Behind Enemy Lines?

I have to admit, I went into my interview with Air Force's new head football coach Troy Calhoun with a full agenda. Not only did I want to get to know the new leader of the Falcons, I was extremely curious to know in what regard he held the Naval Academy's football program. (EDITOR'S NOTE: This interview was previously published on on April 18, 2007.)

Did he have September 29, 2007 (Air Force @ Navy) highlighted, bolded and circled on his calendar as the game to measure the progress of his team? I also wanted to know if the first-year coach is successful, would he bolt the Academy for a better opportunity like recent Air Force basketball coaches have done.


I decided, however, to start our conversation off by asking Calhoun what it was like to be succeeding Air Force legend Fisher DeBerry.  Was it bittersweet for a former player (1985-1988) and coach (1989-90 and 1993-94) of DeBerry's to be taking over for the legend, who by most reports did not leave on the most amicable of terms?


"I never really looked at it that way," said Calhoun.  "Everything (DeBerry) did, he had an incredible interest in the Air Force Academy and there was nothing that was going to swerve his heart in any other direction…Anybody who has ever played for him or coached for him, you just knew that he was made of nothing but the absolute best stuff as a person."


"I do know this - it weren't for Fisher DeBerry, I wouldn't be here right now."


One of the other reasons why Calhoun is now in Colorado Springs and not still with the Houston Texans is his reputation as an offensive guru.  A lot of criticism in the past few years was directed at DeBerry's reliance on running his version of a somewhat predictable option offense. So how important was it, from a morale standpoint, for Calhoun to come in and say to the team that they were going to mix it up a bit?


"At the Air Force Academy, we've never won because of a play or a scheme… as far as play calling goes or a system you put in, first and foremost you have to know what moves these kids," said Calhoun. "I don't want to say it's arrogant, but (maybe) it's a little bit (arrogant) for a coach to think only because of the X's and O's that's the reason why we are successful.  That's completely missing the boat at any academy."


But have the players embraced the changes on offense and defense?


"We will probably run a little more balanced attack, and I think it's fair to say (the team) enjoys that. I'm sure the receivers do and even the tailback. And at the same time, the quarterbacks are going to be real well involved and have a chance to develop." 


"Our guys know there are going to be two core runs that we are going to have to lean on heavily – the option and zone." 


So far this spring it's safe to say that Calhoun hasn't been content with his team's performance.  Even though he called the workouts "encouraging," he also admitted that the team isn't "even close to where they have to be in order to perform at a successful level on a consistent basis."


"Offensively, we play too high – pad-level wise, and sometimes we are a little too polite in the way we play.  That part has got to change by the time we get ready to kick-off on September 1st.  Defensively, we bust too many assignments," said Calhoun.


And while there has been a lot of speculation and even anticipation about Air Force opening the playbook this season, Calhoun was quick to point out that players shouldn't get "enamored with dazzle."


Regarding the aforementioned "dazzle," Calhoun said, "That's not going to be us.  That's not service academy football, certainly not Air Force Academy football.  For us, it's going to be how hard we play and how well we execute."


In fact, when it comes to playbooks, the new head coach of the Falcons would prefer to do without one.


"I'm probably more of a ‘nuts and bolts,' and ‘blocking and tackling' guy than getting too consumed with schemes.  I've always thought if you teach right, you probably don't need a playbook."


All this talk about not needing a playbook and saying that his team is no where near ready for the first game got me to thinking that Calhoun was starting to sound a lot like another head coach I have interviewed.  I mean when was the last time Navy fans saw Paul Johnson carry around a playbook or heard him holding back when asked how awful his team was performing this spring.


But in this day and age, it seems as though there is so much more required to build a winning program than hiring the right coach, which it seems from extremely early indications that Air Force has done in luring Calhoun.  From the facilities at a university, to the support teams receive from its administration and alumni, off-the-field intangibles have become a permanent part of the conversations regarding how to build a successful program.    


In the week leading up to his first Air Force game as head coach in 2002, Paul Johnson was asked what the Falcons were doing that made their team better than Navy – off the field. Johnson said the biggest difference was that Air Force had "made a commitment to win."  I think it is safe to say that the administration at Navy, in particular athletic director Chet Gladchuck, have made good on their promise to Johnson back in 2002. 


Calhoun concurs with that sentiment.


"I think you have to give a ton of credit to (Navy's) athletic director.  When you look at (their program) in terms of exposure, television wise and other; bowl opportunities; scheduling, etc - somewhere along the line, administratively, they are doing a fine job." 


It would be foolhardy to compare the current state of the Air Force football program on-the-field to the Navy football program in 2001.  In the past four years, Air Force has gone 20-26, whereas Navy was 9-25 in the four seasons prior to Johnson's arrival.  But what about off-the-field - was Calhoun given similar assurances by the Air Force Academy administration and athletic department that they are committed to providing him with the intangibles required to help the team succeed?  And if he does succeed, would Calhoun be around in Colorado Springs for the long haul? 


And what about Navy – what would defeating the Mids this year (hypothetically) mean for Air Force's football program?  And oh yeah, would any Air Force players be making predictions before games this year as they have done in the past?  I had the opportunity to touch upon all of those questions as well with Air Force head coach Troy Calhoun.  Unfortunately, you will have to look for Part II of this article, due out in the next few days, to find out what he had to say.


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