A History Lesson For Jeff Monken

Army has a chance to put the pieces together this year. Looking at the schedule, it is reasonable to say, “Hmmm… if things break right, Army could approach a .500 record. It would need help from some opponents, but it really could get there.” However, a big 2014 season should not be an expectation, only a hope. Jeff Monken must take the long view in mind, and he can learn from a great Army coach.


ARMY HISTORY LESSON: LEARNING FROM THE BEST

Every West Point football fan would naturally want everything to fall into place this season – who wouldn’t? Maybe, just maybe, it could. Gus Malzahn took Auburn from the outhouse to the penthouse in one season. Kevin Sumlin instantly upgraded Texas A&M in 2012 after coming over from the University of Houston. First-year coaches do make the occasional instant splash, and Monken will try to join that list this fall.

However, breakthrough first seasons should not be expectations unless – through retirement or other unforeseen developments – the first-year coach inherits a loaded team that’s ready to win. That’s naturally not the case at Army, so as the 2014 season approaches, it’s worth taking just a brief amount of time to gain perspective on what this season is truly supposed to achieve.

A six- or seven-win season would be a dream for Army, as would a win over Navy (the one very specific goal this team should expect to attain). Yet, if West Point football fans and observers are being honest, the true goal for coaches in first seasons at generally struggling programs is really this: to arrive at the end of the season and know (not think, but know ) that your players have a fundamental grasp of what’s needed to become better and are substantially more equipped – physically and mentally – to make those improvements happen on the field the following season.

Phrased differently, when a coach’s first season at a downtrodden program ends, that coach should know that his players have done three things:

1) They have mastered concepts.

2) They fully buy into the processes of training and motivation set down by the coaching staff.

3) They have developed both their skill sets and levels of stamina.

Those three items cover physical and mental toughness; X-and-O knowledge; belief in what the coaches are doing; and growth in both skill and technique. A first season doesn’t have to blow the doors off in terms of wins, though that would be fantastic. Making the leap from under-resourced to fully-resourced is the true goal.

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Very simply then, Army’s best coach of the past half-century (since Paul Dietzel) is a foremost example of this evolution.

The year was 1983. Ever since Air Force’s Sugar Bowl season in 1970 – the last gasp for a service academy team in a major bowl game – the service academies ceased to be a central part of the national spotlight in games other than the Commander-In-Chief’s Trophy series or in any contest involving Notre Dame. Air Force had just begun to revive itself under coach Kent Hatfield, who would soon pass the baton to another coach named Fisher DeBerry. Navy was coming off a four-year period (1978-1981) in which a man named George Welsh, another quality coach, led the Midshipmen to three bowl games. (Fortunately for Army, Welsh moved on to Virginia in 1982 and was replaced by Gary Tranquill, who was cut out to be a coordinator but not a head coach.)

Army, in marked contrast to Navy and especially Air Force, had much less cause for optimism. The program had enjoyed only one winning season since 1972. Previous coach Ed Cavanaugh won only 10 games in three seasons from 1980 through 1982. The Black Knights (then the Cadets) wanted a change.

They called on Jim Young to turn around the program.

In 1983, the numbers say that nothing changed. Army went 2-9, creating the national perception that West Point football was headed nowhere, as had (actually) been the case a year earlier. Yet, Young’s methods and motivation clearly took root in the hearts of his players. How can this be known? Army won eight games in 1984, reaching and winning the Cherry Bowl in the Pontiac Silverdome over Michigan State, in what amounted to a semi-road game. Army had only one winning season from 1973 through 1983; over the remainder of Young’s tenure following that first season in ’83, Army suffered only one losing season.

Jeff Monken would love to make everything happen in an observable, numerical sense this season. So would everyone else who loves West Point football. However, as long as the players grow in all the ways they are capable of growing, 2014 will be remembered as the year Army football gained new life.

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