For Army, It's Follow the Leader

Kevin Anderson is finally serious about turning Army football around. How do I know? Because I've seen this pattern before. Bring in a triple option football coach? Check. Sign a favorable television contract with CBS College Sports? Check. Agree to play meaningful and high profile games against both a national powerhouse and regional programs? Check, check, and check.

Sound familiar?

 

It should, as a similar pattern has been crafted – and continues to be employed – by the Naval Academy football program, which went a combined 1-20 in 2000 and 2001 before rattling off six straight winning seasons beginning in 2003. And while national talking heads and magazine editors may assign Navy's dramatic turnaround solely to the arrival of Paul Johnson in 2002, any astute Midshipmen football fan will tell you that Navy's continued success has had as much to do with what has taken place off-the-field as well as what has happened on-the-field.

 

That's not to say that Johnson's obvious coaching genius wasn't the driving force behind Navy's six straight Commander-in-Chief Trophy seasons, nor is it to discount the idea that Army's own drop-off hasn't contributed to its rival's success. Yet when you're able to step back and view Navy's turnaround from beyond the proverbial angle of X's and O's on a blackboard, it becomes increasingly clear that such a renewal in program strength could not have existed without the guiding hand of Navy Athletic Director Chet Gladchuk.

 

Being an Athletic Director at a major FBS institution isn't an easy gig. Much like their teams' starting quarterbacks, AD's are often straddled with more blame for their programs' mistakes than they deserve, yet rarely receive full credit for the little things which they do to help the program achieve success. While it goes without saying that Army's current Athletic Director, Kevin Anderson, hasn't always steered Army football on a clear path towards gridiron triumph during his tenure at West Point, the good news is that it finally looks as though he has taken note from his fellow service academy AD.

 

Exhibit A you ask? We all recognize that as bringing in Ellerson, who has - unlike Stan Brock or Bobby Ross – an actual option football pedigree. Not just a coach who understands that you have to do things a bit "differently" in terms of scheme at a service academy, Ellerson has already proven himself a transformational leader who, at least for the time being, seems to be well on his way towards instilling confidence in his players.

 

For as good a move as hiring Ellerson was however, it wasn't until a few weeks ago that Anderson was really able to demonstrate that he's intent on taking the steps towards making Army relevant again. The deal he was able to help craft with Notre Dame will be instrumental in helping Army receive national exposure, and win or lose (and let's not kid ourselves, it will probably be lose) Army football can only benefit from the high-profile contest at Yankee Stadium against the Irish. Yet for as helpful in terms of national exposure as scheduling that game may be, Anderson's ability to facilitate a transition to CBS College Sports from ESPN may end up being the more instrumental front-office move in giving Army football staying power beyond the coming season.

 

While some fans have argued that leaving behind the deal with ESPN in favor of the new deal signed with CBS College Sports will decrease the visibility of Army football, I think the deal will prove beneficial in both the long and short run. Let's be real; it's nice that Army would get the requisite "shout-out" highlight on Sportscenter, but how often did that highlight seem to involve other teams running all over the likes of the Cadets? Say what you want about national exposure and the power of ESPN to reach high school recruits across the country, but all the ESPN deal was doing from a recruiting perspective was reinforcing the message that Army football was no place to be for a recruit considering a service academy. Throw in the sometimes ridiculous starting times dictated by the television contact, and you had a deal that wasn't doing Army (or that week's opponent) any favors. By gaining exposure via CBS College Sports, Army will be in a position to sell their exposure to recruits looking for a "bigtime" college football atmosphere, yet the program will be able to do so in a way which doesn't reinforce the image of on-field futility.

 

Which brings us to another point about recruiting; one which carries a much more subtle - yet no less important – ramification for Army. You've by no doubt heard that by incorporating regional teams such as Rutgers and Boston College on future schedules, Rich Ellerson and Kevin Anderson hope to create a situation in which they can compete for regional high school recruits. While cynics may point out (and rightfully so) that a school like West Point isn't going to beat out a Rutgers or Boston College for any given prep player, fans and analysts should keep in mind that the ability to cultivate relationships with other coaching staffs is incredibly important. It's a dynamic unique to college football, with the sharing of information between staffs – especially with regards to recruits who are unable to earn scholarships to higher-tier schools (think BC or Rutgers) – becoming increasingly more common as the game expands at every level.

 

Don't believe me? Just a few weeks ago I had one Navy assistant coach tell me that the arrival of Paul Johnson and part of his former Navy staff at Georgia Tech has helped to bolster recruiting with regards to Navy. The reason is simple; both schools are looking for the same types of players, yet Georgia Tech doesn't have enough scholarships to bring all of them on board. So what happens? One of Georgia Tech's assistant coaches may refer that player to the Navy staff, and, in effect, guide them towards a possible playing career at Navy.

 

You'll note that while a solid recruiter, Rich Ellerson's connections are largely West Coast based. While he has capable members of his staff who can recruit the ever expanding Northeast football climate, by establishing rivalries and relationships with other programs, Kevin Anderson is giving Ellerson the opportunity to further cement Army as a regional recruiting force. Coupled with Ellerson's own ability to find "diamonds in the rough" across the country, and taken together with the deal to broadcast Army football on CBS College Sports, Anderson is putting Army in a position to actually become "America's Team."

 

Kevin Anderson has made some blunders in his four and a half years as Army's Athletic Director. His decision to hire Stan Brock as head coach following Bobby Ross' departure was a questionable call at best, while his handling of Army's scheduling policy over the past few seasons is not without fault. Yet for as much flack as he's taken over the last few years, it's clear that Anderson has finally come around to following the established formula for winning at a service academy. By following the example of Chet Gladchuk at Navy, and by cultivating a policy that should promote positive national exposure, Anderson has set in motion the wheels of positive change.

 

All that's left is for Ellerson to deliver.

 

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

 


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