Steve Russ once repaired a broken Air Force defense, and he wanted to be there to revive the badly tattered current version.
He won’t be around for the task, which will be a big one.
In a huge blow to Air Force football’s 2018 season, and beyond, Russ departed his defensive coordinator job to coach linebackers for the Carolina Panthers.
“That made it hard because I wanted to be part of the solutions,” Russ says of his move to the NFL. “I was working on solutions on every flight I took recruiting. That was something that I was passionate about. I was constantly working on this, that and the other thing.”
Heavy repair work is required. In 2017, Air Force’s defense allowed 5.93 yards per carry, worst in the nation, and 222.8 rushing yards per game, 117th out of 129 teams. The Falcons allowed 28 or more points 10 times in their final 11 games.
Most troubling, the Falcons surrendered 69 points in battles with arch-rivals Army and Navy. Army, the fresh kings of service-academy football, allowed 13 points against Air Force and Navy.
For Russ, the Air Force ties are deep. A 1995 graduate, he was a star for the Falcons as a tall, rangy linebacker. He got to know his wife, Betsy, when they were running, as upper class cadets, the comically over-the-top obstacle course for incoming freshman.
He’s a charismatic coach who knows his stuff. In 2014, Russ took over as defensive coordinator after The Disaster of 2013, when the Falcons allowed 40 points per game and lost 10 times. The Falcons seemed ready to take up residence in college football’s dungeon, a really scary destination where San Jose State and Kansas dwell.
The transformation was rapid. The 2014 Falcons finished 10-3 with a newly rugged defense overseen by Russ.
He was the right coach for the 2014 rescue and still the best man to mend the fallen defense in 2018. His departure leaves a gaping hole.
It was, no doubt, a tough goodbye.
On Thursday night, Russ called head coach Troy Calhoun and said he was walking over to the Calhoun home to talk. No, Calhoun said. He would walk the two blocks to the Russ home.
Calhoun had a sense of what he would hear. Calhoun knew Russ had interviewed with the Panthers, and Calhoun knew Russ would not make a big announcement over the phone.
Russ told Calhoun he was superlative football leader. He told Calhoun he was an unbelievable friend.
And he told Calhoun he was departing for the Panthers.
“He was very, very happy for us,” Russ says. “I couldn’t have asked for a better response.”
With Russ gone, Calhoun enters a crucial and risky juncture. The Falcons, with Arion Worthman running the offense, will score a bundle of points next season. The trick will be stopping opponents from scoring even more.
In back-to-back games against New Mexico and Navy, Air Force scored 83 points and gained 1,017 yards. One problem, and it was big one: The Falcons allowed 104 points and 1,066 yards. The defeats doomed the season.
In 2017, Falcon defenders were young and untested following the graduation of 12 of the top 13 tacklers.
The question for 2018 is simple:
Will those defenders grow up and go from ultra-generous to at least somewhat stingy? A new defensive coordinator soon will struggle with that question. Good luck on that one, brother.
In 1981, Ken Hatfield and Fisher DeBerry installed a run-obsessed option offense at Air Force that allowed superior discipline and teamwork to triumph over inferior size and speed. The concept was a perfect fit for the Falcons, and Army and Navy eventually copied the idea.
No coach has devised a defense that works as powerfully or consistently. Working as defensive coordinator at Air Force, Army and Navy is one of the more demanding tasks in American sport.
Russ departed his tough job reluctantly. He wanted to fix his broken defense, but the Panthers made an irresistible offer, and soon he was saying goodbye to Calhoun in a living room on the north end of Colorado Springs.
“I know that sometimes when an opportunity knocks, you don’t get to choose the time,” Russ says.
So true, Steve.