You didn’t think I was going to sit this one out, did you?
Now that Thanksgiving is behind us, there’s nothing left on Army and Navy’s respective plates but each other. Not that there’s much to add to the Army-Navy discussion this year. Well, nothing that you haven’t heard before, anyway. Here we are at the beginning of another December with Navy looking forward to one more bowl trip and Army looking back on their season and asking themselves what went wrong. The Midshipmen will walk into Lincoln Financial Field with a 7-4 record and wins over Pitt and Indiana under their belts, while Army’s loss to previously winless Hawaii leaves them at 3-8. In that, I suppose there is one difference between now and years past; we’re being spared “closing the gap” stories, at least prior to the game. Maybe Rich Ellerson still thinks his team is three touchdowns better than Navy, but hopefully everyone else has started to realize that it takes more than one game to measure the relative strength of two football programs. When you look at the big picture, it’s evident that the gap between Army and Navy hasn’t changed very much.
But why? The reasons given for Army’s lack of success are varied and of the “see what sticks” variety. “Fire the coach!” is a common refrain, as it is with disgruntled sports fans everywhere. Of course, Army has been hiring and firing coaches for years; they’re on their fifth since Jim Young (sixth if you count the John Mumford interim half-season). Despite the revolving door– or perhaps even because of it– the results haven’t changed. Over the last 40 years, only one coach (Young) has left West Point with a winning record, and even that record is somewhat misleading; Young’s Army teams played 3-4 I-AA squads every year. Against I-A opponents, Young was only 27-33-1, which means that it’s been four decades since an Army coach finished his West Point tenure with a winning record over top-level opposition. At some point, someone should probably suggest that maybe it isn’t always the coach (or at least not only the coach) that’s the problem.
The thought does occur to some people, although that doesn’t always mean they’re any further along the path of enlightenment. Many choose to follow the age-old West Point custom of blaming Navy for pretty much anything. The “Alternative Service Option” was Army’s attempt to allow graduates to go straight into professional sports upon graduation. Was it shut down because it was a blatant end-around of DOD rules? No, it was shut down because of Navy. That wasn’t just typical message board cluelessness; that was a West Point superintendent saying that. Dive into the message board crowd and you really get the crazy. Apparently Army can’t compete with Navy because Navy makes ridiculous concessions to the football team, like taking them out of the Brigade and giving them their own company. And then there’s the classics like blaming the war in Afghanistan and Iraq for Army’s inability to recruit against Navy. Of course, that assumes that Army and Navy are recruiting against each other head-to-head. As Rich Ellerson himself has pointed out, however, that is not the case:
Our unique methodology for culling large swaths of the population to produce talented and qualified “prospects” WORKS. Focusing on “DESTINSTION” [sic] at the outset of the recruiting process focuses the effort on the men who are likely to embrace the challenges of West Point and subsequently prosper here. The process is producing only a dozen or so multiple academy recruits and we don’t do especially well with that cohort. This year we got three that received real interest from Navy or USAFA. The more encouraging trend is the number of recruits with Division one scholarship opportunities that are choosing to come and attend US-MAPS. It is a spectacular facility and having it here at West Point is a GAME CHANGER!
If Army’s “process” means that they aren’t even recruiting against Navy much, then how could anything Navy does have any affect on Army? It doesn’t. Contrary to what people usually believe, recruits aren’t choosing between Annapolis and West Point.
Even if Navy isn’t to blame, recruiting is one area where Army is struggling. Whatever this recruiting process is, it isn’t quite working. Under Bobby Ross and Stan Brock, Army went for numbers, hoping that they’d find a few diamonds in the rough if they cast a wide enough net. Unfortunately for them, that’s exactly what happened: they found a few. Army has had some very good players, particularly on defense with guys like Caleb Campbell and Josh McNary. They just haven’t produced enough of those guys up and down the roster.
Rich Ellerson supposedly doesn’t recruit in the same way. I do think he does a better job than his predecessor in finding guys that fit what he’s trying to do on the field, but that isn’t saying much considering that Brock didn’t believe in the offense he was being forced to run. The end result hasn’t been much different. Army still doesn’t have the depth to withstand losses due to attrition and injuries. Terry Baggett, Larry Dixon, and Raymond Maples were expected to be the most talented trio of running backs that Army has seen in a long time. Baggett has certainly lived up to that billing. Dixon and Maples were doing their part as well, but both went down with injuries. Without Dixon, the fullback has all but disappeared from Army’s offense the last two games. Maples ran for 1200 yards last season, but his two main replacements this year have combined for less than half of that. Compare that to Navy, where you’d never be able to tell which slotback was injured in a given week, and one could argue that the #3 fullback has run even better than the guys he replaced.
