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Army football working to establish winning culture, but at what cost?

Photo: Kostas Lymperopolous/Cal Sport Media

Disclaimer: The author is not an impartial observer of Army football. His father graduated from West Point in 1959, and he did the same in ‘91. Two years ago, he wrote a book about the Black Knights undefeated ‘58 team.

For the first time in a long time, it seems there is hope for Army football. Hope and anticipation. The Black Knights have a new coach and, the academy vows, a new attitude. Twelve straight losses to Navy will do that.

In some ways, football never looks better than it does at West Point, which is frequently cited as one of the most beautiful places in the country to watch a game. In others, football never looks worse, as Army has lost ugly and often. Since the Black Knights went 10-2 and were ranked 25th in 1996, they have gone 50-149. Only four of those victories were over Navy and Air Force, against which Army has identical 2-15 records. In the last 18 years, the Black Knights have gone from the triple-option to the spread and back again. They have run through six coaches, most recently Rich Ellerson, who led them to a 7-6 record and an Armed Forces Bowl victory in 2010, but who could never beat the Midshipmen and whose teams were some of the most butterfingered in college football. Three years ago Army led the country with 22 fumbles lost. In last December’s 34-7 loss to Navy, the Black Knights fumbled away twice, resulting in 10 Midshipmen points.

When he was asked last December how he felt about this ghastly era of Army football, academy superintendent Lieut. Gen. Robert Caslen, a center at West Point in the early 1970s, spoke for many graduates and fans when he said: “I’m pissed … This program needs to be turned around.”

Enter Jeff Monken, whom Caslen and athletic director Boo Corrigan hired to be the Black Knights’ new coach on Christmas Eve. A former assistant to Paul Johnson at Navy and Georgia Tech, Monken went 38-16 as the coach at FCS Georgia Southern from 2010 to ‘13, including a 26-20 upset of Florida in the Swamp last November. Monken is also, according to Caslen, “tough as nails.” In one of his first acts at Army, he kicked players out of the locker room if their lockers did not pass his inspection. In camp this month one of his ball-security drills has been to have his fullbacks run 20 yards into the end zone with another fullback riding their backs trying to punch the ball out. When the runner crosses the goal line, the two backs switch positions and repeat the sprint back to the 20-yard line.

“It’s definitely tougher [this year],” senior fullback Larry Dixon says. “It’s physically demanding, but we’ll do anything to win.”

That whatever-it-takes sentiment runs throughout the program and right up the chain of command. When Caslen was named superintendent in July 2013, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno told him publicly that one of his responsibilities was to ensure that the football team beat Navy. To that end the academy has adjusted the military training schedule for football players and increased the amount of money it is investing in the coaching staff. “My emphasis,” Caslen says, “is on building a winning culture.”

But the new attitude has rubbed a vocal segment of West Point graduates the wrong way. Maj. Dwight Mears, an assistant professor of history at the academy, wrote an editorial for The Washington Post last February that charged West Point with placing too much emphasis on football, claiming that the academy had relaxed admissions standards for recruited athletes and that victory on the football field has nothing to do with the army’s ability to win wars -- a fairly obvious statement that nevertheless goes against the entire mythology of the football program. Whenever they take the field on game days, Black Knights players lay their hands on a plaque engraved with the famous World War II-era quote from Gen. George C. Marshall, “I want an officer for a secret and dangerous mission. I want a West Point football player.”

As is true of many things in the college game, logic and reason don’t always matter.

“I know [Maj. Mears’] feelings are heartfelt and well-intentioned,” says Rollie Stichweh, an All-East quarterback for the Black Knights in 1963 and ‘64, who has been closely involved with several of the academy’s internal investigations into the ineptitude of its football program. “But my feeling is that West Point benefits from a winning team.”

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*****

Dwight Mears has fought bureaucracy before. When he was still a cadet at West Point in the late 1990s, he discovered that his grandfather, George Mears, had been interred in a POW camp in Switzerland during World War II. The B-17 pilot had been forced to ditch his damaged bomber in Zurich in March 1944. Swiss authorities initially detained Mears and his crew in a stripped-down hotel. However, after he was caught trying to escape, he was sent to Wauwilermoos, a military prison camp run by a Nazi sympathizer who was later accused of war crimes.

