I said in my post on Army’s football program that even if the team isn’t as good as some people think they are, they finally have some stability and are moving in the right direction. What do I mean by instability? Over the past decade, Army has been in and out of Conference USA, had to scramble to fill an independent’s schedule in 2005, seen the Alternative Service Option come and go, went through two athletic directors, and labored under four head coaches (five if you count John Mumford’s half-season interim stint in 2003). Now, with winnable games on the schedule and a coach that the school is committed to, Army has a chance to get better. That certainly doesn’t guarantee success, and there is a lot of work to be done; but changing the environment was the first step on the road to recovery.

Stability has never been much of a concern for Air Force, which over the years has been the most rock-steady of the service academies. While Army technically had 5 head coaches in the last decade, Air Force has had 5 head coaches since 1958, including 23 years under Fisher DeBerry. When Ken Hatfield left, Air Force hired DeBerry, one of Hatfield’s assistants. When DeBerry retired, Air Force hired Troy Calhoun, one of DeBerry’s former players. Not surprisingly, neither strayed far from their predecessors’ formulas. 2009 was Air Force’s also 30th year as a conference member, having joined the WAC in 1980. Even when the Mountain West rocked the boat and split from that conference in 1999, all it really did was re-create the WAC that Air Force originally joined. Air Force is stable even in ways they don’t necessarily want to be; with 8 conference games plus Army and Navy, they have pretty much the same schedule every year. They’ve finished 8-5 in back-to-back seasons, played in the same bowl game 3 years in a row, and even faced the same opponent in those bowl games the last two seasons. Things haven’t changed much in the land of bus driver blue.

That might not be the case for very long. Strange things are afoot in Colorado Springs, both within the program and in the Mountain West.

We’ll start with the former. Here are a couple of quotes. First, we have Navy’s Ken Niumatalolo after signing his contract extension:

“The Naval Academy has made a significant commitment to me and my family, for which we are eternally grateful,” said Niumatalolo. “We love this great institution, we love Annapolis and we love the young men that we have been entrusted to lead. The Naval Academy is a special place and I have no desire to coach anywhere else in the country. This mutual commitment is a clear sign of the future direction of this storied program. The Naval Academy is about excellence. Excellence is not just expected here, it is demanded. We will continue to raise the bar of excellence on the field while we continue to develop leaders of men off the field.”

Now Troy Calhoun, announcing back in January that he would not be leaving Air Force for Tennessee:

“We are more than grateful and proud to be closely involved with the character building of our cadets and the mission of the United States Air Force Academy,” Calhoun said in the statement. “We are diligently recruiting and working with our team to prepare for the upcoming season. We look forward to coaching and being a part of the Air Force Academy team both on and off the field in 2010.”

There is a difference between these two comments. Niumatalolo is talking about how his signing represents a mutual commitment to building the Navy program into the future, and how he has no desire to go anywhere else. Calhoun only talks about coaching Air Force in 2010. That’s because I think this will be his last season in Colorado Springs.

I don’t point these quotes out to say that one is better than the other; it’s just an observation. Looking back on the 2007 season, Paul Johnson gave Navy fans plenty of hints that he was looking to move on, like in this CSTV interview from the preceding summer where he said that “it’s intriguing to think that you’d have a chance sometime maybe to win a championship where it might be a little easier.” There was a time back in January when it appeared that Calhoun was as good as gone to Tennessee. It didn’t materialize, but I doubt it was due to a lack of interest on Calhoun’s part. Depending on what rumor you choose to believe, the opposite is true. It would make sense if that was the case. It’s hard to imagine that Calhoun spent his career rising from the college ranks to two different NFL teams, including offensive coordinator for the Texans, just so he could wind up at Air Force. That isn’t a slight to Air Force; it’s just a matter of what each individual coach’s career goals are. I believe that Coach Niumatalolo would be happy to coach at Navy as long as they’ll have him, mostly because he’s said as much. I think most of us knew that Paul Johnson’s ambition would lead him out of Annapolis eventually. While it might sting a little more for Air Force fans since Calhoun is a graduate, it appears that his path is more like Johnson’s.

