For Army's Ellerson, Mission Comes First

Coaching at a service academy is no walk in the park. Considering the constraints of strict academic standards, a limited pool of willing-to-attend recruits, and grueling summer training schedules that can sap players' conditioning, it's no wonder that an institution like West Point has found winning so elusive over the past decade.

Still, schools such as Navy and Air Force have found success on the football field in recent years, leading many of the so called "experts" to revisit the once popularized myth that service academy football teams would be forever constrained by their strict military and academic standards. And while coaches and records have changed, the presence of those standards – with several minor exceptions – has stayed largely the same. One of the yearly manifestations of military life that can be found at all three service academies is the summer training schedule for cadets and midshipmen, who unlike their "State U" counterparts do not have the benefit of unofficial yet highly structured team workouts during June and July. Instead, service academy players must join their fellow classmates in a variety of military training activities, ranging anywhere from the strenuous basic training courses all incoming freshmen go through to highly specialized warfare schools unique to each academy. With so many players spread across the country and facing a variety of different mental and physical challenges, the struggle to unite both the mission of the institution and the mission of the football team is often easier said then done. Just ask new Army head coach Rich Ellerson, who after eight years at Cal Poly is now learning how to manage a summer for his team without actually having the benefit of seeing his team.

"Well, they are all over the map," said Rich Ellerson, who chuckled when asked to describe where he thought his team was coming into June. "Summers at West Point are a moving target as you know, and one size does not fit all - or does not even fit more than two guys. We have a number of guys on leave, and we have a number of guys out in the Army spending time with the units at different posts around the country and the world…and we will have (coming up shortly) most of our rising sophomores out at camp Buckner by the middle of June."

The eight week training course at Camp Buckner is considered to be especially demanding for cadets entering their third class, or "Yuk" year. Building on the basic skills that cadets learn during the "Beast Barracks" course prior to their freshmen year at West Point, the nearly two months spent at Camp Buckner for Cadet Field Training (CFT) have been known to rob many an Army football player of his strength. With that in mind, changes were adopted to the summer training schedule beginning with the Class of 2011 during last year's CFT course, with West Point's administration adopting a controversial yet modularized schedule to better support the efforts of the school's athletes.

Not that such a change has leveled the playing field when it comes to the inherit advantages most FBS universities have in preparing their players for the upcoming season, nor has it quieted the concerns of some Army fans who wonder if enough has been done to accommodate the team's offseason football development.

In fact, one of the prevailing concerns Army football fans have had regarding the summer training schedule for West Point football players is in regards to player weight. Not only are Beast Barracks and Cadet Field Training at Camp Buckner notorious for leaving football players much lighter upon their exit from the field, but advance warfare courses like the Army's Airborne and Air Assault school have been known to take an extracting physical toll on cadet football players. It's a thought almost entirely unheard of for the vast majority of athletes at FBS institutions, who are closely monitored by their teams' strength and support staffs in order to optimize and improve their physical conditioning prior to the football season. Acknowledging that his players will lose weight in some cases during summer training, Ellerson was quick to point out that his real concern was not so much in eliminating player weight loss, but rather in maintaining the strength gains his players made during this offseason.

"Weight is not a big issue for us," said Ellerson, whose offensive and defensive philosophies revolve more around quickness and speed rather than mass or sheer force. "What we are trying to do is to protect their strength, their explosiveness, and keep those gains that they have made through the spring and during their downtime. We want to make sure they are able to maintain some of that strength and explosiveness…If they find themselves losing weight during one of those three week cycles than it is probably appropriate that they should have."

To help combat the loss of explosiveness and strength, Ellerson said that he and his staff have instituted a comprehensive plan tailored to the needs of each of their athletes. These plans involve weight training and nutritional schedules meant to support each cadet's performance both as athletes and future Army officers. While the goal of the program is to help each athlete improve his physical conditioning for the upcoming football season, Ellerson maintained that the program's emphasis ultimately is in keeping with the needs of the Academy in developing future officers.

"Frankly we have taken this challenge very seriously," emphasized Ellerson during a recent interview. "We want to make sure we give every guy an opportunity to keep the ‘arrow up' in terms of his physical development….We are trying to back them up nutritionally and trying to give them the training routine that will compliment what it is that they are being asked to do during the day. For some of those guys – if they are going to summer school or if they're on leave – than it probably looks like it does at every other school. [But] if you're out at Camp Buckner or you're out there doing training exercises then we need to take into account what you've done during the day before we decide what you should do when you have a few moments to lift weights."

Despite the obvious challenges that both he and his players face in preparing for the season with the way summers are structured at West Point, Ellerson said that he has no plans to ask for a change in the current policy from the school's Administration, and insists that the challenges in the field have the potential to help his team on the gridiron. It's a message that has been consistent for Ellerson since his days at Cal Poly and Arizona, where former players and staff members recall a coach who managed his players as more the general than football coach.

"Those things that they are experiencing in the field – whether we are talking anything from Beast Barracks to following lieutenants around in the field - all of those things come back to us in terms of our team culture and our development," said Ellerson. "[The powers that be] did not design these things to help us become a good football team but the truth is that if we pay attention, and if we tap into this reservoir of strength that we are building, then [the summer military training] will help us be a good football team.

While Ellerson maintains a realistic attitude towards the obvious challenges of keeping his team "fit for duty" both on and off the gridiron, he said that it's a challenge he gladly accepts and one which has been "a lot of fun trying to unwind." While he openly warns that the gains or losses made by his players in the area of physical development have the opportunity to "really help us" or "really hurt us" for the 2009 season, Ellerson stressed that regardless of how the season turns out, he subscribes to the idea that supporting the military mission of West Point is ultimately the most important aspect of his job. That it will help his players on the field in 2009, said Ellerson, is just an added bonus which helps to make West Point the unique institution that it is.

"I believe that [field training] is palpable, and I think it will show up on the scoreboard…every evolution here is for the first time with us, but we have spent a lot of time on the front end and the thing that we want to make sure that we are consistent about is that we really value – as a football program and not just as ‘West Point'- is what is taking place in the field."

Adam Nettina welcomes reader comments and questions. He can be contacted at AdamNettina[at]gmail.com.

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