West Point teaches its cadets that in war, one must learn the lessons of the past. The question for those who follow its football program is: Will the Academy take its own advice?
West Point’s Athletic Director, Kevin Anderson, announced on Friday that Army Head Football Coach Stan Brock was fired after just two seasons on the Hudson.
But as the debate emerges about whether Brock (6-18) had adequate time to turn the program around; one thing should be clear to Army football fans:
The turn of events that culminated in Stan Brock’s dismissal began nine years ago on a Philadelphia street corner.
It was there, as the legend goes, on Dec. 5, 1999, one day after the disappointing 19-9 loss to Navy, that then-Army Athletic Director Rick Greenspan fired Head Coach Bob Sutton.
With that, the Young-Sutton era came to an end at West Point.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that the era was the end-all-be-all of Army football, nor did (as some speculate) Bob Sutton’s firing represent the loss of the Black Knights’ “last best hope” of being competitive.
But the termination started the program down a path of regression and lost identity that has plagued West Point ever since.
Sutton’s tenure at the Academy was by no means flawless. In nine seasons, he led the Black Knights to a pedestrian 44-55-1 record and had only two winning seasons (1993 and 1996).
Yet, Sutton understood the nuances of coaching at the Academy. He understood that unlike most I-A (now FBS) teams, the institution defines the football program at West Point rather than the football program defining the institution.
His teams reflected the tenacity, discipline and selfless service one would expect of a West Point football team. And though often outperformed by their more athletic opponents and maybe occasionally outcoached, they were notoriously competitive.
Enter Coach Todd Berry.
Despite just a 24-24 record at Illinois State, Berry succeeded Sutton as the 32nd head football coach at Army.
After all, Berry had just led the Division I-AA (now FCS subdivision) Redbirds to an 11-3 record in 1999 (its second consecutive winning season), and it was apparent to Rick Greenspan that Berry could lead the Black Knights of the Hudson out of the quagmire of mediocrity.
Young, clean-cut, and charming, Berry represented a fresh face and new ideas. He promised to abandon the triple-option that had been the cornerstone of the Young-Sutton era.
Instead, he implemented the single-back, pro-style offense he had employed at Illinois State. Additionally, he slashed the roster to focus on developing the team’s best athletes.
Yet, Berry’s tenure proved a huge disappointment. Midway through his fourth season in 2003, he was fired after a 0-7 start. Army would go on to lose more games that season than any in NCAA I-A football history, with a record of 0-13.
Many argue that it was his refusal to keep the triple-option that led to the failure of his program. But the problem with Berry’s reign on the Hudson was bigger than that. In Greenspan and Berry’s plan to modernize Army’s program, they had forfeited those elements which defined it.
It wasn’t that Berry should have kept the wishbone because it was the only system that could work at Army. He should have kept it because it is a system that Army can actually run better than other programs.
The tenacity, discipline, selflessness, and intelligence fostered at the service academy give its teams a distinct advantage in operating the triple-option and its intricacies. By abandoning this system, Berry forfeited this advantage.
It wasn’t that cutting players to concentrate on the most talented athletes was a far-fetched idea. But the real question is why?
West Point is one of the few college programs where all of its players are on an academic scholarship. Without the need to worry about athletic scholarship limitations, why arbitrarily limit the pool of athletes the team can field?
After Berry’s dismissal and the inconceivably terrible 2003 season, West Point’s athletic department faced incredible pressure from alumni to find a big-time football coach to right the program.
Enter Bobby Ross.
A legend in many ways, Ross was an interesting fit for the academy. He was a VMI graduate who had served as an Army officer in the early-70s. He began his head coaching career at another military school, The Citadel.
In the ‘80s he had great success leading Maryland and then Georgia Tech. With the Yellow Jackets, he won the National Championship in 1990 and the Bobby Dodd Coach of the Year award.
Yet when Army approached him in 2004, Ross had been retired for four years and hadn’t headed a collegiate program in 13.
In many ways, his decision to leave retirement to coach at Army seemed more an act of pity than confidence in the program’s resurgence.
This attitude would haunt the program’s most recent regime. He seemed exhausted before his first season began at West Point.
Still, it was Bobby Ross.
The Bobby Ross who had taken Georgia Tech from a 2-9 record in his first season to a National Championship in his fourth; the one who went on to lead the San Diego Chargers to the Super Bowl in 1995. Certainly, he could turn the program at Army around.
But despite making some slow progress, Ross could not get the program on the right track. Initially, he too shrugged off any notion of reinstating the triple-option (though in his third season, he added an I-formation-based triple option to the playbook).
His teams struggled mightily on offense: relying on a tough but vanilla running game and a primitive passing scheme in Ross’ “balanced” attack.
The defense on the other hand, made steady albeit marginal improvement under experienced defensive coordinator John Mumford.
Still, it wasn’t enough to compensate for the team’s poor offensive showings. After three losing seasons, Ross retired due to exhaustion in January 2007 with a record of only 9-25.