One could even argue that in some ways, Calhoun has more appeal to the average BCS athletic director than Johnson did. He hasn’t accomplished as much as a head coach as Johnson had, but Calhoun, with his NFL experience, also isn’t as dedicated as Johnson to running the option. He doesn’t have as much of the “option coach” stigma that still resonates for whatever reason. He wasn’t even going to be very option heavy at Air Force until he changed his mind after evaluating the tools he had to work with. That broadens his appeal among otherwise prejudiced ADs. And if he is in fact looking for bigger and better things, now is the time to move. After finishing 9-4, 8-5, and 8-5 in his first three seasons at Air Force, Calhoun still gets credit for turning the program around rather than getting criticized for not being able to break into the upper echelon of the Mountain West. That feeling won’t last forever, though. It’s hard to win at a service academy. While Air Force might occasionally break through for a dream season where they are in the running for the Mountain West crown, they won’t be able to do so consistently. Air Force’s basketball coaches realized this, which is why they all cashed in on their success as soon as they had the chance. Winning the conference isn’t going to get any easier, either. TCU, BYU, and Utah are a cut above the rest of the conference, and even though Utah’s days as a Mountain West member are numbered, they are being replaced with perennial BCS contender Boise State. Utah has a better athletic program, so it’s a net loss for the MWC. As far as what goes on between the sidelines, though, the Broncos will undoubtedly fit right in to Utah’s former place in the top tier of the conference.

The Utes’ impending departure for the Pac 10 weakens the Mountain West’s case to become an automatic qualifier for a BCS bowl game. The BCS is in the middle of a four-year evaluation period to determine if any non-AQ conferences merit AQ status. Conferences will be judged by where their top team ranks in the final BCS standings each year, the number of teams in the top 25 of the final BCS standings each year, and the final regular-season computer rankings of all conference teams. The MWC’s “big three” have carried the rest of the conference on the first two, but the third is a problem; there’s a lot of bad football in the bottom half of the MWC. If Utah had stayed put, the addition of Boise State would have turned the “big three” into a “big four” and helped to average out the anchors holding the conference down; instead, adding the Broncos just maintains the status quo, and that might not be good enough.

Then again, the status quo would be a blessing in disguise for Air Force. The Mountain West is small-time financially compared to the BCS AQ conferences. Once Utah leaves, only BYU will have an average attendance of greater than 40,000 per game. The MWC’s five bowl games combined only pay out as much as the Capital One Bowl, and the league’s 10-year, $120 million TV contract with Versus and CBS College Sports nets each team a little more than $1 million per year. The annual $18 million jolt of BCS bowl game cash would have an immediate impact, and having automatic qualifying status would add value to the television contract when it comes up for renegotiation. That’s more money for each program to put into coaching, recruiting, facilities, and anything else to try to attract higher caliber athletes. The problem for Air Force is that they can’t take advantage of these things the way the other schools in the conference can. They are still a service academy; no matter how much money they bring in, they are going to be constrained by the military and academic requirements of the school. They have a ceiling that the rest of the conference doesn’t. Over time, schools like San Diego State– in a great city, with gobs of local talent, but terribly cash-strapped– would leave Air Force behind. Air Force would become the Mountain West’s Vanderbilt. I’m sure that everyone at Air Force wants the Mountain West to get that automatic bid, but they might want to be careful what they wish for. As far as on-field competition goes, Air Force benefits from the financial limitations of the rest of the conference.

In the short term, Calhoun has called his team’s schedule “the strongest a service academy has played in decades.” That’s a bit ridiculous. It is unusual, though, in that Air Force has no off weeks and will be done with their season before Thanksgiving. There is also a real possibility that they will be 1-3, and no better than 2-2, going into the Navy game– making it pivotal not only for the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy, but for the entire season. As much as Air Force fans presumably want to keep Troy Calhoun, I doubt they want it to be because interest cooled off after a losing season. Not that anyone expects that to happen, at least not this year. But if Air Force puts together another season like their last three, it just makes it more likely that they’ll see changes in the future.