Mears was stunned to learn that his grandfather and the 160 Allied airmen with stories similar to his were not recognized by the Department of Defense as having been prisoners of war. Switzerland was a neutral country, and the stigma attached to the 1,500 airmen who crash-landed there was that they had done so to avoid combat. In 2000, when Mears attempted to get POW Medals for the surviving Wauwilermoos internees -- George Mears died in 1972 -- his request languished for six months before being denied. Undeterred, he spent the next 12 years wrangling with the Air Force Board for Corrections of Military Records and gathering evidence that the imprisoned airmen had been mistreated. Last year, 141 members of the Army Air Force who had been held at Wauwilermoos were awarded the POW Medal.

But such is the passion at West Point for Army football that Mears’ fight with the military bureaucracy to gain overdue recognition for veterans is nothing compared to what he is up against now. Before his editorial ran in the Post last February, he had to send it up through the academy’s chain of command. The process took more than a month and ended with a tense meeting between Mears and Caslen in the superintendent’s office. “I don’t mind that it puts me against my leadership,” says Mears, 35. “I’m uncomfortable being in the position of not wanting Army to do well, but I’m not sorry about being in that position.”

Mears opposes several of the changes that have been instituted to help the football program. Caslen and Corrigan signed Monken to a six-year deal that -- though financial terms have not been disclosed -- is expected to pay the coach in the neighborhood of $1 million per year. That is more in line with the average FBS coaching salary of $1.5 million than the $400,000 per year that Ellerson was earning. Mears, citing his own research and the findings of others, feels that West Point already spends too much money on football.

Photo: Danny Wild/USA Today Sports

Mears also doesn’t have a high opinion of the new summer training schedule for football players, who used to go through training with the rest of their classmates. This summer everybody but the plebes finished condensed training schedules by July 15, when they returned to West Point to take classes in one of three summer school sessions (in the past there had been only one) and lift weights with Army’s expanded strength and conditioning staff. The most vacation that any player got was four or five days, compared to two to three weeks for most cadets. Dixon, who will take one fewer class than usual this semester after studying military history over the summer, had no leave at all.

“All of a sudden, guys have an opportunity to underload [on classes],” says Corrigan, who insists that admissions standards have not been lowered. “Last year we had [sophomores] who came out of the field from Cadet Field Training on July 27 and practice started on August 3. Four weeks later, they were competing against guys who had been lifting weights for three months.”

It’s the sort of change that Navy made to its players’ schedules soon after Paul Johnson became the coach there in 2002. After going 2-10 in his debut season at Annapolis, the Midshipmen went 43-19 before Johnson left for Georgia Tech in ‘07. “Heart, desire and all that only goes so far,” Johnson says. Mears nevertheless scoffs at the merits of summer-school classes, in which, he says, “The quality of discussion … is not as good.”

Mears, who retired from the army earlier this month because of back injuries he suffered when his OH-58 helicopter crashed in Iraq in 2004, does not want the Black Knights to lower themselves to the level of the rest of college football, where scandal and criminal allegations seem to be almost routine. In his editorial, he cited West Point’s 1951 cheating scandal, which cost Army 37 varsity players. Trent Steelman, the Black Knights’ starting quarterback from ‘09 to ’12, was found to have violated the academy’s honor code because he plagiarized parts of a history paper as a plebe. The Air Force Academy is conducting an investigation into its athletic department in the wake of allegations against athletes -- including football players -- that include smoking synthetic marijuana, binge drinking and possibly using date-rape drugs to sexually assault women.

Such problems are almost impossible to avoid for any school, but they are particularly sore spots at the academies, which claim to admit only the best and the brightest. “I don’t want [West Point] to have another scandal,” Mears says. “[But] I don’t think [the administration] sees the trade-offs.”

