordell Stewart and the Hail Mary). George Chaump never had a losing season as Marshall’s head coach. He led the Thundering Herd to two 10+-win seasons, including the school’s first two I-AA playoff berths and an appearance in the championship game. They all appeared to be solid hires at the time.
This isn’t the first time we’ve talked about this good coach/right coach concept here. But what does being the “right coach” mean? Honestly, I’m not completely sure. I think it may be about a guy’s personality more than anything else. There are a few traits, though, that fans seem to like to talk about when it comes to what makes the right coach, but are instead completely irrelevant. First and foremost, running the option doesn’t make someone the “right coach.” Bob Sutton has a somewhat similar background as Rich Ellerson in that they are both defensive coaches who ran option offenses. Sutton had only two winning seasons in 9 years, and even those seasons featured a combined 5 wins over I-AA teams (four of them non-scholarship I-AA teams). Elliot Uzelac brought the wishbone to Navy and went 8-25 over 3 years.
Having service academy experience is another thing a lot of fans look for, but that doesn’t make someone the right coach either. Sutton was an Army assistant under Jim Young. Tranquill and Uzelac were both former Navy assistants; Tranquill under George Welsh, and Uzelac under Rick Forzano. Charlie Weatherbie spent six years on Fisher DeBerry’s staff. None of them had lasting success at Army or Navy. There are other things that fans like to think matter, too, like “getting the mission” of the school or wanting to coach at the school forever and ever. That’s all nice and flowery, but only if the guy actually wins. If he doesn’t, then nobody cares if he’s super gung-ho about creating military officers. Hell, West Point itself wasn’t even super gung-ho about turning its football players into officers as of last year. Yes, Army is Ellerson’s dream job, and he’s bringing the option to Michie Stadium. But that’s not what will make or break him. Recruiting, however, will.
Army has a pretty steep hill to climb in that category. First, the good news for Army fans: Coach Ellerson has stated that the team needs better speed across the board, and that finding speed is his top recruiting priority. Hey, the first step is admitting that you have a problem, and with that Ellerson has already done more than his predecessors who thought that Army had “closed the gap” on Navy. But recruiting is easier said than done. I’m sure some Army fan will read this and think it’s just some Navy fan being arrogant, but Navy should beat Army for recruits. All else being equal, the Naval Academy has two distinct advantages on top of simply being the best program right now. The first is location: downtown Annapolis vs. middle-of-nowhere Highland Falls is a no-brainer. The second is far more important: the Naval Academy is the only school of the three that can offer pretty much anything that the other schools do after graduation. Want to fly jets? You can do that. Be a ground-pounder? Ditto. Drive ships? Submarines? Jump out of airplanes? Drive tanks? Yes to all of them. The same can’t be said of USMA or USAFA, barring the rare interservice transfer. To an 18-year old kid, this is huge. Making a commitment to the military can seem intimidating enough without having to rule out service options from the get-go. Having four years to to make an educated decision about what’s appealing to you isn’t just comforting; it’s smart. Why burn bridges? Of course, all other things are rarely equal. There’s always some difference in coaching, facilities, and the whims of individual recruits. But this advantage plays out over time. Of the 14 men’s sports in which Army and Navy compete against each other, Navy leads the all-time series in 12 of them (with one tie). And by switching to an offense that’s similar to Navy’s, it makes it that much more important to beat Navy for players.
And that is what will ultimately decide whether Rich Ellerson is the right coach for Army: getting the right players. It’s a tall task, but not an impossible one. If it happens at all, it’s going to take time– which may or may not be a luxury that Kevin Anderson posesses. But we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. Right now, Army fans can at least look forward to a spring game that promises to be more than just a “defensive scrimmage.” So it’s already better than last year, right?