  1. EightyFiver

    A fascinating Calhoun quote from the Gazette piece: “I hear it all the time where if you’re a football coach or basketball coach at a service academy the very first time you can go to the ACC or Big 12 you have to do it. I disagree.”

    If leaving were out of the question, why would Calhoun say this? I’ll translate: “No, things didn’t work out with Virginia a couple of years ago or with Tennessee last year. But AD’s from the ACC and the SEC should NOT read that as saying ‘I won’t go,’ because I just might.”

  2. EKWJR

    I think that if Calhoun does go, after this season is the time to go….if he beats Navy, he may be tempted to stay (some would argue the other way); if he loses to Navy again, the heat is going to be on, so it will be time to get going before his stock falls farther…agree that this looks like a crossroads year for him…

    one thing that comes across different about him than PJ is that PJ clearly was hungry to go where he could compete for a National Chanpionship again…i don’t see that jumping off the page about Calhoun…that is why I think that he might want to stay at AF in a comfy situation, which cannot happen until he wins the CIC Trophy…this is my rationale as to why a win over Navy will be pivotal to his decision…

  3. Witt94

    Interesting case about Calhoun. Another thing is that I don’t recall any coach saying “Eh, it’s ok here, I don’t dislike it, but I’d really REALLY like to talk to some other schools about a new job.”

    It’ll be interesting to see. Michigan may be looking for a new coach after this year (what do you think about that USNA86?) and he’d probably be a pretty decent fit up there other than not being a “Michigan Man.”

  4. EKWJR

    I’ll bite one more time, Mike. I base my opinion/conclusion on looking at the Gazette article (DeBerry’s comments) and my glances over the AF board from time to time. DeBerry came across as wanting his “disciple” to stay put. The AF faithful have become obsessed with beating Navy, thanks to the current run. AF still considers Colorado Springs the rightful “home” of the CIC trophy – it ain’t there now. And the only way it comes back is if AF can beat Navy.

    IMO the welcome mat gets pulled if Calhoun can’t bring the trophy back, 8-5 record or not.

  5. EKWJR

    I’m done, Big Guy. You win, other than to point out I have a stepson who is USAFA 97 (played doolie football there), a niece who attended there, have housed USAFA cadets at my house for Navy-AF games here, and have an office mate who is USAFA 68 – and all of them oink the same way about the CIC Trophy, which is consistent with the AF Board. So my guess is educated and based on some personal observations, however flawed they might be.

    Dream come true for me is that Navy never loses to Air Force again in my lifetime while Calhoun stays there and absorbs each and every one of the losses….while he goes 8-5, 8-5, 8-5…8-5….

  6. Why did you say you based your opinion on reading message boards, then, Small Guy? Not that it matters, since it’s still wrong. “Oinking” fans wouldn’t be the ones making the decision to fire a coach who delivers 8 wins every year.

  7. GoalieLax

    dream come true for me is that air force loses every game for the next 5 years to the point where calhoun reenters the military to actually serve since he can never coach again and AF disbands their athletic department

    but that’s just me

  8. TJ

    Pretty fair assessment, I’d say. If Calhoun takes another job after this season, I imagine Hans Meuh will try to get another grad in to replace him … there’s no shortage of those in the coaching ranks. That being said, I don’t think AF will have a losing season this year, but they can expect to be at the New Mexico Bowl or back in Fort Worth again.

  9. Witt94

    I don’t think that AF would fire TC unless they had many years of losing seasons (or some other PR thing happen which I doubt).

    As a side note, could AF financially afford to fire him? Could they pay the contract AND pay for another coach to replace him? I doubt it. But I think TBD is right that if TC is going to make a move, it’ll need to be sooner rather than later, but neither one is a bad option for him.

