During the offseason, 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.
The Navy is a complicated profession. There are so many different elements one must master in order to succeed, from understanding the different culture, to leading people, to the finer points of individual warfare specialties. After all, it is by no means enough that an officer of the Navy should be a capable mariner. He must be that, of course, but also a great deal more. Or so I’ve been told. With so much to remember, sailors have passed down various sayings and mnemonic devices to guide them through the years. There’s “choose your rate, choose your fate”– sage advice for the junior enlisted sailor to be educated about what exactly his chosen career path entails. Conning officers across the Fleet depend on “red right returning” to keep their ships in the channel (if you’re about to leave a comment about IALA-A, you’re a nerd). Even cynics have their reminder to Never Again Volunteer Yourself. There are no cynics in Annapolis, obviously, and “IHTFP” has helped generations of midshipmen express their boundless joy.
Not all of these memory aids are unique to the Navy, or even to nautical life. A more common expression that’s a favorite among officers–and one that I’ve always hated– is “perception is reality.” It’s not that it’s bad advice. The problem is that some people become so attached to these little one-liners that they won’t listen to anything else. While it’s helpful to remember the importance of image consciousness, most issues are far more complex than the way they appear to the outside world. It’s one thing to acknowledge the old “perception is reality” axiom, but to end the conversation there would be to defer to the knee-jerk reactions of the uninformed on any matter of importance. Perception is truly reality only to those who don’t care enough about something to take the time to dig any deeper.
The struggle between perception and reality is a prevailing theme when it comes to Army football. The Black Knights won 5 games in Rich Ellerson’s first year; a modest tally, but the most at Hell on the Hudson since the 10-win season in 1996. It’s progress. Well, it looks like progress. This isn’t the first time people thought Army was ready to turn things around. Todd Berry was fired after his 2003 0-13 debacle and was replaced by Bobby Ross. Ross lost his first four games, pushing Army’s losing streak to 19 games (they lost their last two in 2002). But in the fifth game, Army got a win– and over a respectable Cincinnati team to boot. Pandemonium ensued, with Cadets storming the field and carrying Coach Ross off on their shoulders. The next week, Army went on the road and knocked off South Florida. After losing 19 games in a row, Ross had led them to their first winning streak in 7 years. Even if expectations were still low, fans could at least say that things were looking up. The optimism didn’t last, though; 2004 ended with another 5-game losing streak, topped off with a 42-13 frogstomping at the hands of Navy.
The losing didn’t end the following season, as the 5-game losing streak turned into 11 games by the middle of October. But just when hope seemed to be lost, Army started winning again, and in grand style (relatively speaking). First the defense recorded their first shutout in 12 years with a 20-0 win over Akron. To top that, Army went out to Colorado Springs the following week and beat Air Force. By the time the Navy game rolled around, Army was sitting on a 4-game winning streak and a lot of momentum. The optimism was back. Army was 4-6, and several fans thought that they had played a much tougher schedule than the 7-4 Mids. Some even said that Army was the better team, and had the two teams switched schedules, it would be Army headed toward a bowl game instead. That talk ended after yet another Navy blowout.
Contrary to what had become the norm at West Point, the 2006 season didn’t start with a losing streak; Army started out 3-3. Of course, they went on to lose their next 6 games after that. But that 6th game was against Navy, and it wasn’t the disaster that the previous four Army-Navy games had been. The Black Knights played tough defense and kept things close before eventually falling, 26-14. The fact that the game wasn’t a blowout led many– including Bobby Ross– to believe that Army was closing the gap on Navy, and that a win over the Mids was just around the corner. Instead, Army hasn’t even scored a touchdown on Navy in the three games since.
After a 5-win season and another non-blowout against Navy in 2009, the same optimism has returned. But are we really going to go through this exercise again? Shouldn’t we have learned our lesson by now? Ah, but this time it’s different, say the faithful. This time, Army is following the script– they have a “real” option coach now. It’s a point of faith to most Army fans that with the option comes winning. Everyone remembers the 10-win season in 1996, when Bob Sutton won the Bobby Dodd Coach of the Year award. Sutton is highly regarded among many Army fans not only for that season, but because he is by all accounts a true gentleman who was reportedly fired in a less-than-gentlemanly fashion. The reality, though, is that Army only had two winning seasons during Sutton’s 9-year tenure, and a third of their wins over that time came against non-scholarship I-AA teams. Army’s problems predate the Todd Berry debacle and involved a whole lot more than just the offenses they’ve run.
