Army football’s steep tumble falling behind Navy and Air Force painfully includes a 14-game losing streak to the Midshipmen, but the holes to be filled have been obvious nearly 20 years.
Since 1996, the last time the Black Knights won the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy, Navy and Air Force have each won the service academy round-robin title 10 times. Air Force is 18-2 against Army in that time period and Navy 17-2 with the 20th meeting in the 117th Army-Navy Game Saturday in Baltimore.
If football is considered the front porch to a college, West Point’s portico has been the entrance way to a Bataan Death March.
However, Army officials and alumni believe a reckoning is underway. It began when Lt. General Robert L. Caslen took over three years ago as West Point’s 59th superintendent.
Caslen has the military credentials to satisfy the Pentagon to fill the office once occupied by five-star Gen. Douglas MacArthur. Caslen has been Chief of the Office of Security-Iraq, commander of the Combined Arms Center and commanded the 25th Infantry Division. The list goes on.
He also has a passion for Army football that MacArthur savored. During World War II, MacArthur famously sent a telegram – the era’s version of a text message – from the Pacific theater to Army Coach Red Blaik after the 1944 victory over Navy that clinched the national title:
“The greatest of all Army Teams – STOP – We have stopped the war to celebrate your magnificent success.”
But Caslen’s passion also includes the huddle; he played center for the Black Knights, earning letters in 1973 and 1974. As superintendent it’s not unusual to see him stand before the cadets at Michie Stadium and lead the cheers.
The Navy losing streak was at 11 when Caslen began implementing recommendations from two ad hoc committees that had been formed in the past 15 years. Previously, the ideas were studied and talked about, but they weren’t put into effect forcefully as institutional changes until Caslen.
“My feeling is we’re as close as we need to be to achieve parity with Navy and Air Force,” said Rollie Stichweh, Army’s quarterback rival to Navy’s Roger Staubach, the 1963 Heisman Trophy winner.
Stichweh was on the most recent ad hoc committee along with Army 1958 Heisman Trophy winner Pete Dawkins.
The committee invited former Navy superintendent Tom Lynch, who was a retired Admiral and captain of the 1963 Navy team. They wanted his insight on what worked at Navy.
Retired Army captain Mike Krzyzewski – better known as Duke’s basketball coach – contributed his thoughts on building a winning program. Coach K played basketball at Army and was West Point’s head coach before he took the Duke job.
Additionally, Caslen debriefed athletic director Boo Corrigan and head coach Jeff Monken for their observations. Corrigan had been a Navy assistant athletic director; Monken a Navy assistant coach under Paul Johnson, who started Navy’s turnaround before he left for Georgia Tech.
Among the changes in a boiled down form:
— Flexibility with the summer training schedules. Previously, Army players were losing 10, 20 or more pounds before football season. For example, a 280-pound lineman was under 250. It’s tough to put on weight when you’re going through grueling preseason workouts.
Navy and Air Force were quicker to respond to the weight disparity that developed between the service academies and other Division I schools as it became common to line up 300-pound linemen, 250-pound linebackers and 220-pound running backs.
West Point hasn’t lowered its standards for football players and athletes; it has only altered their schedules. Historically, weight differences weren’t a factor at the service academies. When Staubach and Stichweh played in the 1960s, linemen typically only outweighed backs by 20 to 40 pounds. Stichweh was 6-foot-1, 195-pounds. Army’s biggest lineman was 245.
The smaller differences were similar at major college powers. Notre Dame quarterback John Huarte, who won the 1964 Heisman Trophy, was 6-0, 185.
Even by 1966 when pendulum swung to bigger players with Michigan State All-American Bubba Smith (6-7, 285) and Notre Dame’s All-American Kevin Hardy (6-5, 276) meeting as unbeaten teams in the Game of the Century, Alabama’s undefeated 1966 team included All-American offensive tackle Cecil Dowdy at only 6-1, 202.