  10. Michigan may be looking for a new coach after this year (what do you think about that USNA86?) and he’d probably be a pretty decent fit up there other than not being a “Michigan Man.”

    RichRod will definitely be on the hot seat this year. I don’t know that the UM faithful would like having another “gimmick” offense follow his, though. I’d see them going full bore after Jim Harbaugh.

  11. TJ

    BTW the Poinsettia Bowl has the MWC #2 pick this year, which means AF can cross San Diego off their list of possible bowl destinations.

  12. Dave'69

    My dream is to have AF go 10-2 with the losses being to Navy and Army. I can’t decide if it would be better if both losses were by three touchdowns or by a single point. (Note to GoalieLax – Think about the posts that would appear on the AF board after my such a year and see if it doesn’t have some favorable points over your “nuclear” dream.)

  13. I say the entire state of Colorado is quarantined for Super Swine Flu and Air Force cancels future football seasons indefinitely. Since we’re dreaming.

  14. Kurt Boyer

    Birddog, great insight as usual, but I’m interested as to why you didn’t mention a couple of impressive Air Force games from last year. The shootout win over Houston showed that the AFA can easily outscore & undress a talented FBS team in a big game. The 16-13 result against TCU was momentous. TCU was after all bound for a BCS bowl, and fielded one of the proudest defenses in the country. Air Force nearly knocked off Navy as well.

    For some reason these games didn’t inspire the “these guys are for real” reaction that Navy has enjoyed this preseason. Maybe the TCU game was overlooked because TCU isn’t in a media darling conference & the other two academies won that day. But it was as remarkable a close loss as Navy’s season opener. I doubt Air Force is ready to beat Navy this year, but I give them credit for matching blows with some very good teams.

  15. Witt94

    Kurt, from CFN’s ranking write-up of AF: “In the three years under Troy Calhoun, Air Force is 0-9 when giving up 29 points or more and is just 6-13 when allowing a mere 18 points or more with three of those wins coming in 2007. Meanwhile, the Falcons went 1-5 last season when scoring 21 points or fewer.” So statistically speaking AF can’t really hang in high scoring games under TC.

    The Houston game was a good win for AF, however it was heavily influenced by tipped passes being caught for an INT. AF did a good job being opportunistic and capitalizing on that, but there is also a HUGE luck factor when it comes to tipped balls. That’s hardly “undress”ing a FBS team.

    There hasn’t been a 16-13 game with TCU years:
    2009: 20-17 TCU
    2008: 44-10 TCU
    2007: 20-17 AF

    I presume since you’re calling it a close loss you mean the 2009 20-17 game. That TCU game was played in terrible weather of freezing mist and wind. TCU nearly had their way with AF except they kept turning the ball over deep in AF territory. Tipped pass at AF 4 for INT in 1Q, forced fumble at AF 6 in 3Q, forced fumble at TCU 46 in 4Q. Again, good on AF for making the plays, but that’s not even comparable to the Navy-OSU game (I’ll remind you that Navy lost the TO battle 3-1 that day and still hung with OSU). Escaping disaster that could have been 2 TCU scores and a blowout 17 point game (or worse) vs. losing the TO battle and still hang with a top 5 team – not a good comparison.

    You’re looking for AF accolades, fine. They are a good team. But I can’t agree with this reasoning as to why they are a good team. AF is currently overlooked as you say because they aren’t in the top of their conference. Navy hung with top 5 OSU, beat a ranked ND, and mauled Missouri and returns most of the team. AF only played one BCS AQ team and lost that to a below average Minnesota team and loses the entire OL & most of the DL. If you’re looking for “these guys are for real” from the press as you say Navy has gotten this preseason, you’ve got to do more than nearly beat teams for the press to notice.

  16. Geo79

    I never knew there was this much bad blood between navy and the Air Farce. Must come from the navy-AF result coming down to the winner of the CIC Trophy. Has Army been THAT bad for THAT long? Yes.

