Academic approach to the spectacular

The Air Force Academy has twice been obliged to de-emphasize its team, but its array of quick, smart players like Ernie Jennings (right) wins anyway
October 11, 1970

Here we go, folks, Air Force on Colorado State's 44 and keep an eye on Ernie Jennings, the fabulous flanker who is now lining up as a, ah, slotback. There goes a bomb. Boffo, touchdown, Jennings' eighth of the year. O.K., now Air Force is on State's three and watch Jennings, the super slotback who is now, well, playing split end. He's over by the flag and so is half of State's defense. No he isn't; he's in the middle all by himself playing pitch and catch with Quarterback Bob Parker. Touchdown. There's magic in those moves. Let's watch it on the replay. Air Force on State's seven. Seven? Oh, back to live action. So where's the fabulous flanker-super slot-back-sensational split end? There he is playing tailback, right there in the middle of Ben Martin's winking I offense, and which shell hides the pea? Jennings on a pitch off the option. Touchdown.

And so it went last Saturday as unbeaten Air Force rolled to its fourth victory, 37-22, and Jennings romped toward All-America honors as a, well, something, or maybe as four somethings. Or even five; if they gave the Heisman Trophy to decoys, it would be no contest. Jennings can't take a drink without four defenders rushing over to look into the bucket.

"Jennings has got more moves just walking up to the line of scrimmage than most flankers have period," grumbled Dan Devine of Missouri two weeks ago after Air Force and its all-purpose man crushed the then-unbeaten Tigers. When the moves are made with 9.6 speed, they really hurt. At least, it was 9.6 in high school when Jennings weighed 185 pounds. Now the 6-foot senior cadet is four years older and 20 pounds lighter, and if that hasn't knocked a few ticks off the stopwatch nothing ever will. "I haven't been timed since I came to the Academy," he says. "But I feel a lot faster at this weight. They melted 20 pounds off me my first summer as a cadet, and I never put them back. And I don't want to. At this weight I don't have to block. The coach won't let me."

But no matter, 9.6 or 9.3 or somewhere in between, defenses are not worrying about timing Jennings. They only want to catch him, and usually that means watching him with two men, sometimes three, which pleases Coach Ben Martin as he reaches for his playbook.

What a playbook. When Martin became head coach at the Academy in 1958, he knew his troops were never going to outmuscle anyone. This year, for example, his entire offense averages barely 200 pounds. At Notre Dame a defensive tackle's thighs weigh that much. But the cadets have other things going for them. Usually they are quick, and always they are smart. They can't get past the South Gate unless they can handle Physics 563, which puts a studious eye on the postulation basis of quantum mechanics and takes a look at the development of the perturbation theory and variational techniques, with, of couse, an introduction to the Heisenberg theory. So far, two Rhodes scholars have come out of the Academy's football ranks, and the present team has people like Quarterback Bob Parker (3.76 average in engineering mechanics) and Jennings (3.25 in civil engineering).

"We get the intelligent athlete, so we can teach the mental aspects of the game quickly," says Martin, who graduated sixth in his class at the Naval Academy in 1945. This year the cadets have 10 formations right and 10 left, with 20 running plays and 20 passing plays off each.

"That seems like a lot," Martin says, "but it's really simple. It must be, I understand it. Besides, you can win championships with half a dozen plays and two formations—if you've got the weapons. This year we've got the weapons."

Good weapons. There's Jennings. And Parker, the 5'11", 175-pound senior quarterback who commands Martin's shell game. Last Saturday he completed 27 of 39 for 375 yards and two touchdowns. In four games he's completed 73 of 130 for 1,235 yards and 10 touchdowns, which isn't bad for a nearsighted guy who won't wear glasses when he plays. "I can't see the sideline markers," he says, "or the scoreboard."

