Troy Calhoun speaks earnestly and passionately about his love for the Air Force Academy.
Ask about win-loss records, he’ll eventually talk about NCAA Academic Progress Rate scores. Can Air Force win a Mountain West title? Maybe, but let’s talk about developing leadership and character instead.
Calhoun is an ideal representative for Air Force. He played here, graduated from here and came back in 2007 when the academy needed a successor to iconic coach Fisher DeBerry. He speaks from the heart about the school, its mission and preparing the players for life.
After Wednesday’s practice, the day before classes began, he spent about 2 minutes lecturing the players about keeping practice at a fast tempo. He spent about the next 5 minutes telling them to keep up with their schoolwork, to go see a teacher if they started to fall behind and to represent themselves well in the classroom.
It seems like a perfect fit, for the coach and the academy. One wonders why he would ever leave.
Other schools come calling
“I’m not unaware. I hear it all the time where if you’re a football coach or basketball coach at a service academy the very first time you can go to the ACC or Big 12 you have to do it. I disagree,” Calhoun said. “I don’t agree with that. It’s to each their own that way.
“You work with great kids. And the mission of the school, and you believe strongly in how badly the Air Force Academy is needed. Our country needs the Air Force Academy, and our country needs the strength of character these young men and young women have to develop when they’re here.”
Sounds great, but here’s the rub: Calhoun is a very good football coach. He hasn’t beat Navy yet, but no other coach in service academy football history has won eight games and gone to a bowl in each of his first three seasons. Air Force had three straight losing seasons before Calhoun’s arrival.
“I think you’d give him an A-plus,” said DeBerry, who endorsed Calhoun as his successor. “He’s done an outstanding job.”
And famous football programs with big budgets and job openings like very good football coaches. Air Force fans know with every winning season, more schools from glamour conferences could look at Calhoun.
Virginia was rumored to be interested two years ago. Tennessee’s interest was a hot topic last offseason. Calhoun had to release a statement reaffirming he was staying at Air Force.
As of Saturday, “Who will come calling for Troy Calhoun,” regarding possible suitors next offseason, was the most viewed topic on the front page of a popular Falcons fan message board.
Fans and Air Force officials wonder what the long-term future holds for Calhoun. Calhoun doesn’t make any binding statements.
“I don’t think about it,” Calhoun said. “I just don’t think about it. You just come in and you work. As soon as you start doing that, you start to short-change everyone else around you.”
Rising to the challenge
Calhoun knows winning consistently at the Air Force can be hard, but he said he loves the challenge. He said he has never regretted leaving an offensive coordinator job with the NFL’s Houston Texans to come back to his alma mater.
When asked about whether it would be possible to accomplish things such as winning the Mountain West, he provides a catch-all statement meant to include on- and off-field accomplishments.
“There’s no ceiling at the Air Force Academy,” Calhoun said.
Bigger schools could offer more money, but Air Force has shown its commitment to Calhoun in a few ways. He got a raise in January of 2009 to $725,000 per year (which is the price of his buyout, as well). In his contract he also has a retirement pension, paid by the Air Force Academy Athletic Association, which starts at $6,000 per month after 10 years as head coach at Air Force and can grow to $10,000 per month with 18 years on the job.
An indoor training facility was a major goal for Calhoun, and he stumped for it shortly after getting the job. Almost $16 million has been raised since Calhoun was hired, and a groundbreaking for the facility is scheduled to take place as soon as this month, pending a Congressional approval.
Athletics director Hans Mueh, whose praise for Calhoun as a coach and as a representative of the academy couldn’t be higher, doesn’t know what the future holds. But he knows Calhoun’s love for the academy is very real.
“I take Troy at his word, and he loves it here,” Mueh said. “(Wife) Amanda loves it here and his kids love it here. It has never been about money with Troy. He’s had offers from other places. He could have stayed with the Texans. If it had been about money he would have stayed with the NFL, I’m pretty sure.
“Each year somebody comes calling, and he’s curious so he’ll talk to some of them, and I don’t mind that. He keeps me informed. But when it comes down to it he’ll say ‘Dr. Mueh, they made me an offer but I turned them down.’”
The next Fisher DeBerry?
Given his love for the academy, will he stick around for the long term, maybe even a couple of decades? Can he be the next Fisher DeBer …
“Yes,” said Mueh, interrupting the question. “The quick answer to that is, that’s my hope.
“I think he could be a Fisher DeBerry. I’d love to see him here for 20 years.”
DeBerry is close to Calhoun, his former player. He was Air Force’s coach for 23 years and had a 169-109-1 record.
“I think we’re a lot alike,” DeBerry said. “The academy is a special place. To stay there doesn’t mean you’re not ambitious. I had a lot of opportunities to go elsewhere and make a lot of money, but money was never a driving force in my life and I don’t think it’s a driving force in Troy’s life.”
More schools will come calling if Calhoun continues to win. What SEC or Big Ten school wouldn’t want to introduce a coach that goes to a bowl game every year at a service academy, while putting in big bold letters on his media guide bio that he leads all Division I coaches in Academic Progress Rate scores over the last three years?
So the question is, will Calhoun follow DeBerry’s lead and stay at the Air Force for the rest of his career?
“I don’t know,” DeBerry said. “I really don’t know.”