To Thine Own Self Be True, Rich Ellerson

You don't have to open your soul to Gary Danielson if you're a head coach in the Football Bowl Subdivision, but you do need to remain true to your own philosophy. Moreover, if you're coaching the Army-Navy Game, you play to win. At the end of a generally encouraging season, Rich Ellerson needs to go back to his roots as he begins to prepare for 2010.

The devil's in the details for a good reason: The margin separating euphoria and desolation isn't terrifically thick. One move, one lapse, one loss – the slightest shift can substantially affect the way whole seasons are perceived; after Army head coach Rich Ellerson's rather shocking display of timidity in last Saturday's grand finale against the Midshipmen, boosters of the Black Knights need to be careful in their assessment of a just-concluded 5-7 campaign.

Yes, the Long Gray Line and a global television audience must have gasped in disbelief when Ellerson decided to kick a field goal with 10:21 left and his team trailing 10-3 with a 4th and 3 at the Navy 14. Earlier decisions to kick on fourth down were somewhat understandable, but the late-game flinch left fans confused and bewildered. It wasn't as bad as Boston Red Sox manager Grady Little leaving Pedro Martinez on the mound in Game 7 of the 2003 American League Championship Series, but it was the kind of confounding move that – when made at a big-dollar, blue-chip football program – puts a coach in hot water.

Imagine an Auburn coach pulling that move against Alabama and losing. Visualize a Michigan coach going that route against Ohio State and falling short. If Rich Ellerson wasn't inheriting a mess from Stan Brock, and if he hadn't improved the Brave Old Army Team over the first 11 games of 2009, he would have deserved a harsher excoriation from critics and pundits.

Ah, but that's precisely the point: Due to the fine bit of rebuilding he produced this past season, Ellerson DOES deserve a break in the bigger picture. He ought to receive the benefit of a long-term perspective which militates against excessive nitpicking.

Details can be devilishly seductive because they can tempt fans into playing "what-if?" games that never fully satisfy. Therefore – with Saturday's 17-3 stomach punch against Navy now (sadly) in the books – it's up to the discriminating Army fan to resist the temptation to paint the 2009 season with a largely negative brush.

"Good grief," you might say, "the difference between beating Navy for an EagleBank Bowl bid and staying home for the holidays with a 5-7 mark is ENORMOUS! This season's a failure! Ellerson really blew it!" Well, Ellerson did blow it, but only in the last game.

When you've been as downtrodden as Army football has been over the past 13 years, a five-win season – the best for the Black Knights since their 1996 joyride – has to be viewed as a triumph, even though win number six would have been oh-so-sweet. Another loss to Navy – plus the way it went down at Lincoln Financial Field – will undeniably leave a large emotional void in the hearts of Army football fans, but that emptiness can't color the 12-game mosaic created by Ellerson's players and assistant coaches.

If you try to play the incremental game, you can – and will – find yourself in an endless process of futile bargaining that simply won't achieve anything meaningful: "I'd rather be 4-8 and beat Navy than be bowl-less at 5-7 and lose to the Midshipmen. Boy, Ellerson's mistake against Navy just grows larger with each passing (postgame) hour."

Or maybe your thought process is something like this: "Well, we got to five wins and then had three weeks to not only game plan for Navy, but fix our deficiencies and play in a mini-bowl game. And THIS is what we got in terms of offensive strategy and overall boldness? The first 11 games were a tease. This is too much!"

Those kinds of sentiments were surely muttered under breaths or whispered in private quarters on Saturday evening and well into Sunday morning, but now that at least some of the freshness has been removed from the latest loss to Navy, perhaps the emotions of the gameday experience can give way to an appreciation of the whole season.

As we step back from the searing disappointment of that fateful fourth quarter in Philadelphia, it has to be stressed that Army had already achieved a great deal. If you think this Navy game was a cruel tease, consider how the close-shave wins over Duke and Ball State were followed up later in the year by white-knuckle victories against Vanderbilt, VMI and North Texas. Army wasn't consistent enough to steal wins against Temple and Tulane, but neither were the Black Knights poor enough to plummet to a 2-10 record. Just when it seemed as though this team was going to fall off a cliff, it conjured up a potent combination of elbow grease and fierce determination. In the process, it won games it had absolutely no business winning. Army's offense wasn't just mediocre, but lousy, against Ball State and North Texas, but remarkable clutch plays on defense and special teams enabled Team Ellerson to emerge on the sunshine side of the football divide.

Do lament the searing losses on the 2009 docket, but just be sure to – in the next breath – give this team credit for its notable Saturday successes. Even more specifically, if you knocked Ellerson for his fourth-down shyness against Navy, one hopes that you were supportive of the fourth-down gambles Ellerson dialed up against Temple and North Texas. (If you criticized those two moves earlier in the season, you had less of a right to be angry with the NFL-like decision to kick a field goal on the same field where Philadelphia Eagle coach Andy Reid has made the same kind of move many times over.)

In the end, this team was exactly what it appeared to be: 5-7. The '09 West Pointers were better than past Army clubs, and good enough to beat some lower-tier opponents, but they were not equipped with the resources to reach a bowl game or knock off Navy. The Black Knights of the Hudson made discernible forward strides – even, it should be said, against the Midshipmen; this was a four-quarter game, a delightful change from past blowouts – but they're not quite ready to compete on a grander stage against more loaded foes. The good and the bad, the toughness and the timidity, the improvements and the inadequacies, balanced each other out. That's okay - the poignant experience of not only losing to Navy, but doing so when a bowl game was there for the taking, just might give the program the extra ounce of hunger which will prove decisive in the 2010 season… and in the next Army-Navy Game itself.

Let's just make sure, then, that the coach who has just completed his freshman season at Army doesn't travel the same path twice. Rich Ellerson's first loss to Navy will possess value as long as it serves as the catalyst toward further improvement in the coming 12 months… especially on late-game fourth-down decisions the next time the Black Knights knock heads with the Midshipmen.

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