“I can’t imagine getting hit from the blind side by a linebacker 6-4, 255 or 260 that runs the 40 in 4.5,” Stichweh said. “Think of the physics involved with mass and velocity.”
With the size differences, Air Force and Navy turned to the triple-option offense and swarming defense to stay competitive. Army was late to adapt.
— Continuity with a coaching staff committed to playing the triple-option offense and a swarm defense.
Navy has been running the same triple-option/swarm schemes under Paul Johnson (2002-07) and Ken Niumatalolo (2008-). Niumatalolo was promoted from offensive coordinator when Johnson left for Georgia Tech.
Air Force has had two coaches running its systems for 33 seasons – Fisher DeBerry (1984-2006) and his successor, former Air Force quarterback Troy Calhoun (2007-).
Army’s last Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy won with sweeps of Navy and Air Force was with head coach Bob Sutton running the triple-option in 1996. He adapted to what Army needed as a college coach, although he’s now in the NFL as the Kansas City Chiefs’ defensive coordinator.
When Sutton left for the New York Jets in 2000, a string of three coaches tried to run pro-set, back-drop offenses: Todd Berry (2000-03), Bobby Ross (2004-06) and Stan Brock (2007-08). Service academies lack big offensive linemen to play that style and Army suffered predictable results – a combined 20-85 record.
Rich Ellerson (2009-13) was hired next and brought the triple-option and swarming defense back to Army. He also pushed for changes to the training schedule. He posted a 7-6 record with a bowl game win in 2010.
But his record was 0-4 against Navy and 1-3 against Air Force. There were narrow losses to Navy, including a fumble at the 14-yard line that ended what could have been the game winning drive in the final moments. Navy recovered to preserve a 17-13 win in 2012 at Philadelphia.
“I still have nightmares about that one,” said Stichweh wistfully, echoing West Point alums and Army fans across the globe.
But Ellerson’s last two teams were 2-10 and 3-9, and West Point’s administration let him go when it felt he had lost the locker room.
Monken was hired for his success coaching the triple-option as an assistant under Johnson at Georgia Southern, Navy and Georgia Tech and as Georgia Southern’s head coach.
His first two teams finished 4-8 and 2-10 with young rosters that emphasized the players he had recruited. But this year’s 6-5 team has earned a bowl bid to play in the Zaxby’s Heart of Dallas Bowl against North Texas on Dec. 27 at the Cotton Bowl.
The belief at West Point is, Monken is identifying and recruiting the type players Army needs to win with the triple-option and swarm defense – characteristics that have long marked Navy and Air Force.
In one of those the benefit-of-hindsight stories, the Berry/Ross/Brock debacle might have been interrupted if not for Frank Solich’s second thoughts on taking the Army job in 2004. He had verbally agreed before changing his mind.
Solich, who ran an option-style offense at Nebraska as Tom Osborne’s long-time assistant and successor, had been let go by the Cornhuskers after the 2003 season despite a 9-3 record and overall 58-19 overall mark. Instead, he took a year off from football before began he his current 12-year run at Ohio University.
Like politics, the course of history in sports is altered by the leaders that are chosen.
— Competitive funding. Army’s coaches were underpaid compared to Navy and Air Force to attract strong candidates. Ellerson was paid $600,000 when he was fired at a time when Calhoun earned $880,000 with bonuses that bumped him over a $1 million and Niumatalolo $1.6 million.
Monken earned $1.6 million his first year, which was in-line with the national average, according to USA Today.
Competitive funding contributes to stability, another area of concern the ad hoc committee identified. The consistency and stability of Air Force and Navy coaching staffs as listed above is a direct result of competitive funding.
Army is building toward that stability. Caslen is in his fourth year, Corrigan his sixth year and Monken his third year.
“I believe there’s never been a stronger West Point leadership team than we have now with Caslen, Corrigan and Monken,” Stichweh said.
Army can’t promise an end to the 14-game losing streak to Navy, but those that bleed black and gold are confident the reckoning has arrived.
Follow Tom Shanahan of FanRagSports.com on Twitter: @shanny4055