THE STATE OF SERVICE ACADEMY FOOTBALL: ARMY

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.

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24 Responses

  1. IALA-A is simply Red Right Reaving! ;-)

    (Apologies to Admiral Yamamoto)

  2. don’t forget “Even Red Nuns Have Odd Green Cans”

    and I was just discussing IALA with some J World students a couple weekends ago

    i’m a nautical nerd fo sho

  3. Great post, Mike. what I want to see is Ellerson when he has “his guys” in there. He loves to talk about his brand of defense and the importance of recruiting players that fit it, but it seems to me that he has quite a few unique defenders, especially in the back. Does Army go up or down when the McNary’s and Anderson’s of the team graduate? Tough to tell. I never got the Steelman hype last year and still don’t know.

    Interesting tidbit: Hawaii defenders don’t think as highly of the Army “option” as Navy’s. You’re going to have to take my word on this one, if you know what I mean…

  4. BZ, Mike.

    • The real problem is that Navy really sees Army as D2 -this should not happen

  5. Moving onto cell nav mnemonics (youngster year), it’s HoMoTo and C-G-A (Coast Guard Academy).

    Nice post, Mike.

  6. Great post!

    How about Rivals.com having Navy at 23?

  7. I hate preseason love. Does very little good.

  8. Mike,

    BZ. Keep up the great work.

  9. All I remember is “True Virgins Make Dull Companions At Elections” and Dead Men Can’t Vote Twice at Weddings”…. or something like that! :)

    Great job, Mike. Looking forward to the Air Farce piece.

  10. I think there are a lot of reasons for Army fans to be optimistic about the future. You discuss the past but it’s obvious Berry and Brock where over matched and Ross was over the hill. There was no reason for the false optimism of 2004, 2005 and 2007.
    Ellerson is a professional coach with a staff that has had success running his systems. Right there alone is reason for optimism. I totally agree with you about the offensive. The OL needs to step up in a big way (It looked lousy in the spring game I attended) if they are going to score some points . They still lack speed outside and Brooks has some talent at receiver but is unproven.

    The problem with Army right now besides talent is that for every positive there seems to be a negative. The defense should be very good again but lack any depth if someone is hurt. They have some new quick pass rusher sat Bandit tackle but they will really miss Ugenyi upfront at the point of attack . The recruiting has picked up in talent and skill level but they lost their three best DL recruits (2 from USMAPS and one Direct) a few months before R day, A a number of their better slotbacks and Dbs quit during USMAPS and Beast.

    Army fans should feel good about Ellerson. With him in charge their is a professionalism to the approach of running the team. That was woefully lacking under the Killer B’s. While it was the softest 5 wins you could ever post it was a first step just the same as PJs 2-10 record was a building block.

    Army fans should forget about Navy for now and focus on their own program. Navy is a top thirty program with speed everywhere. The Mids are two and three deep at every position. Ellerson faces more challenges in his second year than say PJ did. When PJ turned around Navy he was competing against a Fisher Deberry who had lost his fastball and Todd Berry who was just lost. Ellerson is up against KN, who put together the most talented class in 2010 during the triple option era, and Calhoun who is a very aggressive and successful recruiter.

    At least he has the support of the AD and the fans. He faces a lot of challenges but there are legitimate reason to be optimistic about the direction of program.

  11. i can’t tell if you’re disagreeing with me or not.

  12. Your premise was solid regarding how Army fans have extrapolated endlessly about the status of the talent gap and justified bad football teams. The only thing I actually disagreed about was the article’s here we go again like reference to Ellerson. I think he will make them a winning team again and there is reasons to be optimistic if your a fan of the program. That said, I agree he faces a tough challenge given how well the two other service academies recruit.

  13. LOL Jim, it’s ok to use the phrase “us” or “we”. We all know you’re an Army fan :)

  14. As SENIOR goarmysports.com feature writer I have to maintain my objectivity Adam. (LOL)

    I’m a Navy fan first but root for both. It’s sort of like being a Yankees/Redsox fan. I know it makes no sense to the diehards.

  15. I know I’ve said it before, but I am looking forward to competitive football games again between Army & Navy. I live 20 min from the Point, got re-married at The Club 10 years ago and greatly enjoy driving my car on base with 69USNA plates and a BEAT ARMY bumper sticker. Yet I miss the give and take with Army rooters because they don’t give much anymore, having accustomed themselves to losing ways. Hope Ellerson can bring it together. I’ll being rooting for them, except for the last game of the season.

  16. Screw that.

  17. 2 things keep coming up on these boards: 1) We have to root for all service academies 2) We want a more competitive Army/Navy game. As Tonto says to the Lone Ranger in the lame joke, “What do you mean WE White Man?”

  18. the only team i want to see lose more than army is air force. keep the kumbaya stuff in the peace corps, hippie :)

  19. I like Bobby Ross, but I still can’t believe he called a fullback trap on 3rd and goal with no timeouts against A & M. He had a wide receiver dominating the game at that point, not to mention something like 10 seconds left. I doubt I will ever see a bigger coaching blunder.

