We don't have the greatest athletes in the world," Air Force Academy football coach Fisher DeBerry said before the Falcons' game on Saturday against WAC rival San Diego State. "But, by gosh, we do have the greatest kids in the world. And, my goodness, they play just because they enjoy it...and because they are competitors who like knocking the snot out of somebody."
That inelegantly describes what DeBerry's team did against San Diego State in Colorado Springs—great kids playing, by gosh, because they enjoy it...and knocking the snot out of the Aztecs 31-10. The Falcons caused San Diego State to turn over the football six times (two recovered fumbles and four interceptions), which directly led to 21 Air Force points.
The Falcons are now 9-0 with 12 straight wins, tying them with Bowling Green (page 72) for the longest winning streak in the nation. They suddenly are a Top 5 team and hearing talk all around them, by gosh, of a major bowl appearance, maybe even, my goodness, of becoming the second WAC team in a row to win the national championship. There is no way, frankly, that Air Force should be this good, because it's one of the few big-time universities where football players still must be first-rate students. "What we prove here," says assistant athletic director Jim Bowman, "is that kids who are smart cart win too." As linebacker Terry Maki says, "We don't have anybody really exceptional on our team. But determination makes up for a lot of the talent we don't have."
Consider that the Falcons do not have a single player—not one, zippo—who was seriously recruited by any other major football school. And consider that in the Academy's 30 years of existence, not a single player—not one, zippo—has ever become a pro. "But my goodness," says DeBerry, "look at the character of these guys."
And that's at least part of the explanation. This team wins simply because its collective heart is bigger than all the Rockies. These Academy football players are inordinately bright (12 on this year's squad were high school valedictorians), fair-to-middling football players who take their cue from a plaque in the team locker room that says the falcon "Kills prey larger than itself."
Athletic director John Clune says, "We get players nobody wants, and what we hope is that in three or four years, maybe we'll have 10 or so who develop so that others wish they had them. And all the rest will be damn good cadets, which is what we really want anyway. Warriors and winners."
And here comes DeBerry again, speaking at 32 miles per hour over the speed limit: "My goodness, we're just taking it one day at a time. All this talk about bowls, I tell the players, 'You're dumb—that's d-u-m—to even allow talk of such things.' "
Indeed, it's all terribly heady stuff for a school that wandered aimlessly through eight losing seasons between 1974 and 1981 until former coach Ken Hatfield hired DeBerry, then an assistant at Appalachian State, to come to the foot of the Rockies and install the wishbone. This offensive formation, generally put in as a last resort by teams that have tried and failed to win by playing smash ball, features daring and deception and requires lots of concentration and quick thinking.
At Air Force, the 'bone was firmly in place by 1982. Since then the Falcons have beaten Notre Dame and Navy four times each (21-15 and 24-7, respectively, this year) and whipped Army, this week's opponent, two of the last three. DeBerry, in his second year as head coach, demurs when it comes to discussing his success: "Oh gosh, even a blind hog finds an acorn every once in a while."
It's entirely possible, of course, that Air Force is not as good as its record indicates. After all, the Falcons' nine vanquished foes have a combined won-lost mark of 26-46. The games against 7-1 Army and 17th-ranked BYU on Nov. 16 should be truer tests.
Regardless, Air Force's offense is first in scoring nationally, averaging 39.2 points per game. That's due in large part to quarterback Bart Weiss, who is close to being infallible in judging whether to keep or pitch. Of course, no major school wanted him. "So I thought if I couldn't play for them, I might as well play against them," says Weiss. On Saturday, although the offense was often ragged, Weiss led the Falcons to 373 yards and ran for one TD himself. Kelly Pittman, a fine back whose major value ordinarily is his blocking ability, scored twice on two-and three-yard runs, and Tom Ruby kicked a 49-yard field goal.
But the day's decisive play came when cornerback Tom Rotello saw a 15-yard out pattern being run into his neighborhood at the top of the third quarter. Reading the play, he stepped inside the would-be receiver, picked the ball off and ripped 30 yards for the touchdown. That made it 24-3, and the Aztecs had their heads down from then on.
Like any good team, Air Force does, by golly, find a way. Consider: Nationally, the Falcons are ranked an unimpressive 41st in total defense, giving up 331.2 yards per game; even the error-prone Aztecs, now 3-5, got 308 yards. But in scoring defense the Falcons are eighth, yielding only 12 points per game. Hello, determination.
Perhaps Air Force's best player is safety Scott Thomas, who led the team with 11 tackles on Saturday and also had an interception. Asked if he was sad not to have a pro opportunity (Air Force graduates have a minimum active-duty requirement of five years), he shook his head, "The best job in the whole world is being a fighter pilot for the United States of America."