Rich Ellerson’s vision went beyond Saturdays. It was the reason he wowed Army’s athletic director in his pursuit of the Black Knights head coaching job three years ago.
The military runs through his bloodlines. His father, brother, and nephews were all colonels. His brother was a major general.
He devoured the history of Academy football.
He understood that after 13 straight losing seasons, the cadets needed to win. But what made Ellerson different from the roll call of coaches that had come before him was that he understood why.
It’s a portrait of passion and purpose that Joe Drape painted in his recently released book “Soldiers First.”
“This is the United States Military Academy,” Ellerson told Drape. “We’re playing football. We need to be good at this. We need to be. Everybody wants to win. We need to win.”
But to do it, they couldn’t cut corners. Football at the military academy wasn’t created in the same image as the made-for-ESPN programs that dominate today’s game.
It’s not Florida with its nearly $100 million athletic budget and its $4.5 million football coach.
It’s not Alabama or LSU, where an intoxicating pride and freakishly superior athletes have led to a combined four national championships in the last nine years.
It’s a different sense of purpose, where players knew the demands, the competition, the emotional investment can’t be ignored and Ellerson won’t compromise.
“We are not going to win in spite of West Point,” Ellerson said. “We are going to win because of West Point. We are going to march with our units and be first in line for formations in the mornings. We are going to study hard, learn how to jump out of planes. We are going to make sure we’re pulling in the same direction that everyone else is on post. We are going to validate our Academy experience to the point where I can say that part of our success on Saturday afternoons is directly attributable to their Cadet Basic Training, their Cadet Field Training, or their Cadet Leader Training.”
Ellerson’s first three seasons ranged from promising to trying. In his second year, 2010, he led the Black Knights to a 7-6 record, the program’s first winning season since 1996. But a year ago, they finished 3-9, ending the season on a four-game losing streak.
They’ve lost four straight to start this season, the low coming last week when they turned the ball over four times in a 20-point loss to Stony Brook of the Football Championship Subdivision on their home field. They host Boston College Saturday.
The message that Ellerson preached when he arrived is still clear.
“You work hard,” he said. “We’re finding out how painful failing that test is. If there is some good news, it’s that we have the right guys on this team. They’ll circle the wagons, they’ll hold on to each other just a little bit tighter and draw inspiration from one another. We’ll start playing the game for all the reasons why the game exists.
“If we do that, we’re competitive. We still have to do all the things that a well-coached, well-practiced football team does. Having said that, when you turn the ball over [four] times, it’s tough to win. The good news is, in some other areas, we took a step forward. In that one crucial area, we took a giant step back. We were stunned by that, because that has not been us the last couple of games and hasn’t been us in practice. It’s just not us.”
Having spent six years at Navy, BC coach Frank Spaziani understands what goes into coaching at an academy.
“I have a different perspective of being there,” he said. “One of the things you always hear, ‘Hey these guys are smart. They fight. They don’t give up.’ All of that stuff is true, but the coaching is what is really impressive, because you’re always pushing the rock up the hill. Everything’s thought out over there and the kids have bought into it. I respect that.”
The discipline that’s inherent at Army is something Spaziani tries to preach at BC.
“No excuses, sir.”
Eagles wide receivers coach Aaron Smith grew up in West Point. His father, Arnold, was a colonel. Aaron was at Michie Stadium nearly every Saturday. He never missed an Army-Navy game.
He saw college athletics through the lens of a military academy.
“It’s different than the way most people view athletics,” he said. “I got a chance to see what the cadets went through as students, then got a chance to see the student-athlete side, so knowing it was demanding. Obviously, West Point’s different than any other normal college, but getting a chance to see how demanding those guys' schedules were and how they had to balance football, education, and the military, it was good for me to see.
“It was good for me to be able to have that experience and understand that if you want to be a part of Division 1 college athletics, you have to be dedicated. They do everything you ask them to do, you ask them to run through a brick wall and they get it done for you.”
Army is giving up 38.8 points per game (110th in the nation) and 474.8 total yards per game (107th), with 242.5 coming on the ground (115th).
To a BC team that’s lost three of its first four games, struggling to run and stop the run, turning the ball over at crucial times and giving up more big plays than it has made, those numbers don’t matter.
“Look at our win-loss record,” said Eagles safety Sean Sylvia. “I have a bad taste in my mouth from our win-loss record. We’re only one win away from them and it was against an FCS team. I have the utmost respect for them. The 0-4 record definitely doesn’t speak anything of the respect level I have for them.
“They’re going to be prepared. They’re going to know what weaknesses we’re going to have and they’re going to attack them. They’re going to be a very good operation.”