  20. Ouch! I was there at the A&M game and said the same thing. WTF, over?!?!

    I persoally root for all service academies except when they play Army. In the over-commercialed, BCS-or-bust sports market in which the best athlete go elsewhere, there is much to be said about student-athlete still competing at a national level. navy’s wins over a hurting ND have been the icing on the cake! But Air Force and Navy have been doing it and doing it regularly. Army still isn’t there yet. And still has a way to come.

    I just hope that the need fro national attention is not affecting what makes the service academies special. There is a lot of bad press coming from USNA — an opportunistic civilian prof with a new book coming out dropped some change as it were! — which I hope is not true. Clean up your act if it is true or a pox on your house!

    I am a huge fan of George Welsh and Paul Johnson (who folklore has it wanted the job at West Point to replace Bob Sutton in the worst way, but Army was tired of the drab, dreary option offense and wanted a new direction, which is what Todd Berry gave them. Boy did he give it to them!) Class acts who won consistently on a national stage. I can remember navy beating Michigan 14-0 in 1974!! But every program has its Charlie Weatherbees and every new coach must re-build. Army just has had too many. Young was the only innovative coach in the last thirty years or so. [I always wondered why he would leave Purdue to coach at Army, they I learned how little the Boilers pay their coaches). How “Gentleman” Bob Sutton beat navy with such frequency is beyond me. I was all for booting him, but not for Todd Berry!

    I did not see much offense in Army’s option last year. I don’t care who you are. You cannot fumble and miss assignments and expect to win. I don’t care who the coach is, if you cannot hold onto the ball and tackel, forget it. Army still has to get back to basics and play mean football.

    Yes, the only teams they seem to beat are patsies — true. The Vandy win might have been better if the commode-doors did not suck so bad.

    Sad that the Bowl season rewards mediocrity just to put on a game. Six wins and you get a trip to nashville or Memphis or Detroit! So, what happens? The BCS elite schedule ouit of conference games against the service academies and the ACC; the ACC schedules the service acadmeies and Div 1A teams; and Army schdules the teams navy beat up on a year or two before. I personally was embarrassed when the USMA Supe told my Dad’s reunion class in 2008 that Army had paid off Georgia Tech and another true Div I (FBS?) team to avoid humiliating losses and to load up on patsies. Win six: get a bowl. Beat navy: Go to a bowl (at 6:6) — are you kidding me.

    I would rather lose to Georgia Tech (and PJ — again!) than to get beat or almost beat by Rhode Island, New Hampshire or Holy Cross. In my cow year at West Point (in 1977) we lost to ND 24-0 and Colorado 20-0, but we were in those games and played well.

    Hope for the future? Hope was the last evil Pandora let out of the box. If Army can start playing with the same intensity navy always seems to bring to a game — at least the games I have seen them play — and reduce penalties, execute, hold onto the ball, execute, tackle and execute better, things can only get better. When you don’t play good fundamental football, you cannot beat anyone.

    I am encouraged (hopeful? grasping?) that Ellerson clearly outcoached navy in the 2009 annual gridiron classic. I bet you navy boys (and girsl) are still pulling leather from your Laz-y-boys out of your toucasses after that one (at least the first half)! Army just didn’t have the horses to score more than three points when they needed it or to stop navy in the second half. So, Ellerson is into KN’s head!

  21. Besides it was Bobby’s USNA grad son who callled that play against A&M!!

  22. No foolin? I never knew who called the play. I only knew that they had ran the same fullback trap about 4 plays prior, and I was very upset that Ross wasted 3 hours of my life.

    You make a good point about scheduling teams that at least it’s worth it to lose to, but remember the big BCS boys schedule cupcakes, too. In fact, Army & Navy tend to schedule strong FCS programs with a history, like Delaware or Massachusetts, whereas your large conference bullies will typically just get someone they can romp over and play the freshmen in the second half…like Missouri playing SEMO, which I thought should have been stopped by the NCAA when they scheduled it. So it’s not a bad thing for Army to schedule a few traditional rival FCS schools as long as they play some big programs as well.

  23. It WAS an awful call, whoever made it . . . Eevn my Aggie cousins and their friends thought Army shoyuld have won – – but should haves are not like hand grenades.

    Totally agree about the big schools scheduling cupcakes (see, supra., ascheduling teh service academies and the ACC!). Every now and then though navy shocks the hell out of Ohio State and Michigan loses to a Div 1A team in the Big House. THAT is college football. Running the score up against a Sun Belt team who is only there for their share of the gate is not what is great about college football. The BCS should take AWAY points if a powrehouse plasy a team taht they beat by more tahn four TDs (like navy over Army! ;-)) Watch out this year, though!

    Army has had its problems even with the FCS schools. They snuck by Rhode Island last year (?) and lost to New Hampshire the year before. navy has also lost to the likes of W&M, UD, and a few other schedule stuffers. I would rather play well and lose (even on a bad call) than lose to a cupcake.

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