Our story begins with a quote.
No, it's not the one Lee Riley handed down to his son; it's from the aftermath of Saturday afternoon's rain-soaked loss to Rice.
Army head coach Jeff Monken uttered the following words:
"I was really proud of the team's effort. I'm certainly disappointed that we lost. We fought as hard as we could, and made some plays to give us a chance to win the football game. We left plays out there on the field where if we had executed it might have made a difference in the football game."
If you've heard those words once from a losing coach, you've heard them a million times. They're classic coaching boilerplate, the easiest and most reflexive way for a coach -- as a person with responsibility for a large group of young men -- to simultaneously applaud his players and yet express the point that they came up just a little short.
You'll notice that Monken did not step up to the plate and say, "You know what, folks? I screwed up. I really blew it with my decision to kick a field goal from the 2-yard line late in the fourth quarter, with a chance to take the lead and force Rice to get a touchdown." Coaches will admit to mistakes when plays really blow up in their faces, but it's hard to deny the sense that Monken doesn't -- and didn't, and won't ever -- think he made the wrong move by kicking that field goal.
After all, the kick was good. Army tied Rice at 31-all after playing uphill all afternoon in Houston. The Black Knights had done something they hadn't done since the beginning of the game: manage to not trail. For Monken and many a coach, this feat within the flow of game play represented something substantial, something important. Rice just made more plays at the end, right?
Again, you've heard it so many times before from losing football coaches. Who, me? Do anything wrong? No -- it was the execution.
Well, coach -- the execution was part of the picture, but your decision was a noticeable mistake. It certainly wouldn't rate as an all-timer of a mistake, because there was obviously a safe and understandable rationale for it. Yet, that's precisely the issue, coach: You played it safe. You did NOT coach with an intent to kick some rear end. You didn't plant your feet.
You didn't make a stand.
Getting a moribund program to turn into a winner is not an overnight process. It was never going to be with Army. Monken is not on any kind of short leash, and moreover, he shouldn't be. (Don't get that idea about this column -- it's not meant to suggest that. This is an examination of a call, a moment, and a plan, and why they all went wrong for Army.)
However, what do we think of when we identify the moments when a program grows up? It's not so much about the specifics; it's about the power of a moment to transform mindsets and breathe fresh confidence into a group of players, confidence which turns into consistent weekly excellence. Generally speaking, a program begins to change when it sees in a very dramatic and uplifting way that the coach's methods work. "THIS GUY KNOWS HOW TO DO IT! WE WILL FOLLOW HIM!" When every player in the locker room and on the sideline believes that -- not just intellectually, but with the heart -- programs change.
In other words, programs change when the coach has the onions -- the stones, the cojones, the brass ones -- to win or lose on one play from the opponent's 2-yard line, instead of going the NFL route and kicking the chip-shot field goal to temporarily avoid losing... but not land the knockout punch.
Jeff Monken and so many of his brother coaches fail to realize this point about coaching, especially when a given game situation relates to the coach at a struggling college program: Sometimes, the point of a given coaching decision -- and fourth downs often represent the classic example of this -- is not even to give yourself the best chance of winning; it's to force your players to come through in a pressure situation... a situation created by the decision itself. If the coach chooses to punt or kick a field goal on fourth down, he isn't subjecting his players to pressure. He isn't challenging his offense. Naturally, there are times to not risk everything if the percentages are awful or the calculus is clear. If Army had led by six points at the Rice 2-yard line, the field goal would have been the absolutely correct decision without any debate. However, the actual situation Monken faced was much more decisive: succeed, and have a good chance to win; fail, and almost certainly lose; play it safe, and tie, while giving the ball back to Rice with not that much time left, essentially hoping for overtime.
In those situations, struggling programs need to find that Pat Riley moment of inspiration. Players accustomed to losing might indeed lose, but if they lose, they would rather risk everything instead of playing it safe. "If we go down, we go down swinging."
Coaches often fail to realize the psychological benefits they can give to their team by choosing the bolder route in situations such as the one Army faced from the 2 against Rice. Monken could have realized that this was a potential gateway moment for his team, a chance to make his players believe 30, 50, 100 times more in what they were doing. Instead, he played it safe.
Rice breezed downfield for a touchdown, and the rest was history.
Jeff Monken is doing a lot of good things this year, and he clearly gets his players ready to compete. The performance against Penn State was one indicator, and this resilient outing against Rice -- in which the team overcame a 14-point deficit and shut out the Owls in the third quarter -- represents another. Yet, the classic patterns of "almost but not quite" football teams clearly emerged in this game. Army's second-half defense generated three stops when trailing by 10. When the Black Knights pulled within three at 24-21, Rice scored on its next possession. After Army brought the score back to a three-point margin at 31-28, the defense FINALLY got not only a stop, but a takeaway, to set up the offense at the Rice 10. This was the breakthrough which cried out for a touchdown.
Monken eschewed the fourth-down opportunity, going "full NFL" in a college setting. (You never go "full NFL.")
It's the kind of moment which is just that -- one moment out of many. It is a moment Army might very well overcome in the next few years, such that this program is in great shape by the end of 2017.
However, if the Jeff Monken era doesn't fulfill its promise, you can look back at "fourth and goal from the two" in Houston as a moment which came and went.
Hopefully, this moment won't acquire a long shelf life in the history of 21st-century Army football. The players who did indeed give great effort, as their coach said, could write a different story.
If only their coach gave them the chance to do so on Saturday in Texas.