The Right Man for the Job

Cal Poly athletic director Allison Cone knew there was little she could say to convince Rich Ellerson to stay in San Luis Obispo. Incredibly successful during his eight year run as the Mustang head football coach, Ellerson had waited years for the one job in football no one seemed to want, and despite Mrs. Cone's best efforts, was not about to pass it up now that he had the opportunity to take it.

Was it the chance to coach a BCS conference heavyweight? Nope. The opportunity to work with the most talented athletes found anywhere in the country? Not exactly. The ability to step into a tailor-made situation conducive to winning right away? Hardly.

No, Rich Ellerson's dream job – the job he left the security of San Luis Obispo and his three Great West Football conference titles for – was to coach an Army football team which had gone 23-93 over the course of the previous decade, cementing itself amongst the bottom feeders in all of Division I-A football. Not exactly your garden variety ‘dream job' most coaches around the country would clamor for. Still, it was a job too perfect for Ellerson to pass up, and the one job that destiny seemed intent on him taking.

"Obviously I wanted him to stay, but I knew trying to convince him [not to go to Army] was a losing battle," said Cone, who laughed when asked if there was anything special she had said when trying to keep Ellerson at Cal Poly last December. "I knew that when he arrived at Cal Poly that West Point was one program which he would probably leave for should he have the opportunity in the future. I think that it was kind of his dream situation. I don't think there are many football coaches in this country who would say that West Point would be a ‘dream job,' but for him it was his ‘dream job'.

Not that that makes taking over at Army any easier for Ellerson, who inherits a 3-9 Black Knight team which dropped five of their last six games in 2008 (including an embarrassing 34-0 shutout at the hands of rival Navy) to close the book on Stan Brock's tenure at the school. Brock was fired after only his second season in West Point, the victim of a failed attempt to show the Academy's administration and alumni base that Army football was finally headed in the right direction after a decade long struggle in futility. The fourth head coach in seven years, Ellerson steps into a situation on the banks of the Hudson that hasn't exactly been kind to even the brightest minds in college football, a fact painfully apparent when one considers Bobby Ross' 9-25 record between 2004 and 2006 at Army.

So what makes Ellerson different from his predecessors? And can the man who helped turn around Cal Poly's previously ho-hum I-AA program resurrect one of the Division I-A's most storied football teams?

According to both his former employer and one of his former players, Ellerson not only can turn around Army football, but he will turn around Army football. That is because the former Arizona defensive coordinator brings a unique and unconventional perspective to the game, combining both a drive and determination to succeed with an ability to get the most out of his players and coaches.

"He's as unique of a football coach as there is," said former Mustang linebacker Kyle Shotwell, who won the 2006 Buch Buchanan Award as the nation's most outstanding defender in the Division formally known as I-AA. "He has a vision, and he has an attitude and a mentality of how the game of football is supposed to be played and how he views the game of football. It is unlike any that I've ever been around, and it is so unique that as a result it has been extremely effective."

Shotwell isn't the only onlooker to use the word ‘unique' in describing Ellerson's style of coaching. In fact, talk to any number of Cal Poly administrators, players, or fans and they are more than likely to bring up the word "unique" when trying to characterize just what makes Ellerson's highly effective style of coaching work. Cal Poly Athletic Director Allison Cone was one of those individuals to use the term "unique" in describing Ellerson, who like Shotwell said that the new Army head coach was unlike any other football mind she had ever come across. Not just another face in the crowd of hotshot coordinators who come and go, Mrs. Cone also said that coach Ellerson's success at Cal Poly came as much from his character and work habits as his ability to match up Xs with Os on the drawing board.

"I think [Rich Ellerson] is a leader who knew what he wanted to do here at Cal Poly and had a plan to how he was going to do it," said Cone when asked about coach Ellerson's transition to the school following a stint as Arizona's defensive coordinator between 1997-2000. Before arriving at the San Luis Obispo campus, the Mustangs had suffered through three straight 3-8 seasons, and had seen their once proud program fall to mediocre standards.

"[Coach Ellerson] systematically implemented the plan that he had, and part of that plan was not just X's and O's. A big part of that plan and a big part of what coach Ellerson is about is that he is training leaders," continued Mrs. Cone.

"He is developing young men. It is not just about Xs and Os, it's about developing leaders, developing teammates, and he worked very hard on every aspect of the program here from the academic component to the character piece to the leadership piece to the offense and defense and specific skills. He works on every single piece of it. He does all of it."

And while Mrs. Cone acknowledges that coach Ellerson's ability to build leaders extends far beyond the football field, former players like Kyle Shotwell say that Ellerson's reputation as an aggressive defensive coordinator and underrated recruiter will help to cement his future success at West Point. When it comes to recruiting players for his aggressive and unique "Double Eagle Flex" defense in particular, Shotwell said that Ellerson should have no problem identifying potential stars despite Army's lack of recent success on the recruiting trail.

"[Coach Ellerson] has a unique ability to see the things and to spot the things that might not be obvious to 95% of football coaches" said Shotwell when asked how Ellerson had recruited so well at an academically demanding institution like Cal Poly. "He has a really unique ability to spot those qualities and he knows in his mind which qualities are important and he knows how to look for them. His whole time here at Cal Poly he made a habit of recruiting guys who were under-recruited by bigger schools but had qualities that he liked and he had tremendous success with that method. I would imagine that is exactly how it will be at Army, as well."

When it comes to success or failure at West Point, both Cone and Shotwell agree that they can't foresee Ellerson building anything other than a winning program on the banks of the Hudson. Saying that Ellerson has a clear "passion" for the United States Military Academy, Shotwell said that the way in which coach Ellerson views the challenge at West Point will ultimately determine the program's future success.

"I know coach Ellerson feels like it is his ‘duty' as an American citizen to make sure that USMA is respectable and that their football team is one to be reckoned with," said Shotwell, who now coaches linebackers at Cal Poly. "I know that that idea is a huge passion on his heart and I know he will not rest until that is the case. Besides that I mean he is just a heck of a ball coach. He has the ability to communicate what he wants with his players, and I think because he is so unique the whole culture [at West Point] is going to change."

Allison Cone agreed, saying that while the transition to a "culture of winning" may take time at West Point, she nevertheless expects Ellerson to turn around the Black Knight program in much the same way he turned around Cal Poly after arriving in California in 2001.

"I think he will be wildly successful at Army. I don't know that it will happen over night, but I think he will be wildly successful."

Adam Nettina welcomes reader comments and feedback and can be reached at AdamNettina –at- gmail.com.

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