Rich Ellerson winning 5 games in his first season certainly didn’t do anything to change the “option = wins” perception, but whatever success that Army had in 2009 had nothing to do with their 117th-ranked offense. The 15.33 points per game that the Black Knights scraped together is less than they scored in any of the non-option seasons from 2000-2007. Their 275 total yards per game is less than what Stan Brock’s much-maligned option offense put up in 2008, and Brock didn’t even like the option, nor did he have any coaches with experience running it. If anything, Army won games in spite of their “superior” offense. Ellerson’s team looked a lot more like Stan Brock’s than most Army fans probably want to admit. Oh, I’m sure there are those who would counter by saying that there is a tremendous difference in things like attitude and focus and whatnot, and I have no reason to disagree with that. As far as the on-field product goes, however, Army featured a very good defense that would get worn down trying to make up for an anemic offense– just as they had for the previous three years. Looking at Army’s 5 wins over 0-12 Eastern Michigan, 2-10 Ball State, 2-10 Vanderbilt, 2-9 (and I-AA) VMI, and 2-10 North Texas, it isn’t hard to imagine that Stan Brock could have done the same thing. Brock even beat a Louisiana Tech team that finished 8-5 and won the Independence Bowl. The optimism surrounding Army football stems the belief that things have changed. I’m not completely sure that they have, at least as much as fans want to think.
While it might not be true of all of them, the average Army fan believes two things. First, they believe that they haven’t been able to beat Navy because they can’t recruit against them. According to these people, West Point is far more hardcore than Annapolis (did you see Shun White’s beard??), and recruits don’t want to go there. Besides, the country is at war, and those evil Navy coaches tell recruits that if they go to Army, they’ll die (or something to that effect). The second thing that Army fans believe is that there really isn’t much of a talent difference between Army and Navy; Navy might have one or two better players, but for the most part, they’re pretty much the same. The difference between Navy’s success and Army’s failure has been coaching, they say, and not talent. The problem with believing both things is that they completely contradict each other. You can’t have it both ways; you can’t say that Navy gets all the recruits, but that the talent on both teams is the same. Reading this stuff makes it hard to take some people seriously.
While fans and some of the media might be a little too optimistic about Army’s immediate future, Navy fans shouldn’t be too dismissive of the potential for improvement, either. Even if it was done with a bit of smoke and mirrors, winning 5 games is still a step in the right direction, and more than the Army program has been able to claim for a long time. Army, terrible offense and all, was only one missed field goal away from playing in the EagleBank Bowl– and that’s where the program should be focused. It’s only natural for Army followers to make comparisons to Navy, with emphasis on “closing the gap.” If the roles were reversed, Navy fans would probably be the same way (although maybe not quite as obsessive). It’s a bit of a warped perspective. Right now, closing any talent gap with Navy should be secondary to simply getting to 6 wins and bowl eligibility.
When Army left Conference USA to return to the ranks of the independents, it was for the purpose of putting together more manageable schedules like the one they have now. Opening up with Eastern Michigan, then taking on Hawaii and North Texas at home, gives the Black Knights a realistic shot to open up 3-0. Hell, they should beat EMU and UNT; Hawaii is a much better team than those two, but travelling all the way to West Point is a tough trip for the Warriors (Honolulu is closer to Seoul than to West Point). Army plays 8 teams that finished with a losing record in 2009, although admittedly they probably won’t be favored in half of them. The best Army defense in years returns 8 starters. The offense, while horrible last year, returns the bulk of its starters as well. The most important of those players is quarterback Trent Steelman, who is only going to get better after starting as a plebe; we all know how difficult the spread option is on quarterbacks that don’t have any experience running it. Air Force transfer Jared Hassin is expected to bring drastic improvement to 2009’s lackluster fullback production. It will be harder than some people think, but even if the offense improves from being absolutely miserable to just being mediocre, 6 wins is possible against this schedule. Playing in a bowl game would be a giant shot in the arm for a program that desperately needs one. If nothing else it would give the Army rebuilding effort some credibility on the recruiting trail.
Even without getting those 6 wins, Army’s recruiting prospects have improved simply by introducing some stability into the program. Bobby Ross was a name-brand coach, but speculation about his retirement began almost as soon as he took the job. Stan Brock never felt like more than stopgap hire and never really had the full support of the administration. Ellerson does. High school seniors can go to West Point reasonably confident that they’ll be playing for the same coach as college seniors. Maybe that seems small relative to some other recruiting obstacles, but it’s something that you couldn’t say about Army for a decade.
Still, it’s an uphill battle when your primary competitors are going to bowl games every year. If you’re an Army fan, it’s probably best to forget about “closing the talent gap” for now. If you’re a Navy fan, though, you had better not take that the wrong way. While Army might need Navy’s talent to beat the likes of Notre Dame, Wake Forest, or Missouri, they don’t need Navy’s talent to beat Navy. The talent gap between Navy and Missouri is bigger than the gap between Army and Navy. Navy wasn’t the more talented team when they beat Air Force in 2003, either. It is better to be the winning team than the most talented team. Navy is clearly the latter, but that is no guarantee that they’ll be the former. Then again, that’s true whether Army has a new coach or not.
I’m not convinced that Rich Ellerson is the messiah that some people make him out to be, but at the very least he’s better than his predecessors. That’s not saying much, but when three Summer Olympics have passed since your last winning season, any good news is worth savoring.