The Air Force Academy completed 50 years of major college football in 2006, having played their first NCAA season in 1957. For nearly half of those 50 years, Fisher DeBerry was their head football coach. Think about that for a second; DeBerry was Air Force football. He was the face of the school, the answer to any word association quiz when told “Air Force Academy.” Any tradition associated with the relatively young football program probably stems from some point during DeBerry’s tenure. At Air Force, he was a legend in his own time.
But even legends have their limits. The Air Force Academy as a whole has faced several allegations of religious intolerance in recent years, and DeBerry was caught up in the middle of it. In 2004, he was ordered to remove a banner that he had hung in the football team’s locker room which read in part, “I am a Christian first and last… I am a member of Team Jesus Christ.” DeBerry received “sensitivity training” as a result. A year later he was officially reprimanded for remarks he made following a loss to TCU in which he essentially blamed it on his team’s lack of black players:
It’s very obvious to me the other day that the other team had a lot more Afro-American players than we did, and they ran a lot faster than we did. It just seems to be that way, that Afro-American kids can run very, very well. That doesn’t mean that Caucasian kids and other descents can’t run, but it’s very obvious to me they run extremely well.
Their defense had 11 Afro-American kids on their team, and they were a very, very good defensive football team.
Proselytizing and reinforcement of stereotypes aside, DeBerry probably would have survived all of this if he was still winning. Air Force was 5-0 and ranked 25th in the Coaches’ Poll coming into their game at Navy in 2003. The Mids won that game, 28-25. It was a program-altering event for Air Force, who went on to lose 4 of their last 6 games to finish at 7-5– Fisher’s last winning season. After that loss to Navy, Air Force was 15-25 until DeBerry either retired or was forced out following the 2006 season.
I say “retired or forced out” because the story differs depending on who’s doing the talking. Officially, DeBerry retired. But according to rumor, he chose to quit rather than be forced to fire any of his assistants. One way or another, though, he was gone. Air Force athletic director Hans Mueh was then left with the unenviable task of replacing an institution. Fortunately for him, Air Force had essentially been grooming several potential successors over the years, as some Air Force graduates were allowed to begin coaching careers while on active duty. One of those graduates was Houston Texans offensive coordinator Troy Calhoun.
Calhoun played quarterback for Air Force and graduated in 1989. He spent his first two seasons after graduation as a GA on Fisher DeBerry’s staff. Calhoun returned to the Air Force Academy in 1993 and took over the role of recruiting coordinator as well as coaching the JV team’s offense. When fellow Air Force assistant Jim Grobe was named head coach at the University of Ohio in 1995, he brought Calhoun with him to be the quarterbacks coach. Calhoun added the title of offensive coordinator two years later, and had the same role after following Grobe to Wake Forest in 2001. In 2003, Calhoun started his NFL career with the Denver Broncos. Then, in December 2006, he accepted Mueh’s offer to replace Fisher DeBerry as head coach at Air Force.
The first question that everyone asked of Calhoun is what he planned to do with the Falcons’ offense. Ken Hatfield had installed the wishbone in Colorado Springs when he took over the Air Force job in 1979, and some form of the wishbone/ flexbone/ broken bone/ fishbone (whatever you want to call it) option offense had been in place ever since. Calhoun played in that same offense, but had moved away from it under Grobe and in his NFL career. Many (if not most) service academy fans believe that to win at a service academy you need to run an option-based offense, so it raised a few eyebrows when Calhoun’s comments after being hired appeared to indicate a shift away from that. Instead, Calhoun wanted more of a run-pass balance, and a running game that would have a feature back averaging about 20 carries a game:
I think you still have to run some option. It’s tough to defend, but we have to find ways to get more predetermined carries. You can find the guy who is a pretty darn good player and start to feed that guy the ball 20 to 22 times a game. And a good one only gets better. He starts to get into a little bit of a rhythm, feeling a knack for a cut or where a hole might start to open.
Then, ultimately on offense, you have to be balanced. Defenses are bigger, they move much better and because of that, they are going to clog up some spaces if you don’t make them work all 53-plus yards widthwise and go ahead and push the ceiling a little bit down the field. We’re going to be a balanced offense.
