The following feature story appeared on the Army football team appeared in the New York Times on Sept. 10, 2010, and was written by Bill Pennington.
WEST POINT, N.Y. — In his second year as Army football coach, Rich Ellerson has an office that looks comfy and lived in. He ought to feel at home. There are Ellersons all around. His father’s 1935 West Point cadet portrait rests on one wall of the office. On a facing wall is a picture of the 1962 Army football team that his brother John captained. Another brother is also a West Point graduate.
If Ellerson needed additional reminders of Army history, there is a shrine to the football program in the hall outside his office. In gleaming glass cases there are three Heisman Trophies, tributes to three national championship teams and faded leather balls commemorating notable victories dating to 1903.
But the last football in the long succession of trophy cases is from the 1996 season, because that is the last time Army had a winning team. There have been four coaching changes since, and a combined record of 35-115.
Now it is Ellerson’s turn to do something about the 13-year losing streak. Despite his family’s deep ties to West Point, he was a nontraditional choice for the job. Ellerson is a West Coast guy who made his name at Cal Poly at San Luis Obispo, Arizona and Hawaii — not typical breeding grounds for an Army coach.
One of his players last year called Ellerson “more like a hippie football coach” who “likes to switch things up and make you think.”
In the history of Army football and the Long Gray Line, it is probably safe to say that no football coach had ever been called a hippie.
Ellerson, 56, laughed at being typecast but added: “If that means being a little different than everybody else, then I’ll take it. If that means finding novel solutions to existing problems, then that resonates with me.”
In 2010, however, being a different kind of Army football coach has meant going back to the United States Military Academy’s old-school ways. For the last decade, a series of Army coaches has wrestled with the academy leaders, begging for various concessions so that Army could keep up with the 21st-century version of college football.
The coaches wanted admission requirements altered so that beefy 300-pound linemen could be admitted (cadets must pass a fitness test, and being overweight is a good way to fail). The coaches wanted football players to be granted more time for practice, even if that meant time away from routine cadet chores, and they wanted football players excused from some of their military training obligations.
Ellerson instead has turned back the clock. Football players are cadets first, football players second.
“We are not going to win in spite of West Point,” said Ellerson, whose team defeated Eastern Michigan last week and plays at home against Hawaii on Saturday. “We are going to win because of West Point.”
Richard King, a senior cornerback on the Army team, said that in past years football players were sometimes derisively referred to by other cadets as shammers — meaning they were a sham within West Point’s regimented walls.
“The corps noticed that we would be at practice instead of taking out the trash, doing laundry or a number of things we’re expected to do,” King said. “If a football player got in trouble, people said we used our position as a football player to get out of it. That doesn’t happen now.”
First-year cadets, for example, go through a grueling summer boot camp called Beast Barracks. Football players are excused from the last portion of the training to begin football practice.
“But the last day of Beast is marching 13 miles back to campus,” King said. The march is in full military gear.
“Football players used to get out of that, too,” King said. “Now, they leave practice to go back and march with their company.”
To Ellerson, whose 2009 Army team was 5-7, embracing the West Point culture is part of the football team’s new plan for success.
“We want to validate their Academy experience to the point where I can say that part of our success on Saturday afternoons is directly attributable to their cadet basic training, their cadet field training or their cadet leadership training,” Ellerson said. “Our guys have done things and overcome things. They know things about themselves and each other that their contemporaries on other college football teams don’t even know they don’t know.”
This philosophy has influenced everything Army football now does. Ellerson was hired in large part because his Cal-Poly teams ran the triple-option offense, a key to archrival Navy’s success in recent years. The emphasis on quickness and decision-making in the triple option means that 300-pound linemen are not a necessity. Ellerson also runs an aggressive, unconventional defense. Put the two together and Army can have success recruiting smaller, quicker players more suited to the academy’s admission guidelines. And as Ellerson said, they are more likely to be overlooked by the mainstream college football powers.
The recruits are also more likely to be capable of playing a multitude of positions on offense and defense, which helps with the depth chart.
Consistent with his belief that every facet of the academy shapes the Army football experience, Ellerson is upfront with recruits about the five-year military commitment awaiting all West Point graduates.
“The destination is the first thing we bring up,” he said. “We tell them you’re going to be an officer in the United States Army. The destination goes on from there, probably to many great things, but football is just one thing on the way to the destination.
“When I first got here, I would try to talk guys into coming to West Point. I don’t do that anymore.”
In the last dozen years, what has frustrated Army’s large, influential alumni base is not just that Army teams consistently lost, especially to Navy, but that they seemed to lack cohesion. Given their training, Army teams are expected to be mentally and physically tough and to play with a distinct unity.
“Lots of football coaches talk about relentless effort, precision and focus in the face of adversity,” he said. “But I would argue that we have the inside track on those things because our institution requires our players to be that way every minute of their time here, day after day.
“Other teams share a love of the game. We share so much more. Our players all went through Beast Barracks. They all still live in barracks. They all wear a uniform. They all raised their hands and swore to protect and defend the Constitution. And I would argue that if we embrace that, it puts us way down the road to the brotherhood people seek in a team.”
Turning to look out an office window overlooking West Point’s 86-year-old Michie Stadium, Ellerson added, “Our secret weapon is the path we’ve chosen.”