And while nobody disputes that locations such as Buffalo, New York or Laramie, Wyoming have their own unique and inherent disadvantages when it comes to attracting prep players, the recruiting challenges at West Point could very well be the country’s most daunting. Not only must Army’s coaching staff deal with the harsh realities of trying to attract recruits to a life of military discipline and rigorous academic challenges, but they must do so in a day and age in which most of the best prep players around the country are looking for a fast track to the NFL. Add in the fact of twelve straight losing seasons and the likelihood that any given athlete could be deployed to an area of danger after graduating from West Point, and it’s not difficult to see why Army hasn’t exactly reeled in its share of blue chip athletes as of late.
At least so the thought has gone.
In a recent interview with ArmySports.com, new head coach Rich Ellerson maintained that although the perception is to look at the goals of service academies as running against the lifestyles of today’s prep athletes, the reality is that his staff has found a pool of recruits more than willing to serve, and more than willing to attend West Point.
“I think the vast majority of young people out there are looking for something that is bigger than themselves,” said Ellerson, whose father was a graduate of West Point. “Some [of the kids we are recruiting] are looking specifically for this, and some are looking for something like this. They want to be challenged and they want to be a part of something that is greater than themselves. They are looking for a future that is meaningful, and our institution has been doing that and proving that since we have been a country.”
Ellerson acknowledged that service academies face inherent obstacles when it comes to recruiting, but maintained that those same factors (such as the dual academic and military challenges that cadets face) often play a role in attracting recruits to a school like West Point. Such athletes, said Ellerson, have the drive and determination to thrive in both the on-field and classroom setting of a West Point or Annapolis, and bring no shortage of determination to compete on the gridiron. While the ‘pool’ to draw from these prospective recruits is far smaller than the pool of recruits many national FBS institutions draw from, Ellerson said he sees it as a special pool with its own set of advantages. The challenge, he said, is not so much in identifying the players willing to handle the demands of a service academy, but rather in trying to articulate the benefits of attending West Point on a recruit-by-recruit basis.
“We are talking about quality young men,” said Ellerson in reference to prospective service academy football recruits. “So yes, it is a smaller pool of recruits, but it is a great pool and we are very encouraged. I don’t think it is a difficult sell for our program, although I think sometimes it is difficult to articulate to someone who is totally unfamiliar with a service academy or the culture.”
Despite Ellerson’s claim that the halls of high schools across the country are filled with both talented and willing football recruits looking for the academy experience, there continues to remain a stubborn obstacle in his ability to bring them to West Point: Navy.
With six consecutive Commander-in-Chief Trophy winning seasons and seven straight wins over Army, Navy has been nothing short of dominant in inter-service academy play since the arrival of Paul Johnson in Annapolis in 2002, with second year head coach Ken Niumatalolo showing no signs of relinquishing that torch. Navy’s dominance over its fellow academies hasn’t just been felt on the field, however, as the Midshipmen have translated that success to the recruiting trail time and time again over the past several seasons. In an interview with the Annapolis Capital in February, Niumatalolo testified to this dominance, saying that he could not recall one prospective recruit from the high school Class of 2009 choosing Army over Navy. When asked to provide an explanation for why so many recruits chose Navy in a head-to-head matchup, Niumatalolo said that it all came down to which team has had the most consistent success on the field.
“They can say this or that is going to happen, that they closed the gap,” said the Navy coach in reference to frequently citied recruiting ‘sells’ on the part of Air Force and Army coaches. “Bottom line, we still have the trophy. All that other stuff is part of the deal, but we have the trophy, and we want to continue that here.”
One of the recruits who cited Navy’s inter-service academy dominance as a determining factor in his decision to forgo a scholarship offer from Army is Matt Couch, who was ranked as the 14th best center prospect in the country according to the recruiting service SuperPrep.com. Couch, who attended the 2008 Army-Navy Game as a guest of the Black Knight coaching staff, said that Navy’s victory – coupled with the relative stability of Navy’s coaching staff in relation to Army - quickly turned his compass in the direction of Annapolis.
“I had a lot of recruiting activity during my senior year but after going to the Army-Navy game as a guest of Army, I knew at that point that I wanted to go to either Army or Navy and other schools stopped recruiting me,” Couch told GoMids.com is a recent interview. “The decision between Navy and Army came down to Navy's consistent success on the field, and also less turnover of the coaching staff.”
Another incoming Navy recruit, offensive lineman Graham Vickers, was blunter when asked why he picked the Midshipmen over Air Force and Army.
“The dominance that Navy has shown was also a major factor in me picking Navy,” Vickers told GoMids.com “I mean I want to win and I chose the right place to go to win.”
Army’s new coaching staff hasn’t turned a blind eye to examples like the ones of Couch and Vickers, with Ellerson himself acknowledging the challenges of recruiting from his already limited pool in an environment which has seen one service academy rise to such on-field prominence over its rivals. Still, said Ellerson, West Point stands out from Navy and Air Force, and not just in the fact that the Cadets enter 2009 with a 20-85 record over the last nine seasons. In addition to highlighting West Point’s strengths as a prestigious academic institution, Ellerson stressed that he and his staff are working to communicate the school’s unique history - both on and off the field - to potential recruits. Hopeful that West Point’s football rich tradition (not to mention his own unique offensive and defensive schemes) will help draw in recruits also considering Army and Navy, Ellerson spoke to the need to leave no stone unturned in his quest to find talented and capable athletes for his option offense and ‘Double Eagle Flex’ defense.
“We think we know what it takes to be successful with this offense and this defense and at this institution,” said Ellerson, who was especially successful at recruiting under-sized but not under-talented players during his days at Cal Poly.
“We see what we’re doing as being absolutely consistent with what the mission of West Point is, and even within the service academy culture I still think West Point stands alone. I honestly believe that, so the question becomes whether or not we can articulate that vision for who we are and where we are going and what our lives will look like. That is the challenge, and that is why we get paid the big bucks as football recruiters and coaches.”
It’s a message some recruits of the high school class of 2010 are already taking very seriously. In addition to the vision of a rebuilt Army football program, recruits such as Juneau (AL) Douglas linebacker Jack Perkins cite Ellerson’s proven track record at taking under recruited high school athletes and turning them into college stars as having a major role when it comes to their impending decision.
“Being from Alaska, I have had to fight to get noticed,” said the 6-foot-1 Perkins, who many agree is the top high school prospect from the state of Alaska. “Coach Ellerson has a reputation for giving unknowns a chance to prove themselves. His past players seem to really like and respect him. From what I have read about him, he understands and appreciates West Point since several of his family members went there. It sounds like he has wanted this job for a while and I want to play for someone like that—someone who wants a chance to succeed at West Point as much as I do.”
Despite Navy’s success, and despite early preseason prognostications of his own team’s struggles for 2009, Ellerson said that he is undaunted by the challenge of recruiting against Air Force and Navy. With a new staff in place and a new outlook for Army football, Ellerson is confident that he can communicate his own passion for West Point with the prep athletes he hopes to one day have playing for him. The only thing left to do now, said a confident Ellerson, is to hit the ground running, and to articulate the message that he and his staff hope to begin constructing on the field this fall.
“What we are trying to articulate and what we are trying to present is really something spectacular and we are encouraged. The audience is there, the right guys are there, and those guys are very receptive. So let the games begin.”
Adam Nettina welcomes reader comments and feedback. He can be contacted at AdamNettina[at]gmail.com.