MISSION FIRST: Answering The Call

Dec. 5, 2013

by Christian Anderson

Rich Ellerson sits at his desk and gazes out his window at historic Michie Stadium. He doesn't get too many of these quiet moments, but when he does, he almost always seems to find himself thinking about what a tremendous honor it is to preside over one of the most tradition-rich programs in all of college football.

It is during these times of internal reflection that Army's fifth-year head football coach often thinks about his life's journey and how he ended up on the banks of the Hudson River. Ellerson's coaching career, which spans five decades, was spent primarily on the other side of the country. He calls Tucson, Ariz., home and he attended the University of Hawai'i. But despite numerous ties to the west coast, Ellerson has always had a soft spot in his heart for West Point.

It probably should not come as much of a surprise to those who truly know Ellerson that he ended up at the United States Military Academy. Most who know where he came from understand that Ellerson was born to coach at West Point and lead the Army football team.

Ellerson, whose father graduated from West Point in 1935, was born in Japan and grew up in an Army home. His older brothers, John and Jeffrey, were classmates at the Academy and graduated together in the spring of 1963. John spent a year at the U.S. Military Academy Prep School before starring on the Army football team. He capped his gridiron career as team captain of the 1962 squad before going on to become a major general in the U.S. Army.

Jeffrey, meanwhile, arrived at the Academy directly out of high school and became a brigade boxer at West Point. Following graduation, he served a long military career before retiring as a full colonel.

Rich Ellerson was just four years old when John was off at West Point enjoying his standout football career. The Ellerson family was overseas during the time both John and Jeffrey were at the Academy, and they were unable to make it to West Point to watch John play.

No matter, young Rich looked up to West Pointers, both those who competed on the "fields of friendly strife" and those who did not.

"I was just becoming aware as a child while John is having this `Oh-my-goodness' football career at West Point," says Rich. "John and Jeff were both real heroes to us. Growing up in an Army home, all of my heroes were West Point grads."

Ellerson, who played college football at Hawai'i, began his coaching career as a graduate assistant at his alma mater in 1977.

After nearly 25 years of coaching, Ellerson ended up at California Polytechnic State University, where he built the Mustangs into a Football Championship Subdivision powerhouse during his seven seasons as head coach in San Luis Obispo. Throughout his career, Ellerson continually kept tabs on the Army football program. He had grown up as an Army fan, and he simply could not turn that off.

"Army Football was always something I followed," says Ellerson. "I grew up following it, and I continued to follow it as a coach."

Before he signed his last contract at Cal Poly, Ellerson made sure that it included a provision that allowed him to leave the Mustangs' head job for the same position at either West Point or the University of Arizona without penalty. The head coaching job at Army was always a position that intrigued Ellerson, and he figured it would be a good idea to keep that door open, just in case.

That decision proved to be prophetic, because not long thereafter, Army was looking for a new head coach to lead its storied football program. When the Academy offered Ellerson the job, it didn't take long for him to accept.

"Part of the appeal (at West Point) is that it is a challenge," says Ellerson. "Obviously, we've struggled and it was hurtful to me that we've struggled so hard and so often. I grew up an Army fan, and I've always believed in West Point. I believe in what it does, and to be a part of that was always compelling."

When former West Point Superintendent Gen. Franklin Hagenbeck spelled out the job description for the Army head football coach, the totality of it all blew Ellerson away.

"His approach was that we all have the same job description," remembers Ellerson. "I had the same job description as the guys in the Department of Physical Education and the guys in the Physics department. The first line in all of our job descriptions is exactly the same: Build leaders of character. That, to me, growing up in an Army family and a West Point family, is about as prestigious a job description as I can imagine. It doesn't get any better than that. In my opinion, that is the most prestigious job description in the world."

It did not take long for Ellerson to get Army back on track, as the Black Knights' new field general led Army to its first bowl victory in a quarter century following the 2010 campaign. Army finished a 7-6 season by knocking off SMU, 16-14, in the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl in Dallas, Texas. It was the Black Knights' first postseason bowl appearance in more than a decade.

Ellerson had been a part of several major bowl victories while a member of the coaching staff at Arizona, but he had never experienced anything like winning a bowl game as the head coach of the Army team.

"That was about as good a feeling as I've ever had on a field after a game," says Ellerson. "I've been a part of some big wins, but I don't know if I've ever felt anything quite like that day. To see the extended Army football family have a gushing of emotion like that was really something to experience."

Through Army slipped to 3-9 in 2011 and 2-10 in 2012, Ellerson seems happy with where the program is headed as he begins his fifth season along the Black Knights' sidelines.

"I'm pleased with the direction of the program, but I'm frustrated with the lack of success on the scoreboard" says Ellerson. "We knew that 2011 was going to be especially challenging, but we did some of the harder things we needed to do. Unfortunately, we missed on a couple of crucial issues that kept us from having a chance to continue to feed that momentum.

"In terms of the recruiting and the internal development and some of the other things we're doing, that's all in place," adds Ellerson. "The trajectory is still very positive, and the arrow is going to stay up. There is no doubt that we're a better football team than we were. We're a more physically mature team, but we're still going to be a relatively young team. I think our success this year is still going to be fragile, but less so because we're a little bit more veteran than we were a year ago. How well we manage the internal development of our younger cadets will really be important this year."

As long as Ellerson is in charge, Army fans can rest assured knowing that the program is in capable hands. The Black Knights' current mentor navigated his entire coaching career with West Point in the back of his mind, and he's doing the necessary things to bring Army Football back to prominence.

Check back tomorrow for DR. BARNEY FORSYTHE: A Frontrunner For Leadership.

Knight Vision


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