Armed with this new philosophy, Air Force quickly jumped to a 3-0 start at the beginning of the season. That 3-0 record, however, was more in spite of this new offense than because of it. The Falcons got a little lucky in their first few games. They played Utah the week after the Utes lost both quarterback Brian Johnson and running back Matt Asiata in their season opener at Oregon State, and still needed a goal-line stand at the end of the game to win. TCU made some baffling coaching blunders in the 4th quarter at Air Force after dominating through most of the game. And South Carolina State just stinks. Not surprisingly, the luck didn’t last. Air Force followed up their 3-0 start with double-digit losses to BYU and Navy.
To Troy Calhoun’s credit, he adjusted. While Air Force’s defense had been playing well all season, the offense wasn’t getting it done. Sometimes they just weren’t productive, while other times they gained a few yards but made critical mistakes in execution with turnovers and penalties. Basically, Calhoun had bitten off more than his offense could chew. Shaun Carney wasn’t quite the passer he was hyped up to be, he didn’t have anyone to really throw to, and the offensive line just wasn’t built for pass protection. Rather than insisting on the whole square peg in a round hole strategy, however, Troy Calhoun went back to doing what Air Force did best– running the football.
Calhoun’s rededication to the running game paid off. Air Force won 6 of their last 7 regular-season games by an average of nearly 20 points. They probably should have won the one game they lost, too, committing 5 turnovers to fall 34-31 at New Mexico. Going into the Navy game, Air Force was averaging 223 rushing yards per game, 11th in the country. By the end of the year, they were 2nd in the country with 299 yards per game. Calhoun’s revamped offense earned him Mountain West Coach of the Year honors, put Chad Hall in position to be named Mountain West Offensive Player of the Year, and gained the team a berth in the Armed Forces Bowl in Fort Worth (a 42-36 loss to Cal). They might have been lucky at the beginning of the year, but by the end of the year luck had nothing to do with it. With a new approach on offense and the best of the three service academy defenses, Air Force was playing good football.
At 9-4, Air Force had a better season than just about anyone could have predicted. The challenge now will be to maintain that success, and it doesn’t look promising in the short term. Of their 474 yards of offense they racked up against Navy, 430 were gained by seniors. The heart of the Air Force defense was their linebackers and secondary, and 6 of 8 starters are graduating from those units as well. High turnover is nothing new at service academies, as players usually have to be developed over 4 years and rarely make an impact as a freshman or a sophomore. But losing this particular class is more critical than usual. When Paul Johnson used to talk to the Foundation, he was very frank about how he was doing in recruiting against Air Force. In his first year, he didn’t win a single head-to-head recruiting battle with them. This group of graduating Air Force seniors are the last remnants of that recruiting class. Johnson won more and more recruits from Air Force as the years went on, eventually dominating them the way they used to dominate Navy. That means that Navy looks to be more talented relative to Air Force with each passing year until Calhoun has a chance for his own recruiting to take hold. Once that happens, it’s doubtful that either team could expect to rule head-to-head recruiting like they used to; but things will get worse for the Falcons before they get better.
Calhoun and Hans Mueh have more or less admitted that the immediate future for Air Force isn’t terribly bright. Before hiring Calhoun, Mueh warned him that he would have “thin senior classes for the 2008 and 2009 seasons.” Calhoun himself said that he expects it to be three years before he has the juniors and seniors that he wants, and that the next two Air Force teams might be two of the youngest in school history. Calhoun also said that he expects to use two quarterbacks next year, with Shea Smith splitting time with a yet-to-be-named player who is likely to become the quarterback of the future. It’s tough for young teams to win. For young service academy teams, with their already undersized and less-hearalded players taking on talented teams with redshirted, 22-year old men… Well, nothing’s impossible I suppose, but some things come pretty damn close.
Without having the kind of talent that Troy Calhoun needs to run the offense he originally envisioned, don’t expect Air Force to change much schematically next year. If there is a ray of hope for the Falcons, it’s in the trenches. Three of the five offensive linemen who started against California will return next season. Air Force won’t have the big-play scoring threat of Chad Hall next year, but they might be able to control the line of scrimmage well enough to put together a few long, clock-eating drives that will help the defense. I doubt it will be enough to get to 9-4, though.
Troy Calhoun’s first year replacing his old coach was a success. A repeat performance might take a little more time.