Rich Ellerson: A West Point Appraisal
SOME SUCCESS, A LACK OF FUMBLE LUCK, AND THE NAVY NO-NO:
THE RICH ELLERSON STORY AT WEST POINT
Was Rich Ellerson's tenure at Army a failure? That's a legitimate and straightforward question, but one that deserves a textured answer. A reflexive, knee-jerk "NO!" doesn't quite put Ellerson's five years into their proper perspective. A more detailed assessment of Ellerson is necessary as he leaves the Army program and watches another man take the reins.
Before you say "Good riddance!" to Ellerson (a sentiment that's not really fair to him…), keep these numbers in mind:
58-12. 34-6. 42-13. 42-23. 26-14. 38-3. 34-0.
Those numbers are the scores for the Army-Navy Game from 2002 through 2008, seven years in which Navy clobbered Army. The average margin of victory for the Midshipmen in those seven games: 29 points.
In Rich Ellerson's first four years at West Point, Army still didn't beat Navy, but the Black Knights lost by an average of 9.5 points per game. It's a bitter herb for Ellerson to eat, but the fact that Army suffered a (rare) blowout at the hands of Ken Niumatalolo and Navy is precisely what made it easier for athletic director Boo Corrigan to look for a new head coach. Ellerson had avoided lopsided losses to Navy, but an accumulation of failures – close or not – added to the weight of this past Saturday's substantial letdown.
How fair was this move by Corrigan? It would have been entirely reasonable to keep Ellerson on hand for one more season, but it's hardly unreasonable to want a fresh start after five seasons without a victory over Navy. This is a debatable firing, but a legitimate one – it certainly doesn't deserve to be seen as an appalling quick-trigger move. Ellerson was given plenty of chances to succeed against Navy, and on that score, his tenure in West Point was indeed a complete failure, even though he fared better than Bobby Ross and Stan Brock.
What about the entirety of Ellerson's career at Army, however, and not just the five losses to Navy?
This is where rendering a verdict on the Ellerson era becomes much more complicated.
The plain fact of the matter is that Rich Ellerson guided Army to a winning season (7-6) and a bowl victory in 2010. Army hadn't made a bowl since 1996 (the Independence Bowl), and it hadn't won a bowl game since 1985 (a Peach Bowl triumph over Illinois). That 2010 season wasn't replicated, but Ellerson's previous few predecessors didn't even produce one such season. Ellerson moved the ball forward – just not enough, and certainly not against Navy.
As discussed this past weekend, Ellerson's inability to get his team to protect the ball against Navy represented his most specific in-game shortcoming as a coach. Army never could solve its ball-security problem against the Midshipmen, and "fumble-itis" proved to be a problem in whole seasons, not just individual games, for the Black Knights during Ellerson's stay in West Point.
Yet, even if one concedes that Army had problems protecting the ball, it has to be said that Army's fumble luck under Ellerson was as rotten as one could possibly imagine. Marty Schottenheimer and the 1980s Cleveland Browns would empathize with the bad bounces that cut against Army over the past fie years, especially against Navy.
The 2012 season naturally featured Trent Steelman's (most) infamous fumble in the red zone, but Steelman also coughed up a fumble that Navy's Wyatt Middleton returned 98 yards for a touchdown in the 2010 game. Army's best team under Ellerson could not escape the shadow of Murphy's Law with respect to fumble luck – when the Black Knights put the ball on the turf, the Midshipmen regularly recovered it, and usually did something significant with it. If you recall, Navy fumbled at the Army 2 this past Saturday but did not lose possession of the pigskin. Fumble luck – one of the great and undeniable variables in football – consistently cuddled with Navy and not Army. That's not the kind of reality that lies entirely within a coach's control.
Moving beyond fumble luck, if there was one decision that Ellerson should regret during his Army career, it came in his first Army-Navy Game, the 2009 edition. Army, trailing 10-3 early in the fourth quarter, faced a fourth and three at the Navy 14. Naturally, a game that had produced only 13 total points in three full quarters was probably not going to feature a bunch of scoring plays in the final 11 minutes of regulation. Yet, when trailing by seven, Ellerson opted for a 32-yard field goal attempt. Ellerson chose a play that still would have forced the Black Knights to get a touchdown in the final minutes… without a passing game and in the face of a ball-control opponent.
The fact that kicker Alex Carlton missed the 32-yard kick doesn't really affect the way Ellerson's decision should have been assessed. There was simply no excuse for kicking a field goal when down by seven that late in the game on a fourth and three. Had the Navy lead been six points instead of seven, or had Army needed 11 yards instead of three, a field goal would have been a reasonable move. Under the given circumstances, there was no reasonable defense for Ellerson's decision. In other years, Ellerson lost to Navy because of untimely fumbles or sacks allowed. In 2009, Ellerson lost to the Midshipmen because of his own decision.
His career at West Point was certainly not a complete failure, but Rich Ellerson was not able to collect more successes than setbacks, and that's why he's now a part of Army's past, not its present.
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