    The Air Farce game was never a big event for us in the late 70’s. navy . . . ALWAYS. We always had trouble finding anyone who wanted to bet b-robes. Might have had something to do with the itchy, class “color” robes one got for winning. I think they always sent SMALL sizes, too.

  17. Tim

    Momentous losses against proud defenses = ++A1 prime criteria for winning the Armed Forces Belief, Logic, Other Wins, and Schedule Trophy

  18. Kurt

    Witt, it may surprise you to know I’m a longtime Navy fan and only a casual fan of other service academies. Maybe that’s why I got the score of the TCU game wrong (my bad). But as valid as some of your points are, I just wondered why Birddog didn’t mention the two most impressive games by Air Force last season. Not accusing him of any bias. Just curious as to what he thought of those games.

    And I think you’re falling prey to a typical logic trap in those linguistic, statistical gymnastics about how the two games in question were so lucky for Air Force to have extended TCU and beaten Houston handily. It reminds me of guys trashing QB’s they personally dislike on NFL boards. Sure, they might say, your guy had 4 touchdowns and 0 interceptions today, but one TD was a gimme, two were lucky because blah blah, and one was a great catch, meanwhile 3 picks were dropped by the other team, so REALLY he had NO touchdowns and THREE picks! Ultimately whether it was the Ice Bowl or there were tipped passes or red zone fumbles or what-have-you, teams do deserve credit for putting points on one side of the scoreboard & keeping them off the other one. Yeah, I think winning a bowl game or going to OT with a BCS bowler are pretty impressive results for an academy. Sorry if you disagree. No big thing. I still think Navy beats them this year. Maybe we’ll win on a tipped pass and some Air Force fans can say it therefore doesn’t count.

    Tim, I guess your ridicule of my remarks is supposed to help Navy beat AFA this year or help you feel better about your life, or something. But I tell you what you do. Find any AFA player, maybe a linebacker, look him in the eyes and tell him what you told us. Then, find a TCU linebacker and let him know man-to-man how you feel about his laughable pride in the Frogs defense. If you recover from both sets of injuries in a year’s time, come over and I’ll bring you to a nice spot I know next to an elm tree & detonate a small atom bomb.* Take care.

    *adapted from Samuel Clemens

  19. Tim


    tough guy internet-style by proxy of not one but two teams who couldn’t give a sh*t what’s said here, PLUS the bonus offer to immolate via nuclear device! And all from a “casual” air farce fan!!!

    That may be the best ROI on any comment in the history of the interwebs

  20. Witt94

    1. I’m not looking at “statistical gymnastics”, I’m looking at how the actual game was played. You’re using stats like the scoreboard to define AF as a good team. I think AF is a good team, just not for the reasons you cite and especially not for the games you picked.

    Navy got a huge INT from ND last year when Claussen threw a pass off the back of his receiver. That wasn’t great defense, that was a lucky break. When Navy snagged 4 INTs from Wake Forest in 2008, 3 were because of great coverage, 1 was because of an overthrown ball. Significant difference in the quality of the play, even though the outcome was the same.

    I’ve gotten plenty of ugly pars on the golf course, that was the result of some lucky results of shots, not because I hit the shot I was trying to hit. It doesn’t mean that my play was good, it means that I scored a par. That’s it. Lucky or unlucky breaks are part of the game and I have no problem with that. But recognize the difference between catching some breaks and flat outplaying someone.

    2. “Yeah, I think winning a bowl game or going to OT with a BCS bowler are pretty impressive results for an academy. Sorry if you disagree.” … when did I ever disagree with that?

    3. “I still think Navy beats them this year. Maybe we’ll win on a tipped pass and some Air Force fans can say it therefore doesn’t count.” … they’ve said that every year for the past 7 years, that will be nothing new.

    4. When reading from your link to CFN for the Navy preview, did you also notice that CFN’s preseason rankings are:
    AF: #62 @
    Navy: #74 @

    So much for all the Navy love at and none for AF over at CFN.