Still, Mears acknowledges that, “Barring any changes, we are going to continue to lose to Navy.” And that is the fundamental problem with his argument. Though it is backed by sound and sober research, it does not account for the fact that cadets have been told for more than a century that beating Navy is the most important thing in the world. You simply cannot preach that and then not give the team a chance to beat the Midshipmen. There is no chance -- none, zero -- that the Black Knights are not going to play football at the same level as Navy or Air Force. “[Mears’] concern is a valid concern,” Caslen says. “It’s not something that the leadership is dismissing … [But] there was too much mediocrity here.”

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*****

To a certain extent, Jeff Monken is beyond any debate over the direction of Army football. The academy has chosen its direction and it is up him to win games. At 6-foot-1, the crew-cut 47-year-old former Division III receiver bears a striking resemblance to the players he is coaching, save for the graying hair around his temples. He has been active and vocal on the practice field this month, sprinting from station to station to observe drills or dispense instruction. “He knows what [everybody is] supposed to be doing at all times,” says Ryan Yanoshak, the Black Knights’ assistant director of athletic communications.

Monken, like Ellerson, is a triple-option specialist. If there is a pronounced difference between the two coaches, it is in the size of the players they prefer. Ellerson’s two offensive tackles last year, 6-7 sophomore Justin Gilbert and 6-2 senior Michael Kime, weighed 265 pounds and 243 pounds, respectively. At the top of the depth chart now are Gilbert, who is up to 271 -- though he was lost for the season after suffering a knee injury earlier this month -- and 6-7 junior Drew Hennessy, who weighed 250 pounds last season, but is 283 now. Joining them on the line will be 6-foot junior guard Steve Shumaker, who has bulked up 18 pounds to 282, and 6-5 junior center Matt Hugenberg, who has grown two inches in the last year and is up to 309 pounds from 285. “We have two guys who weigh 300 now,” Monken says. “There were none in the spring.”

The gains are attributable to Army’s summer lifting program, during which strength and conditioning coaches -- Monken has four, three of whom he added after he was hired -- weighed players daily. “Personally, I feel great,” says senior defensive back Geoffrey Bacon, who is up to 215 pounds from 205 last season. “I’m the heaviest I’ve been since I’ve been at West Point.”

The added bulk fits with Monken’s plan to emphasize, in his terms, “the inside veer” this season. To the laymen, that means that opponents can expect to see more of the 5-11, 239-pound Dixon, who has averaged 6.2 yards per carry in his career, and the other fullbacks this fall. On defense, Monken is switching from a 4-3 to a 3-4, in which his linemen will be counted on to hold their ground rather than to break into opposing backfields. “We could make more guys fit into that scheme,” Monken says. “Defensive linemen are really hard to recruit.”

Monken says that convincing high school players to come to the academy, which requires five years of active duty service after graduation, is “the most challenging recruiting job in America.” But he dismisses the view that the military’s 13-year fights in Iraq and Afghanistan have hurt the Black Knights’ chances with prospective players -- even compared to Air Force and Navy. “Everybody who commits to serving their country is one and the same,” Monken says. “There are enough to go around.”

That remains to be seen. If there is one visible area in which Army has lagged behind the Falcons and the Midshipmen in recent years, it is, according to Johnson, in the speed and quality of its skill-position players. Navy junior Keenan Reynolds, who ran for three scores against the Black Knights last December to set the FBS single-season record for rushing touchdowns (29) by a quarterback, is the sort of talent that hasn’t been seen at West Point in two decades. If Monken is unable to attract players like Reynolds to the banks of the Hudson, all the weight gains in the world may not make a difference.

Turning around Army football is possible for Monken. The hope and anticipation are justified. But it will not be easy. And it will almost certainly come at a price -- one the academy seems willing to pay. “This is America’s school and we’re America’s team,” Monken says. “If we’re going to represent the U.S. Army, it is absolutely important that our team play at the highest level.”

Army 2014 Schedule
 
date opponent
Sept. 6 Buffalo
Sept. 13 at Stanford
Sept. 20 at Wake Forest
Sept. 27 at Yale
Oct. 4 Ball State
Oct. 11 Rice
Oct. 18 at Kent State
Nov. 1 Air Force
Nov. 8 Connecticut
Nov. 15 at Western Kentucky
Nov. 22 Fordham
Dec. 13 Navy

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