But he can see Paul Bassa, a 6'4" tight end, and Mike Bolen, a 6'1" split end, who between them have caught 36 passes for 493 yards. He also manages to hand off to Brian Bream, a tailback who missed Air Force's opening victory over Idaho but who has been running well ever since. Bream carried the ball 53 times in the last two games and averaged just under five yards a try. He packs 202 pounds on a 5'9" frame, and is known as The Muscle.

If the Air Force offense is tricky, the defense is even more so. Since the defensive players are too small to overpower opponents, they have to bounce about confusing them. Against such a defense, Colorado State managed to get 22 points, but little else. One State score came on a 30-yard pass after the clock had been stopped with one second to play and another on an 88-yard kickoff return by Jack Green. "We squib the ball on kickoffs to prevent returns," said Martin after the game. "And then the guy gets the ball on a perfect hop on the dead run. He looked like a 440-relay runner taking a hand-off." Martin laughed. After 12 years at the Academy, nothing seems likely to rock his patience or his humor.

Nothing should. In 1958, Martin inherited 41 players, 18 of them freshmen moving up. The year before, the Falcons had gone 3-6-1. The team was dispirited and disorganized. "Oh, oh," said Martin, "let's go back to the basics—and let's have fun." Air Force did, and somehow went unbeaten, tying Iowa en route and ending with a scoreless tie against TCU in the Cotton Bowl.

Then some military types stepped in. "It's a football factory," they said. Martin was ordered to cut back on recruiting, which was like taking something from not much. At the same time, the Academy's athletic director plunged on with his scheduling, lining up such breathers as UCLA, Missouri, SMU, Stanford, Washington and Nebraska. By 1963 Air Force had recovered enough to be 7-3 but then got shelled 35-0 by North Carolina in the Gator Bowl. Martin came home and asked for a new contract. He still had 18 months on his old one. The brass said no. Martin said, "I quit." There was a consultation and Martin got his contract, plus a promise of more civilian assistants and the chance to try and get more qualified athletes into the Academy. (As at West Point, the cadet body at the Air Force Academy was being increased from 2,700 to 4,400, matching the Naval Academy's size.) That storm had hardly settled when a cheating scandal broke in January of 1965. Two cadets stole examination papers and sold them to others. Before it was over, 109 cadets had resigned, 29 of them varsity football players. And Martin was ordered to de-emphasize again.

Since then there have been many changes in the command at the Academy. For one, Brigadier General Robin Olds became the commandant of cadets. Olds was an All-America tackle at West Point in 1942. Army's other All-America tackle that year was Frank Merritt, now the Air Force Academy's athletic director. These days Martin's football program gets no more than it deserves, but it certainly gets no less. Football and basketball pay their own way at the Academy. What is spent must come from gate receipts and from donations—the $3.5-million, 40,000-seat Falcon Stadium was built entirely from donations. There are lots of Congressmen watching to see that things stay that way.

"The reason we are a better football team is because at last we are getting the better athlete," said Jim Bowman, the assistant athletic director for candidate counseling. "When we began recruiting, a high school coach would say he had a boy not good enough as an athlete for Michigan or Stanford, but good enough for us. And service-minded kids wanted to go to Army or Navy. Now, because of the times, the space age, we are getting our full share."

"It's the Now generation," says Martin. "And we are the Now Academy. We offer 28 majors, and students can go as fast as their learning ability allows. Our students can complete some of their graduate work before they get their bachelor's degree. And a lot of the students who come here now are fine athletes."

"Are they different from the type of athlete Navy had when you played?" Martin was asked. Martin laughed, perhaps thinking of the tough All-Americas that Navy had recruited for its crushing wartime teams. "They're a different breed. We have a democratic football program here. It's a soft sell. I have my input, and the players have their input. Against Missouri, we were leading 30-0 with a fourth-and-goal on the one. I wanted to go for a field goal. The players said they wanted to go for a touchdown. I abstained. When I was a player at Navy we never would have done that. We might have mentioned it in the huddle, but we never would have said anything to the coaches."

Plenty of people are hearing from the Air Force this year.

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