    The Orlando Sentinel also stated “With Ricky Dobbs behind center, Navy should continue to be the toast of the service academies.” and ranked Navy @ #26 (

    They also then ranked AF @ #22 ( despite calling Navy “the toast of the service academies”. Seems a little odd doesn’t it?

    AF is hardly being disrespected in the press while only hugs and kisses are offered for Navy.

    5. I noticed you didn’t seem to pay attention to the stats that AF has a terrible record in high scoring games, despite your claims of “The shootout win over Houston showed that the AFA can easily outscore & undress a talented FBS team in a big game.” … a 6-13 record when your opponent scores 18+ points means that they lose twice as often in high scoring games.

    6. I’m not picking a fight with you. I just don’t agree with why you think AF is a good team, even though I think they are a good team. I would use the AF-Navy game as a good example of why they are a good team, they shut us down to a season low of offensive yards and our second lowest score of the season (after the 27-14 Pitt loss).

  21. WTDoor

    “Maybe the TCU game was overlooked because TCU isn’t in a media darling conference & the other two academies won that day. But it was as remarkable a close loss as Navy’s season opener.”

    Or, maybe it was because AF had TCU AT HOME and in a SNOW STORM while Navy was AT OSU for the season opener…maybe that had something to do with it. TCU at Home does not = Ohio State in Columbus. Not even close.

    Why are AF fans posing as Navy fans on here?

  22. Kurt

    Mike, one might reference notable, recently played games as part of the “state” of a program. For instance, Alabama recently beat Texas. I’m fairly sure I’m not crazy on this point. But no big deal. I wrote you a letter. And I hope I never learn what exactly a ROI is. (Randomly Obvious Imbecile?)

  23. Return on investment.

    Thanks for the note and the compliments. I don’t have a problem if you want to talk about Air Force games. But when you frame it as “why didn’t you mention these?,” it comes off as accusatory, as if I was trying to cherry-pick facts in my post. The theme of my piece was Air Force’s uncertain future. I didn’t talk about any of Air Force’s games last season, good or bad, because they don’t have anything to do with that topic. There are any number of things I could touch on when discussing the state of a particular school’s football program, but if I want to keep the post to 1500-2000 words, I have to be selective. Calhoun and Air Force’s place in a changing Mountain West were the most interesting elements to me.

    I’m not going to pretend that I like Air Force. I don’t. I have no problem with objective conversation, though. You just rubbed me the wrong way the way you brought it up.

  24. Kurt

    I think how you *perceived* I brought it up rubbed several people the wrong way. But sometimes, words just is what they is. I never intended such an accusation. Your blog is never biased without reason, anyone can see that.

    I honestly didn’t think it was like this between Navy and AF. I thought there was more mutual sympathy for the plight of cadet scholars taking on semi-professionals. No wonder we can’t win any wars these days with such vinegar between branches. At least it spices up the football, though.

  25. WTDoor

    “No wonder we can’t win any wars these days with such vinegar between branches.”

    Yes. That is why we can’t win any wars. Navy football fans not liking Air Force football (and vice versa) leads to sure destruction on the battlefield. Good point.

  26. Andrewde78

    A few years ago, I read a book written by John Feinstein called: “A Civil War: Army vs. Navy”. I’m sure many of you have read it.
    It covered the seasons of both Army & Navy and comprehensively broke down both teams’ dramas from training, recruiting, coaches, players, games, etc… leading up to the Army/Navy game. In the middle of the whole thing, there was Air Force. AF was the dominant service academy at the time and up to that point was the best established and successful football program amongst the three and had established the best precedent in service academy football history up until that point. The author did a great job making it clear that no matter how extravagant Air Force was, the nation only cared about Army/Navy when any service academy made it to the spotlight. Of course, it pissed Air Force off.

    The point that I am trying to make is that Air Force hasn’t forgotten the time when they were the reigning academy champions AND AF thought they were coming back to life until Navy beat them in Colorodo Springs by a last second field goal a few years back when Navy was under PJ and during its successful program turn around; AF was ranked #25 at the time too!

    My 2 cents.

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