When Chris Mooney arrived for work at Clune Arena in 2000, the Falcons had spent decades residing in college basketball's basement. When he left, the Falcons ranked as a regional power.
On Wednesday, Mooney returns to Clune for the first time since his 2005 departure. He will not try to kid anyone. When he walks into the arena, he knows he will be overwhelmed by images, mostly happy ones, from his past. Mooney's Richmond Spiders play Air Force at 7.
"I think it will be emotional," Mooney said as he talked in the fading sunshine in the lobby of his Colorado Springs hotel. "There are so many memories."
Since Mooney left the academy to take the Richmond job, Air Force coaches have wasted energy moaning about limitations. Departed men's basketball coach Jeff Reynolds complained, without end, that he could not recruit international players. Current football coach Troy Calhoun wants the academy to consider adding a redshirt season.
Mooney worked as Joe Scott's assistant from 2000 to 2004 before serving one season as coach in 2005. Scott and Mooney performed a basketball resurrection - and I realize resurrection requires death - without the benefit of international students or redshirts. They revived a program with athletes other Division I schools didn't want.
They won by utilizing the same strategy embraced by football coach Fisher DeBerry. Mooney and Scott didn't bother complaining about regulations they never would change. They were coaching athletes who were not blessed with superhuman, LeBronlike athleticism. They also were blessed with athletes who were disciplined, intelligent and motivated.
I wish Calhoun would quit wasting his time, and ours, by talking about redshirts. He needs to dwell in reality. He needs to lift his fallen football team by following the same strategy once used by Mooney and Scott.
When looking for the most inspiring college sports stories of our current century, consider the 2003-2004 Air Force Falcons men's basketball team recruited and crafted by Scott and Mooney. In the previous 14 seasons, Air Force had won 39 conference games while losing 183.
These Falcons emerged from the conference basement, claimed the Mountain West Conference regular-season title outright and earned a bid to the NCAA Tournament, where they placed a severe scare in the hearts of a North Carolina team destined to win the national title the following season. Air Force led for much of the second half at Denver's Pepsi Center before the Tar Heels' superior depth finally asserted itself.
Mooney talked for an hour on Tuesday afternoon, taking a tour of his time at the academy. He talked mostly about the 2003-2004 season.
On Jan. 24, 2004, Mooney and the Falcons walked into Clune to play traditional MWC powerhouse Brigham Young. The arena was packed. Mooney had spent many dreary nights at Clune during his first three seasons. On many of those nights, fewer than 1,000 fans joined him in his misery.
Air Force crushed BYU by 22. Two nights later, Clune was packed again when the Falcons dominated Utah, winning by 13. Twice, the shot-clock buzzer expired for Utah, and the noise was so deafening at Clune that nobody, including the officials, could hear it.
Was Mooney surprised by the rapid turnaround?
"Sure, sure," he said, laughing. "There was definitely disbelief."
I understand his disbelief. I was there when Air Force destroyed BYU and Utah and announced a legit college basketball team resided in Clune. In the next four seasons, Air Force won 43 conference games, more than it had won in the previous 14 years.
Scott and Mooney won without transfers, international players or redshirts. They were too busy working to bother asking for special favors.
Favors that never would, and never will, be granted.