It was the timing of Ross’ departure that perhaps most influenced the hiring of Army’s next head coach. In the midst of recruiting season, Athletic Director Kevin Anderson quickly appointed Ross’ offensive line coach, Stan Brock, to lead the team.
Brock never stood a chance.
When Brock was selected as the head coach at Army, he had a grand total of three years of collegiate coaching experience, having served all of it under his mentor Bobby Ross.
Like the three Heisman Trophies that are displayed in Army’s stellar athletic center, his prolific 15-year NFL playing career was perhaps more symbolic than relevant in guiding the undersized squad of overachievers to success on the football field.
Sure. His experience with Ross’ system and the few years at the Academy were valuable. And he was no doubt a very effective and likeable offensive line coach.
But for anyone to coach at Army (one of the most difficult coaching jobs in all of college football), it requires an extraordinary blend of experience and creativity.
Unfortunately for Brock, he lacked the former and couldn’t develop the latter.
His teams fell victim to the ultra-conservative mindset that was born in the Todd Berry years and institutionalized under Bobby Ross. It was as if each coach resolved themselves to what their players couldn’t do on the football field.
They tried, each in their own way, to avoid anything unique or risky for fear of the daunting athleticism of their opponents.
They played it safe, relying on what they called “fundamentals” to disguise their lack of faith in their own teams’ ability to compete.
And in doing so, they were defeated before their teams stepped foot on the field.
Brocks’ open-mindedness in bringing back the triple-option spoke volumes about the coach’s willingness to adapt.
Yet the “Brock-bone,” as ESPN commentator Shaun King anointed it, soon became a manifestation of the mentality described above. It was safe, non-dynamic, and ineffective.
One CBS commentator revealed during this year’s disastrous Army-Navy game that Brock admitted to spending only about “eight minutes” on the passing game in practice.
And it showed.
We’ll never know whether Brock would have been able to improve his system. The problems with the scheme went far beyond the athletic limitations of his players as some suggest.
Yes. Speedier halfbacks would have been wonderful. But it doesn’t matter if they never get the ball.
A quicker quarterback with a better knack for the option would have been fantastic. But it’s irrelevant if he can’t make the right reads.
A bigger, faster, stronger offensive line would be great. But even the best O-line would have problems beating nine defenders in the box, especially when you can’t stretch the field vertically with a passing game.
Army’s football players were often outplayed athletically this year, but the team was more often outcoached.
And that’s unfortunate.
From all the sources I’ve seen, Stan Brock is a good coach, and a better man. His demeanor and compassion for the Corps of Cadets and his players will undoubtedly be his greatest legacy.
When most would have passed on the job of coaching at West Point, he took it. When others would have simply spoken of the challenges his players faced every day, he volunteered to experience it himself.
He is an example of everything Army fans might have wanted in a coach except for one thing:
He couldn’t stop Army’s sad sojourn down the road it began all those years ago in Philadelphia.
Like those who have recently come before him, his teams played not to lose. And in doing so, his tenure failed to reflect the essence of West Point and everything captured in that simple phrase spoken by MacArthur and reiterated by West Point’s Superintendent, Lt. Gen. Hagenbeck:
“There is no substitute for victory.”
Army’s next coach must build a team that reflects that sentiment. Alums and fans don’t expect the team to win every game. They just want the team to play like they can.
And as the Academy considers its coaching options with great care, they must look beyond the sum of any coach’s Super Bowl appearances, National Championships, miracle seasons, or pure nostalgia.
There are a number of good candidates in the running, including: the earlier mentioned Bob Sutton; his former assistant and current Kansas University offensive coordinator, Ed Warinner; former Army defensive back and New York Giants wide-receiver coach Mike Sullivan; Navy offensive coordinator and Paul Johnson disciple, Ivin Johnson; South Florida offensive coordinator, Greg Gregory; and Wake Forest’s offensive coordinator and former Air force lineman Steed (Lobo) Lobotzke.
I disagree with those who argue that candidate must have a strong academy background to be viable. Paul Johnson’s exemplary career at Navy supports my theory.
Instead, the best candidate is one who can assess the program’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (yes business methods work for football too), and creatively devise the team’s systems around them.
Todd Berry and Bobby Ross came to the Academy with the idea that their systems could work anywhere, and in doing so they were shocked to find that they couldn’t.
Additionally, the candidate must be one willing to take bold action.
No. I’m not talking about going for it on fourth-and-five on your own 33-yard line. I’m talking about someone who isn’t afraid of trying new concepts in recruiting, such as leveraging Army’s nation-wide following to train and build a network of state and local recruiters.
Or by building an offensive scheme that might be a bit different than what they’re used to.
Or having the gumption to demand excellence from players from whom society already demands so much.
For these very players have each chosen to become cadets, warriors, and leaders because they believe in what they can accomplish.
They want a coach that believes the same.