This feature originally appeared in the Oct. 23, 2009 edition of Army Football Game Day vs. Rutgers.
By Tim Volkmann
When the 1984 Army football team walked off the turf of the Pontiac Silverdome with a 10-6 victory over heavily-favored Michigan State in the inaugural Cherry Bowl, the Black Knights took with them something that no team in the long and storied history of the program had ever grasped. Today we celebrate the 25th anniversary of that milestone campaign and the unlikely cast of characters who brought home the first postseason gridiron victory that the Black Knights had ever seen.
Jim Young was named the 30th head coach in Army history prior to 1983. Following a season debut that saw the Black Knights struggle to a 2-9 record and the tenth losing campaign in 11 years, he decided to return the program to its roots and switched back to the vaunted wishbone offense that had previously garnered Army national recognition in days gone by.
However, without names like Blanchard or Davis waiting in the wings to shoulder the load, Young had to get creative to find his ball carriers. Starting quarterback Nate Sassman moved over to the offense after playing safety for two years, while All-East defensive back Dee Bryant switched to running back for his senior year. Starting fullback Doug Black wasn't even on the team for his first two years at West Point. Even with all the adjustments, that didn't stop the senior class from setting some lofty expectations.
"Months before the season even started, those of us who had experienced the previous three years felt it was time to change the mindset of the team," said Bryant. "We set out to win from the outset. It was our purpose. We wanted to win every home game, be in every game and never get blown out and beat Air Force and Navy to take back the Commander in Chief's Trophy. And we wanted to go to a bowl game and win. We made those decisions as seniors before the season even started and we behaved that way."
Instead of voting captains to lead the team, all the members of the senior class were named captain, including standout defensive tackle Jim Jennings.
"The seniors banded together the summer prior to the season and we made the commitment to ourselves and the team that we were going to be successful," said Jennings. "I remember there were debates whether setting a goal to go undefeated was realistic, but having a winning record and going to a bowl game was the mindset we had going into the season. A lot of it had to do with the coaching we had as well."
Black turned out to be a true rags-to-riches story on a team that seemed to be wearing a glass slipper from the get-go. Cut as a freshman, he instead played company football where he caught the eye of his tactical officer, who also served as an officer representative for the varsity team. Granted a tryout during the spring of his sophomore year, his hard-nosed style of running impressed Young and Black not only found a spot on the squad, but climbed all the way to the top of the depth chart entering preseason camp.
"The wishbone gave me a lot of opportunities to run and I had a great offensive line in front of me," recalled Black. "It was a total team effort. I was just able to do my job as the fullback up the middle and that eventually got defenses to collapse so we'd be able to get yardage outside. The offense fit my running style as I wasn't a flashy back at all. I was built well enough to get through the season without any injuries in that pound-it-out style of running."
Army unveiled its new attack in a season-opening 41-15 dismantling of Colgate that saw the squad rack up 441 ground yards, including a game-high 124 by Black highlighted by a 37-yard jaunt for his first career touchdown.
What followed a week later proved to be one of the larger turning points of the season. The Cadets came back from a late deficit to tie perennial power Tennessee, 24-24, on the road in front of over 90,000 people.
"The first couple games were critical," said Jennings. "The Colgate game was a huge motivational boost for the whole team, but when we headed into the Tennessee game as severe underdogs without anyone in the country thinking we were that good and then came away with a tie, we knew we had something special."
In the following weeks, Army notched convincing victories over Duke, Harvard, Pennsylvania, Syracuse, and Montana, along with victories over service academy rivals Air Force and Navy to clinch the Commander-In-Chief's Trophy for the first time since 1977.
Army rewrote the record books as 17 total team and individual marks fell. The Black Knights led the nation in rushing with 345.3 yards per game, including a single-season Academy record 1,148 yards by Black. He and Sassman, who totaled 1,002 yards rushing, became the first Army tandem to each eclipse the 1,000-yard plateau in the same season.
However, it was all about the team in Young's eyes. After starting the season with three-straight games of over 100 yards rushing, Black looked to be on pace to become the first Army back ever to crack the mark four straight times after compiling 96 yards at halftime of the Harvard game. He didn't play the rest of the game as Army cruised to the win.
"You could get irritated at that, but I really wasn't at all," said Black. "It wasn't about me or setting records. It was about Army winning. It was all about the team. That was the way we played and that is why I think we were so successful."
The Cherry Bowl game proved a fitting end to the season for the underdog Black Knights. Facing heavily-favored Big 10 adversary Michigan State in its back yard, only to come away with a win seemed appropriate.
"The difference between us and Michigan State was we actually went to play ball," said Bryant. "We were serious about it and kept our same game face and discipline as we did in all our other games. We knew history was being created as we went."
Added Black, "I remember the hitting was particularly hard. Michigan State was a tough team, but we weren't there just to show up and feel lucky that we got to a bowl game. We were there to beat those guys. We eventually won the game and I think they were shocked that a smaller team from Army had won."
In true football coaching form in the locker room after each game during the season, Young would quickly gloss over the day's triumphs before automatically switching gears and talking about preparations for the next game. After the Cherry Bowl victory, he started by recognizing the defense for playing so well and then congratulated the seniors for what they had accomplished. Without missing a beat, he started addressing the juniors and talking about everything they had to do to keep things going for next year.
Said Black, "After a second, he caught himself in mid sentence and said, 'tonight, we won't move forward -- tonight, I guess we'll just celebrate.'"
Twenty-five years later, the celebration is just as sweet.
Tim Volkmann is an Assistant Director of Athletic Communications at West Point.