A Soldier's Dream: Army's March to Respectability

With most football programs, the reality of a winless season would be a cause for derision, jokes and laughter from the larger college football community. Army isn't most programs, though: what would be vicious mocking at the hands of rival programs is, for the Black Knights of the Hudson, a period of quiet and not-too-significant but nevertheless intensely personal humiliation.

No one needs to tell Army that Cadet football isn't exactly what it used to be in the 1940s and 50s. No one would dare humiliate Army football from the outside, and especially not in these emotional times, when the ultimate student-athletes strap on the pads at West Point just as a young fella named Dwight David Eisenhower once did, only for a much greater calling to lie on the horizon after college. Pat Tillman might not have played football at West Point, but the larger and more important reality is that Army football, now and throughout its past, has had a great many Pat Tillmans come through its halls. The U.S. Military Academy, and the football program within it, are both worthy of nothing but respect.

So when the Black Knights limped through an oh-and-13 campaign in 2003, there was no criticism outside West Point: none deserved, none necessary. But that lack of external noise and snickering didn't wipe away the bitter taste within the Army community and, specifically, the Army athletic department and the Army football family. Sure, defeat is a concept held in very real perspective these days in West Point (same for Annapolis and Colorado Springs, too), but it nevertheless stands that getting "defeated" on a football field as consistently and as decisively as Army was in 2003 (and especially by Navy… again!) was just a bit too much for anyone in West Point to take. There's a matter of pride here, and people around the Army program wanted Cadet football to get off the mat. Bobby Ross was step one in that process.

So as the 2004 season begins to beckon, now just a little more than two months from training camp, the summons to gridiron gladiatorial combat can render 2003 a distant memory. With a superb five-star general of the football variety, Army's football roster, up and down the line, can act as though they and the program they represent are starting from scratch: no pressure, no expectations, no legacy to have to uphold, no burden to bear. This is the ultimate in a rebuilding year, where but one win will mark an improvement. Ross will have a bunch of players who will find themselves in an environment supremely suited to the cultivation of an inextinguishable competitive fire and a more positive, winning attitude.

2004 will enable Army to go the only direction it can: up.

Not only will one win be an improvement, but moving up just one notch in rushing yards will pull Army out of the cellar in Division I-A. Given the fact that rushing yards are tabulated partly by including yards lost on sacks, the Black Knights' offensive line will also have infinite room for improvement. The team defense never allowed less than 24 points in any game. A shaky linebacking corps will still struggle, but it will be almost entirely intact, and will thereby have the chance to make enormous strides under Coach Ross and his staff. Everywhere you look, this program can only get better. The chance to achieve and learn more about self, soul and spirit while working with others in a foxhole (one of a not-too-threatening athletic variety, but a kind of foxhole nevertheless): that's the kind of opportunity any soldier lives for, and it's the opportunity Army's football players will have this upcoming season. Moreover, their gridiron version of trench warfare will start with five supremely tough tests.

Army has its opener against superpowered Louisville and their sensational QB Stefan Lefors, a Steve Young impersonator if there ever was one. Then the Cadets follow with a date with ascendant Houston, a bowl team last year; a game against rapidly improving UConn; a battle against TCU, the nearly-undefeated BCS wrecker of the 2003 season; and a clash with Cincinnati, a solid, upper-division Conference USA team over the past several seasons. For a winless team, Army will be able to find out about itself very quickly and measure itself against the best in the first half of the 2004 season. In most years, the daunting nature of a schedule causes coaches to tear their hair out. But with Army football in 2004, having to play five supremely difficult opponents right off the bat has to have Bobby Ross secretly smiling inside, because he'll be able to get the full measure of his team—in terms of raw talent, athleticism, savvy, instincts and competitiveness, you name it—in adverse circumstances.

Five football foxholes will give Ross, in his initial season at the helm in West Point, the ability to speak to his team with considerable wisdom and knowledge. He'll be able to teach Xs and Os with as little pressure as he's ever had in his storied and accomplished career, but he'll also be able to motivate his troops and set a positive long-term tone for his tenure at West Point. The fact that Army will get smacked around in the first month of the season—Louisville, Houston, UConn and TCU had a composite record of 36-15 last year, with Cincinnati having an aberrationally bad 5-7 season—will only accelerate the learning curve for the whole roster, and enable Ross to lay a solid foundation in the shadows of Michie Stadium. He'll be able to get the attention and respect of his players in a year where pressure will be a foreign word. All of Army's players will go through adversity together, and the promise of that kind of challenge is the kind of thing a soldier lives for.

It might be counter-intuitive, but when you reflect on it, it's true: having a terribly difficult first half of the season will only speed up the learning process—and with it, the revival—of Army football. A decorated coach free of pressure will be able to imprint his personality and values upon the Army program. Even more importantly, a roster of young and hungry soldiers will be able to experience adversity early and often, which, as any good soldier knows, is the gateway to increased maturity and heightened performance.

It's a soldier's dream to look big challenges in the face and battle through hardships with ones fellow soldiers joining in the battle.

Army football must therefore have a pretty bright future in store. Learning and growth will be simply unavoidable this upcoming Autumn. Positive experiences will inevitably define this season of growth, change and rebuilding from the ground up in West Point.

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