In life, you can descend into serious peril even though you sense no danger. At the moment you feel most invincible, grave trouble lurks.
Consider Oct. 5, 2002. Air Force’s football team, soon to be ranked No. 19 nationally, bombarded Navy before a full house at Falcon Stadium. This trashing was the agonizing norm for the Midshipmen. The Falcons had defeated Navy 19 times in 21 seasons.
As the game ended, Navy coaches and players stared in mass at the scoreboard, soaking in the humiliating numbers: Air Force 48, Navy 7.
Jeff Monken was one of those Navy coaches. He was striving, along with head coach Paul Johnson, for Navy to evict Air Force as the dominant service-academy football program. That day soon arrived. Starting in 2003, Navy beat Air Force seven straight times.
Monken arrives at Falcon Stadium again Saturday as coach of Army’s Black Knights. Consider these numbers: Air Force has beaten Army 18 times in 20 games, and the Falcons humiliated the Black Knights 31-12 at Michie Stadium a year ago.
Then consider his wish.
“We desperately want to win,” Monken says of Saturday’s game. “It’s a big one.”
For decades, beating Army has been a virtual sure thing for Air Force. Watch out: That ease is ending. The Black Knights have won 14 of their last 21 games, including a 6-2 record this season. And Monken is crashing through old barriers. The Black Knights beat Navy in 2016, ending a 14-game losing streak.
Army storms into Colorado Springs during a golden age in service-academy football. Air Force, Navy and Army combined for 27 wins in 2016, their highest total ever. Competition for the gloriously ostentatious Commander-in-Chief’s trophy has never been more intense.
“We want to win that trophy back here,” Monken says from his Army office.
On the next-to-last day of 2013, Monken was introduced as Army’s new football coach. The Black Knights had lost 144 of their last previous 190 games and recorded three winning seasons since 1990.
He kept hearing it was not possible to win at Army. This negativity is a prime reason he took the job.
Monken was optimistic, and he had strong ground for his hope. When Monken arrived at Navy in 2002 as an assistant to Johnson, the Midshipmen had lost 30 of 33 games. He expected a repeat at Army.
“We all like to be challenged as coaches,” Monken says. “I think that’s just a human spirit, maybe. People like to be challenged. People like to say, ‘You know what? I’m going to do something that you say I can’t.’ I believed we could win, and we’re still working at it. We still got a long way to get where we’d like to be.”
At Navy, the football revival was rapid. After the debacle at Air Force in 2002, the Midshipmen became the dominant service-academy program. Navy has won the Commander-in-Chief’s trophy 10 of the last 14 seasons.
Johnson, with Monken’s help, led the Midshipmen to 43 wins in 63 games and traveled to five straight bowl games before departing for Georgia Tech in 2009.
“The success we had there kind of gave me hope and made me believe we could do it here,” Monken says.
Monken and Johnson remain close. Monken first met Johnson in 1989 as a grad assistant at Hawaii, and the coaches later worked together at Georgia Southern, Navy and Georgia Tech, where Johnson is head coach. The coaches talk a few times each month, conversing about family and fishing.
But mostly, of course, about football.
“The thing that I always get from Coach Johnson is he’s very set in his ways as a football coach,” Monken says. “He believes in certain things from a philosophical standpoint. He’s not big on the fancy. He’s big into the blue collar, the basics. It’s really good to have a mentor like that.”
When examining Saturday’s game, reasons are abundant to brace for an Army upset.
The Falcons have been shredded by running quarterbacks this season, and Army boasts Ahmad Bradshaw, a rugged, seasoned senior quarterback who has rushed for 867 yards (at 7.3 yards per carry).
Air Force’s defense allows 6.37 yards per carry, worst in the nation, and surrendered a whopping 834 rushing yards (at 8.5 per carry) in losses to run-obsessed New Mexico and Navy. Army arrives with the nation’s second-leading (behind Navy) rushing attack.
And, most dangerous of all, Army is led by Monken, a Johnson disciple who remains inspired by Oct. 5, 2002.
Monken already demolished tradition in the Navy-Air Force rivalry. He’s plotting another demolition.