According to reports, Army is going back to the wishbone.
Despite his double-secret spring practices and a spring game that will only be a “defensive scrimmage,” Stan Brock’s plan to keep his new mystery offense under wraps has failed. Not that we have any details or anything, but at least the Army coaching staff’s renewed acquaintance with Jim Young has been explained.
|The general attitude of Army fans at the moment.|
To Army fans, the wishbone is roughly analogous to Jesus Christ, Chuck Norris, Winston Churchill, the Emancipation Proclamation, Luke Skywalker, and penicillin all rolled into one. It’s the wonder drug. The messiah. The badass panacea that will cure all that is wrong with the football program. That’s because whatever football success that Army has had in the last 30 years came when the team was running a wishbone (or wishbone-ish) offense. The architect of those teams was Jim Young, the former Arizona and Purdue head coach who relieved Ed Cavanaugh as Army’s top dog in 1983. After losing 9 games in his first year, Young decided he needed to make a change on offense and installed the wishbone. The success was immediate. In 1984, Army went 8-3-1, won the Commander in Chief’s Trophy, stunned Tennessee with a 24-24 tie, and beat Michigan State in the now-defunct Cherry Bowl. Young won 49 games in seven years at Army after installing the wishbone.
The similarities between Young’s experiment and today’s Army team are pretty obvious. Cavanaugh coached Army for three years before Young was hired. Bobby Ross coached Army for 3 years before Stan Brock replaced him. Both Young and Brock used offenses similar to their predecessors’ in their first year. Both ended up with 9 losses that year. And now, Army is apparently switching to the wishbone once again. Optimism is sure to abound.
Hopefully, that optimism is kept in check. I think most Army fans would agree that duplicating the immediate success they saw under Young isn’t a reasonable expectation. But they all expect it to work before too long. It’s their dogma; the wishbone– or at least the triple option– is the path to service* academy football nirvana. After all, Ken Hatfield installed the wishbone at Air Force and resurrected that program after its doldrums of the ’70s. Fisher DeBerry used the basics of the same offense for two decades. Paul Johnson took Navy to 5 straight bowl games with his option offense. But service* academies have lost with the option as much as they’ve won with it. Elliot Uzelac ran the wishbone at Navy and won a whopping 8 games in 3 years. The Mids ran option-heavy offenses under Charlie Weatherbie and gradually deteriorated into a winless team. And while Army fans like to remember Bob Sutton for the 1996 season that saw the Cadets go 10-2, the rest of his tenure wasn’t nearly as good. Outside of that one season, Sutton’s record at West Point was 34-53-1. Suttonites would argue that at least the team was competitive. But 14 of Sutton’s wins at Army came against non-scholarship I-AA programs (Colgate x4, Harvard, Holy Cross x2, Lafayette x4, Lehigh, Bucknell, Yale). Sutton also lost to The Citadel twice, and lost to Boston University (not Boston College) four years before that school dropped football. If Bobby Ross had the luxury of playing those teams, how much better would his record at Army have looked? The truth is that Army football under Sutton wasn’t much different than Army under Bobby Ross and Stan Brock. Sutton just had a much easier schedule.
That means that the option alone wasn’t the answer to all of life’s problems. There had to be another underlying cause of Army’s futility. Whatever those problems are, Army’s answer to them is to imitate Air Force of the 80s; pack the prep school with players, ease service requirements for graduates, and run the option. Shady, but it worked once already. But can you imagine the meltdown if it doesn’t work? The option is supposed to be the final piece of the puzzle. If Army doesn’t win even with the option, one of two things will happen. Either Army will completely give up and seriously consider dropping to I-AA, or they’ll just completely abandon whatever integrity they have left and start cutting even more corners. Relaxed admissions standards, maybe? Athletic dorms? Kinesiology majors? The sky’s the limit.
Meanwhile, assuming that this report is correct and Army is indeed returning to a true wishbone offense, I think it’s a good thing for college football. I like watching wishbone offenses. And ever since Ken Hatfield left Rice, there hasn’t been a decent wishbone playbook for me to use on my Xbox. Don’t talk to me about that generic “option playbook” garbage, either.
Going off on a bit of a tangent now… Something that annoys me when listening to college football fans– and Army fans are by no means the only ones guilty of this– is how much they overrate the value of individual schemes, both offensive and defensive. “The wishbone” or “the option” do not win games. Coaches win games. I am a firm believer that any scheme can be a winner if the right coach is running it. All it takes is a guy that’s smart enough and experienced enough to know how to adjust within his system to counter whatever the other team is showing him. On the other hand, any brilliant scheme will fail if it’s put into the hands of a coach that doesn’t know how to use it.
Anyway, we’ll see if this report holds up. You never know when stories cite “sources.”