Still, I don’t think recruiting is the root of the problem for Army. It’s a symptom, not the disease. Remember, we’re talking abut 40 years here. The factors involved have to be a lot more fundamental than one or two coaches’ recruiting strategies. Obviously, being a service academy already makes winning difficult for all of us, but why is it apparently less difficult for Navy? It’s because Navy is simply a better job.
There are Army fans who will read this, roll their eyes, and immediately dismiss it as typical rivalry rah-rah. So be it. It’s the truth, though, and it doesn’t just apply to Army; Navy is a better job than Air Force, too. If you don’t believe me, just look at the athletic directors. Until very recently, Air Force was still using active-duty officers to lead their athletic departments. Their first AD since then, Hans Mueh, is the former head of the school’s chemistry department and vice dean of faculty with no prior experience in athletics administration other than as a faculty athletics representative. Army has had three athletic directors since 1999. The first, Rick Greenspan, came from a I-AA school and left Army for Indiana. His successor, Kevin Anderson, was an associate AD at Oregon State before coming to West Point. He left for Maryland. Army’s search for Anderson’s replacement included an Ivy League AD and associate AD at Wisconsin before settling on Boo Corrigan, senior associate AD at Duke. Navy, on the other hand, has had two athletic directors since 1988: Jack Lengyel, who was hired away from Missouri, and Chet Gladchuk, who came to USNA from Houston after serving as AD at Tulane and Boston College. Army and Air Force have a group of small school ADs, first-time ADs, and people who used the job as a stepping stone. Navy hired guys who were experienced I-A (and BCS-level) ADs that saw USNA as an aspirational job. That’s not a knock on the people Army and Air Force do hire, it’s just that they’re at different points in their careers. Navy doesn’t take a chance when they hire ADs; they hire people with a proven track record.
The reason for this difference is simple: money. Because NAAA is a 501(c)(3) corporation and not funded by the government, it isn’t subject to the same government regulations when it comes to fundraising. Army and Air Force are organized differently. While their coaches are not paid with taxpayer money, they are paid with government money through the Non-Appropriated Fund Instrumentalities set up to support their athletic departments (both Army and Air Force coaches are technically government contractors). NAFI fundraising is more restrictive than what Navy is able to do. Navy simply has more money to pay ADs and coaches, so on average, they hire better ones. Navy and Air Force don’t play each other in most sports that regularly, so it’s hard to make a direct comparison between the two athletic departments. The Falcons’ historical struggles in WAC and Mountain West competition, however, certainly don’t do much to suggest otherwise. Army and Navy play all the time, and the results speak for themselves.
Air Force did have years of success in football, but this was while Army and Navy were having an identity crisis and playing 3-4 games against I-AA schools every year. Air Force was the only service academy committed to playing football at the highest level, and that momentum carried them for years. Charlie Weatherbie stopped playing I-AA games, but he didn’t even bother recruiting much against Air Force because he didn’t think he could. He instead opted for the “wide net” approach like Bobby Ross and Stan Brock. Fisher DeBerry was still getting his pick of service academy players. Once Navy hired someone who was willing to go toe-to-toe with DeBerry, the pendulum swung almost immediately. From 1993 until starting 5-0 in 2003, Air Force was 82-45. Since losing to Navy that year, Air Force has gone 64-67. Meanwhile, Navy has won 20 of their last 22 games against the other service academies. Air Force has a whole host of other problems that might also have something to do with their slide, but having actual competition from Navy is something they didn’t used to have to deal with.
So, can things change? Sure, Army can beat Navy, but without a fundamental shift in the way they do business, they won’t be able to sustain that success. Air Force has created their own 501 (c)(3) for athletics, but it’ll take a little while to get it up to speed. Army, on the other hand, seems content to tread water. If anything, they’ve doubled down on the status quo. While conference realignment led Navy to join the American Athletic Conference for football, Army insists on remaining independent. In fact, they may have hinted at going back to the scheduling of the Jim Young days:
“Our goal is to play people that we look like, that have a similar-type mission that we do,” Corrigan said. “As you look at that, be it Rice, be it Tulane, be it Duke, be it Wake Forest, playing some of our more traditional rivals with a Colgate or an Ivy or other Patriot League teams mixed in there, it’s going very well. We are excited about that.”
Looking at recent Army schedules, they already play Tulane, Duke, and Wake Forest-types all the time. These wouldn’t be new additions. More Ivy League and Patriot League schools though? Just how many of these are they planning on mixing in? I can’t believe that they’d schedule more than one or two a year, but… I just don’t know. How many other FBS ADs, when asked about scheduling, would answer by talking about the FCS teams they’re planning on playing? Like those are the featured teams on the schedule that you’re excited about playing instead of just filler? It’s entirely possible that I’m reading too much into these comments, but I’d be nervous if I was an Army fan.
In the end, maybe Rich Ellerson sticks around for another year or two, or maybe Army will move on to yet another coach. But unless Army commits to making other changes, it won’t matter.