When Air Force linebacker Alex Means thinks about playing Army, he thinks only of victory.
“We’ve never lost to Army,” Means said, referring to the Falcons’ senior class. “You can’t take them lightly, but I don’t plan to lose to them. It’s something I can’t imagine doing.”
Means is not alone in his mindset. There are many college football players out there who have a difficult time imagining a loss to the Black Knights.
Army’s football past is glorious. National championships. Heisman Trophy winners. Undefeated seasons.
Glenn Davis, perhaps college football’s greatest halfback, weaved through tacklers at Michie Stadium from 1944-46. Later, Vince Lombardi and Bill Parcells labored on the sidelines as assistants.
But this past only serves to magnify the troubles of today. Air Force travels to West Point to play an Army team that has lost seven of eight games, with defeats to Kent State, Ball State and the Seawolves of Stony Brook.
Meanwhile, Army’s service-academy rivals are respectable, if not mighty. Navy and Air Force are both 5-3 and roaring after scoring a combined 104 points last weekend.
The Black Knights are stumbling through grim times. Army has claimed one of Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy since 1988, when Ronald Reagan resided in The White House. Army has lost 24 of its past 26 games against Air Force and Navy while being outscored 843-375. The Black Knights have dropped 10 in a row to Navy and 21 of 23 to Air Force.
Falcons coach Troy Calhoun is, like most Air Force graduates, a supporter of Army’s and Navy’s football teams, except when Army or Navy plays Air Force.
He’s puzzled by the Black Knights’ struggles. He sees a beautiful, historic campus convenient to the recruiting hotbeds of New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Ohio. He sees a program rich in tradition.
Does history help the Black Knights?
“I think it should,” Calhoun said this week as he relaxed outside his office. “… They have all the elements to be a good football team. They should be good. They should be really good.”
When Calhoun arrived at Air Force in 2007, the Falcons had fallen on hard times after losing 26 of 41 games. Calhoun lifted the Falcons to 34 wins in the next four seasons.
This follows a trend. At Navy and Air Force, coaches have arrived in times of peril and delivered revival. In 1978, Parcells abandoned Air Force’s football team after one season as head coach. He departed a tattered program that had lost 40 of 55 games.
Ken Hatfield took control of the Falcons before handing the team to Fisher DeBerry, his offensive coordinator. From 1983-87, the Falcons performed a statistical reversal, winning 45 games and losing 16.
It was even bleaker at Navy when Paul Johnson arrived in 2001. The Midshipmen had lost 20 of 21 games, and friends begged him not to take the job. They told Johnson he would fail to build a winner in Annapolis. Those discouraging words persuaded Johnson, never accused of lacking self-regard, to take the job.
Johnson installed a run-obsessed option attack and finished 8-5 his second season. During a run from 2003 to 2007, he won 38 of 55 games.
At Army, recent attempts at football resurrection have been futile.
John Feinstein wrote a book, “A Civil War,” about the Army-Navy rivalry. He remains closely involved with both programs.
He believes the Black Knights continue to be drained by a failed coaching experiment. In 2000, Todd Berry arrived at West Point with oversized plans for the Black Knights. Berry told Feinstein he no longer wanted to compete with Navy and Air Force for recruits. He wanted to compete with national powers Florida State and Georgia.
Berry had immense confidence.
“I expect in the near future we’ll be 11-0,” Berry said at his introductory press conference. “Anything else would be an injustice to this institution.”
Army fans did not have to worry about such injustice. The Black Knights won five games in the next four years, including a 0-13 finish in 2003.
“They’ve been trying to climb out of that trough ever since,” Feinstein said.
He believes current coach Rich Ellerson is a strong candidate to bring wins back to West Point. Ellerson embraces Army’s academic and military demands, and installed an option offense at West Point similar to the ones that brought success to Navy and Air Force.
Under Ellerson’s direction, Army even recorded a winning season in 2010, winning seven times and defeating SMU in a bowl game.
This season, the Black Knights lead the nation in rushing. Ellerson has followed all the steps of Air Force’s and Navy’s revival model. The only thing lacking is actual revival.
“It seems what they’re doing is what they’re supposed to be doing,” Feinstein said.
On Saturday, Air Force players will step on the field at Michie Stadium where Davis led the Black Knights to a 27-0-1 record from 1944-46. This is the field where Davis, Doc Blanchard and Pete Dawkins ran their way to the Heisman Trophy.
This is the field where a beaten-down football program seeks to find its way.
Glenn Davis, who won the Heisman Trophy in 1946, averaged 11.5 yards per carry for the Black Knights in 1945. He averaged 8.3 yards during his career.
After graduation from West Point, Davis dated Elizabeth Taylor. He later married actress Terry Moore, the first of his three wives.
Doc Blanchard, who won the Heisman for Army in 1945, worked as Air Force’s freshman team coach in 1962-63.
Famous Army alums include U.S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, George Patton, Dwight Eisenhower and Mike Krzyzewski.
Army is 152 years older than Air Force. Army was established by President Thomas Jefferson in 1802. Air Force was established in 1954.
Army defeated Air Force in three of five games from 1984-88. Since 1988, the Black Knights have defeated the Falcons two times.