1984 Army Football: Rebirth

While Army's glory days as a program resided in the first half of the 20th century, especially under Red Blaik, and while the Black Knights have enjoyed more recent successes such as the ones discussed last week in a recollection of the 1996 team, the 1984 season holds a special place in West Point football history.

Time sneaks up on all of us at some point, or at least, it's hard to escape the idea that time moves stealthily. If you have never felt such a sensation, you must be living life well, and that's truly fantastic.

How does time sneak up on many of us? Just consider that one of the more exuberantly successful and memorably restorative seasons in Army football history is now more than 30 years old. Yep, that's the 1984 season, receding even more into the history books but needing to be remembered at a time when Army has so profoundly struggled to establish a successful program.

First, look at the past 11 seasons for Army, 2004 through 2014: 2-9. 4-7. 3-9. 3-9. 3-9. 5-7. 7-6. 3-9. 2-10. 3-9. 4-8. (Trust me, there's a very specific and powerfully positive point to all this...)

Now look at these 11 records: 0-10. 3-8. 2-9. 5-6. 7-4. 4-6-1. 2-8-1. 3-7-1. 3-7-1. 4-7. 2-9.

Those last 11 records were the records for Army football in the 11 seasons preceding 1984. From 1973 through 1983, that's what Army did under five separate coaches, as the revolving door whisked out coaches as quickly as it brought them in. You will note that the 2004-2014 seasons and the 1973-1983 seasons are both united by the fact that there was exactly one winning season in each of those 11-year sequences, roughly in the midpoint of said sequence (year seven out of 11 in the recent stretch, year 6 out of 11 in the older stretch).

To make another connection -- one Jeff Monken might do well to note -- the final year of the 1973-1983 sequence was the first year of head coach Jim Young's tenure. Naturally and logically, inheriting a slumping program was not going to lead to an instant fix in year one. Young was a very strong head coach, but even he needed an adjustment period. However, once Young did get settled at West Point, he was able to turn things around. 1984 was the year when Army began to smile again, and also when West Point began to reacquaint itself with the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy on a consistent (every-other-year) basis.


In modern (21st-century) college football, it is universally known that if a team goes 6-6 but schedules two FCS programs, it goes to the back of the line in terms of bowl eligiblity. Any 6-6 team with only one FCS win gets priority, as a way of disincentivizing the scheduling of more than one FCS team in the non-conference realm.

With this point in mind, many 21st-century college football fans and analysts might scoff at the strength of Army's schedule in 1984. However, when you look more deeply at that schedule, it only looks better with the passage of time.

First of all, you need to realize that the Ivy League had been playing what was then known as Division I-A football (the highest classification, today referred to as the FBS) through 1981. For Army and other independents in the first half of the 1980s, established relationships with Ivy League schools had not yet given way to the realities of modern college football scheduling. The modern bowl landscape (and bowl eligibility system) had not yet emerged in full, so that has to be mentioned when examining this program's 1984 slate. Games against Harvard and Penn were not greedy cupcake-seeking dates, but games borne of history and associations that mattered in larger contexts.

As you examine other parts of that schedule, you might think that Rutgers was terrible in 1984. No, not true. The Scarlet Knights were hardly consistent at that point in history, but they did happen to be 7-3 in 1984. Duke was not very good in 1984, and to be fair to the schedule skeptics, the Blue Devils weren't supposed to be very good when that game was scheduled. However, the Black Knights caught a bit of a break. Just three years after being a doormat, Duke hired a fellow you might have heard of. In 1987, Steve Spurrier -- for three brief but thrilling seasons -- changed Duke football in a heartbeat. At any rate, the Army team's 13-9 win over Duke was clearly its least impressive performance of that season.

Here's where the case for Army's quality in 1984 truly becomes very strong: First, Army went into Knoxville and Neyland Stadium to play Tennessee. The Vols, coached by famous alumnus and former national champion coach (with Pitt in 1976) Johnny Majors, were a formidable program at the time. In fact, just one year later, in 1985, Tennessee earned a Sugar Bowl berth. In the 1986 Sugar Bowl against the Miami Hurricanes, the Vols smothered a man named Vinny Testaverde in a blowout upset. Tennessee was pretty good, and in 1984, was certainly nothing to sneeze at. When Army forged a 24-24 tie against the Vols on the road, a sense of something special began to develop within the locker room.

How else was Army's skill revealed in 1984? The games the team lost were against good teams. Rutgers had a winning record. Syracuse, coached by Dick MacPherson, did as well. Army's final loss of the season came to Boston College. 1984? Hey, wait a minute -- that meant Doug Flutie was the Golden Eagles' quarterback!


Finally -- but certainly not at the low end of reasons why Army football was legitimately well above average in 1984 -- West Point took down Air Force and Navy authoritatively. Army clocked Air Force several times in the latter half of the 1970s, and again in 1980, but Army went from 1970 through 1983 without a double-digit win over Navy. When the Cadets pounded the Midshipmen, 28-11, at the end of the 1984 regular season, they completed double-digit wins over Colorado Springs (24-12) and Annapolis in the same season for the first time ever. (Remember: Army didn't start playing Air Force in football until 1959, and the series didn't become an annual event until 1971.)

Army achieved at a particularly high level and recorded multiple milestones in that 1984 regular season... and that didn't even include a reference to the first bowl game in the history of West Point football, the Cherry Bowl in the Pontiac Silverdome against Michigan State.

Army played a Big Ten team that was staying in its home state for a bowl game. Everything about the experience of a bowl was completely new for the players. Yet, that unfamiliarity with the occasion didn't deter the Cadets. Much as they stood toe to toe with Tennessee much earlier in the season, they were unawed by Michigan State and handled the Spartans' muscle in the trenches.


The first Commander-in-Chief Trophy of the 1980s. The first twin drubbings (defined by double-digit margins) of Air Force and Navy in the same season. The program's first bowl appearance. The school's first bowl win.

Other than those things, 1984 Army football didn't accomplish much of anything.

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