October 31, 2013 Updated: November 1, 2013 at 8:05 pm
Air Force's team escaped college football's basement in 1982 and embarked on 31 seasons of relative good times. Navy and, especially, Army have not been so fortunate.
The Falcons are again stumbling, falling to their lowest destination since Jimmy Carter lived in the White House. Modern Air Force football history shouts optimism as the Falcons try to recover. But modern service-academy football history should put a jolt of fear into Air Force fans.
Army arrives at Falcon Stadium Saturday for a 10 a.m. struggle with the Falcons. The Black Knights have recorded one winning season since 1996.
In 1982, coach Ken Hatfield and his offensive coordinator, a hyper, drawling native of South Carolina named Fisher DeBerry, ended Air Force's streak of eight straight losing seasons. Hatfield and DeBerry installed a tricky, relentless option running attack. The Falcons placed their offense in a time machine and returned to the 1920s, when teams hardly even knew what a pass was. The Falcons offense has remained in the 1920s ever since.
This run-obsessed philosophy awakened the program. In the eight seasons before Hatfield and DeBerry rescued the team, the Falcons recorded 23 victories. In the next eight seasons, the Falcons roared to 66 wins.
In the 31 years, Air Force stumbled to only six losing seasons while enjoying remarkable stability. DeBerry, taking over after Hatfield's departure, remained 23 seasons.
Those 32 seasons have been filled with chaos and losing at Army and Navy. Army has recorded 21 losing seasons, including 18 seasons with four or fewer wins, two seasons with only one win and one season with no wins. During the same time, Navy stumbled to 19 losing seasons, including 15 seasons with four or fewer wins, three seasons with one only win and one season with no wins. (Navy has nine winning records in the past 10 seasons.)
The lesson is clear:
Once a service-academy team falls down, it is exceedingly difficult to rise. Army's and Navy's football programs spent much of the past three decades wandering around lost. This season, Air Force has taken on that lost look.
Yes, there is reason for optimism while examining the gloom of Air Force's 1-7 start. The Falcons are young with 16 of the 22 current starters returning next season. Coach Troy Calhoun recorded five winning records, including two nine-win finishes, in his first six seasons. The Falcons average a respectable 23 points and rank 12th in the nation in rushing yards per game.
But there is reason, too, for worry.
The Falcons have been pounded in losses this season. Utah State, Boise State, Wyoming and Notre Dame outscored Air Force by a 122-point margin, and even that number is deceptive. If the teams had been greedy, the margin could have climbed to 160 points.
During the final two seasons of the DeBerry era, the Falcons lost 15 games. Calhoun instantly transformed the team in his first two seasons, when he won 17 games.
But the seeds for revival were easy to see, even during DeBerry's late struggles. The Falcons lost nine of those 15 games by seven points or less. They were not getting pounded. They were close to victory.
The Air Force coaching staff invited a large group of recruits to the Notre Dame game. Many of these recruits also are being chased by coaches from Army and Navy.
On Saturday, those recruits saw a jammed Falcon Stadium. They saw the foothills. They saw blazing sunshine at kickoff.
And then they saw the Falcons stumble to their seventh-straight loss, this one by 35 points.
For 31 seasons, the Falcons usually lived atop the world of service-academy football. This season, the Falcons have resided at the bottom.
Against Army on Saturday, we'll see if they remain there. This could be a long stay.