June 8, 2011
At the Air Force Academy, athletes are treated the same as any other cadet. They rise before the sun and attend class in a spotless uniform. Restraint is the dominant theme.
Meanwhile, college students walk in sandals and tattered jeans all across The Land of the Free. Gleeful anarchy is the dominant theme.
I’ve been covering Air Force sports for eight seasons, and one of the surprises is how rare it is for a successful academy athlete to flee for an easier life at a non-military campus.
Please notice I did not say better. I said easier.
Air Force hockey coach Frank Serratore talks often about how he recruits from the B pool. He can’t compete for athletes in the A pool. That’s where his good friend Scott Owens swims.
Serratore’s words hold true for all Air Force coaches. During my time, there’s been only one recruit who approached blue-chip status; Andrew Henke said no in 2005 to several Big Ten schools so he could say yes to playing basketball for the Falcons.
Don’t get me wrong. Plenty of Air Force athletes soon prove they should have been in the A pool. A short list of recent A-list athletes includes goaltender Andrew Volkening, defensive back Jon Davis and shooting guard Michael Lyons.
And yet the recent transfer list is short.
Linebacker Anthony Schlegel transferred to Ohio State after the 2002 season, largely because he struggled with the academy’s never-ending collection of rules. He later played two seasons in the NFL.
Forward Trevor Noonan transferred to the University of Denver after the 2008-2009 season, and forward Zach Bohannon just completed his transfer to Wisconsin.
Athletic director Hans Mueh admits he spends many afternoons in his office with weary, disgruntled athletes. Mueh, a 1966 Air Force grad, is an unabashed cheerleader for his alma mater.
“I ask them,” Mueh said of his chats, “Tell me a better institution for you than the Air Force Academy?”
He sells the value of an Air Force degree. He sells the value of a high-paying, secure job after graduation.
Mostly, though, he talks about friends.
“There is no way to describe the bond you form when you go through basic training and crawl through the dirt with your classmates,” Mueh said. “You survive that first year, it’s very, very hard to leave this place.”
Still, some athletes depart. Basketball coach Jeff Reynolds recently was sitting in his office with Bohannon, who had decided to transfer.
Reynolds surprised Bohannon with a hand-written note composed by a high school senior stating the reasons he chose to play basketball for the Air Force Academy.
The senior said he wanted to serve his country. The senior said he was ready for the academic and military challenges.
Zach Bohannon had written the note.
“When I read that note, he got teary-eyed,” Reynolds said. “And so did I.”
But the note eased Reynolds’ pain when he watched Bohannon walk away from the academy. The note confirmed to Reynolds he made an honest recruiting pitch to Bohannon.
Reynolds demands, of himself and his assistants, brutal honesty when selling the basketball program to recruits.
“We hit them right between the eyes,” he said. “We’re committed to being honest from the minute we get involved with them. We don’t sugarcoat anything.”
So Reynolds tells each recruit the truth. You will work, constantly, on stringent academic and military requirements. You will be rise at first light. You will endure six weeks of often-excruciating basic training. You will experience exhaustion as you’ve never experienced exhaustion.
But, Reynolds promises, the rewards will be worth all the missed sleep and the sore muscles.
It’s not an easy sales pitch. Reynolds – and other Air Force coaches – ask athletes to leap from freedom to discipline.
But here’s the encouraging part of the story:
After most athletes take that colossal leap, they stick with the commitment.