"He Will be Wildly Successful"

Think Rich Ellerson is over his head in rebuilding Army's once storied football program? You're probably not the only one. Yet before you start citing the reasons for why Ellerson's task at West Point is one step short of ‘mission impossible,' perhaps you should take a cue from Ellerson's former boss, Cal Poly Athletic Director Allison Cone.

While Cone may not have been the one to hire Ellerson back when the former Arizona defensive coordinator came to San Luis Obispo in 2001, she's more than familiar with Ellerson's unique coaching style, having worked in the Mustang athletic department for more than a decade and having served as Athletic Director since February 2005. A passionate AD who stresses the role of the student part of ‘student athlete' just as much as the athletic component, Cone said she expects big things from Ellerson at Army, predicting a successful path of program building not dissimilar to Ellerson's turnaround of the Mustangs some eight years ago. I caught up with Mrs. Cone during a recent phone interview, and learned just what made coach Ellerson so successful at Cal Poly.

Adam Nettina (AN): Can you describe the state of the Cal Poly program prior to coach Ellerson's arrival in 2001? What were the expectations for coach Ellerson coming in from Arizona during that first season?

Allison Cone (AC): The program has suffered several losing seasons and all the things which go along with losing seasons. We felt we still had quality student athletes in our program but we were not having success on the football field. The expectations were to run a good solid program and to build a program. And that's what he did. He built our program. That's not a one-time flash in the pan, great season; it was building a great program that could sustain itself.

AN: It's interesting that you mention building a program, because that is what a lot of Army fans are expecting in West Point. Along that same point, did you notice a change in the mentality of the Cal Poly program within a year or two of coach Ellerson's arrival, complete with the students and alumni renewing their interest in the team's on-field performance?

AC: It took a little bit of time because the system which he brought in was one which was dramatically different than the system which had been used here before. The athletes who had been recruited to the previous system probably weren't sure where they fit into his system, and some of them quite rankly didn't fit in as well in his system as they would have in somebody else's. But [coach Ellerson] believed that running the option and in running the kind of defense that he runs could be successful at Cal Poly. It took a couple of years and it was dramatic when the changes started showing.

AN: What was it which made him so successful? Was it the system he brought to the program, or was it something else? Something like his ability to inspire confidence or to get the most out of his players?

AC: I think it was all of the above. I think [Rich] is a leader who knew what he wanted to do and had a plan. He systematically implemented the plan that he had, and part of that plan is not just X's and O's. A big part of that plan and a big part of coach Ellerson is that he is training leaders. He's 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 from the academic component to the character piece to the character piece to the leadership piece to the offense and defense and specific skills. He works on every single piece of it…so I don't think you could say it was one thing over the other. It's all of it, and [coach Ellerson] does all of it.

AN: Moving on to Army, coach Ellerson is going to be coaching in a different environment than at most other Division I institutions. Do you think there are there any similarities between a school like Cal Poly and an institution like West Point which may have prepared coach Ellerson for the challenge ahead? Maybe something as far as academic standards or recruiting challenges are concerned?

AC: Absolutely. I think that academically students at Army students look very much to students at Cal Poly. Cal Poly is an exceptionally high academic school, and our students are very busy, very focused, and dedicated to their academic piece much like they have to be at the military academy. I think Rich has a real unique background in that he totally understands and is dedicated to the military way of life. He grew up with the military and he ran his program here probably more like what they would do at a military academy than what most coaches would do to begin with. So I think that absolutely understands, respects, and lives part of that military lifestyle.

AN: Likewise, coach Ellerson will be going up against BCS conference teams at Army which are much more talented from a personnel standpoint. Did coach Ellerson face a similar situation at Cal Poly? That is to say, were the teams that your school was going up against athletically superior or more gifted than the teams which coach Ellerson fielded on a year-to-year basis?

AC: I don't know if the other schools were athletically ‘more gifted', but they were athletically different than we were. [Coach Ellerson] would recruit maybe better athletes who were sized differently than other schools. I would not say we were outmatched athletically…Coming off the bus we may not have looked like the most impressive team or walking through the airport nobody was going to be overwhelmed by the way we looked, but he recruited very good athletes. He recruited a lot of speed and knew what to do with the speed to make it more effective against other teams.

AN: Was there anything you said to coach Ellerson to try to keep him at Cal Poly once West Point came calling?

AC: Obviously I wanted him to stay, but I knew it was a losing battle, and I knew that when he arrived at Cal Poly that [Army] was one program which he would probably leave for should he have the opportunity in the future. I think that it is kind of his dream situation. I don't think there are many football coaches in this country who would say that would be a dream job but for him it was his dream job.

AN: Tell me about coach Walsh. What are the expectations for him this year at Cal Poly?

AC: We are continuing the wonderful foundation that was set by coach Ellerson, and I think Tim Walsh is the perfect person to continue what Rich started. We are planning on to keep going. We lost some terrific skill players on offense but I think our defense will strengthen up and that we will continue to have a really good and solid academic program that has a foundation which will be able to sustain itself year after year.

AN: Ultimately, do you believe coach Ellerson will be successful at Army?

AC: 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 is pleased to answer reader questions and comments. He can be reached at AdamNettina –at –gmail.com.

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