An inside look at the challenges the next Army coach will face
There are two vacant head coaching positions at the moment in FBS and - when it comes to recruiting, at least - they could not be more opposite. First, there's Texas. It's the richest program in college football, and stands as the flagship school in a state that annually produces more FBS signees than any other. No team in college football should have an easier time filling out its recruiting class. And then there's Army, where filling a recruiting class with FBS-caliber players has become nearly impossible, and keeping them in laying shape is even tougher.
With Sunday night's dismissal of Rich Ellerson, Army is now in search of its fifth head coach in 13 years. Since recording a 10-2 season in 1996, the Black Knights have posted one winning season. There's a reason the program is 50-149 over the past 17 seasons, and it's not for a lack of trying. Army wants to win. They've hired successful coaches - Todd Berry currently leads a successful ULM program, Bobby Ross took the San Diego Chargers to the Super Bowl, and Ellerson delivered Cal Poly to the FCS playoffs before arriving in West Point.
But the institutional demands Army football players face away from football make it immeasurably difficult to become successful football players.
There's the Ivy League-quality education players must handle, plus the military training cadets undertake that lasts throughout the year. Football - for good reason, obviously - is without a doubt the least important item on every Army football player's plate.
"There is no summer vacation, or even much opportunity to take a course over the summer to lighten the academic load in season," writes Joe Drape for the New York Times. "The incoming freshmen start Beast Barracks — or basic training — in late June, and upperclassmen must take part in leadership training that can include simulated combat missions and Ranger School and can take cadets to places like Fort Benning, Ga., and Germany."
“We’ve got to do a better job in sequencing,” athletic director Boo Corrigan told the New York Times. “These guys come out of training all beat up and then go right into football camp. We’re not looking to get them out of it, but for a better way.”
After a dozen straight losses to Navy, Army may be ready to change the all-important admissions process that has hamstrung the program as Navy and Air Force have won consistently over the past two decades. Namely, Army is now discussing expanding its ultra-rigid scope for admitting football players. “You can tell if a young person has the core qualities to be very able Army officers,” Army College Football Hall of Famer Dawkins said. “It’s entirely fair to accept some risks and then tutor them and make them successful. I think it’s something we can do without compromising the standards and culture of the place.”
Ross knew the challenges well-meaning Army players faced in getting on the field week after week, much less winning. Ellerson - with a father and two brothers that graduated from West Point and a son on the current team - wanted to win as much as any coach in college football, but saw his linebackers shrink from 210 pounds to 190 over the course of a season. And the equally-successful coaches Army is currently interviewing to be Ellerson's replacement, Georgia Southern head coach Jeff Monken and Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan are two of them, will also understand the challenges Army football faces in stepping on the field.
And now, the academy may be ready to give the Army football program a fighting chance.
“When America puts its sons and daughters in harm’s way, they do not expect us to just ‘do our best,’ but to win,” Lt. Gen. Robert L. Caslen, Jr., the superintendnt of the West Point campus, emailed to prominent alumni following Ellerson's departure. “Nothing short of victory is acceptable. That fundamental ethos is at the heart of this academy. It must be ingrained in every one of our athletic programs. Our core values are duty, honor, country. Winning makes them real.”