WEST POINT – It was cold and windy inside Lincoln Financial Field two weeks ago for the Army – Navy game. Alternately snowing and raining. But as West Point’s superintendent, Lt. Gen. Robert Caslen, looked from above, he saw something he liked even less than the score.
“Someone told me that someone with CBS went up to the Navy coach [Ken Niumatalolo] as he was headed for the locker room [at halftime] and asked him if he was worried about the weather in the second half,” Caslen said. “He said, ‘Absolutely not, we’ve been practicing and getting ready for these conditions.’ That’s the leadership you need. You have to be able to play in those conditions. You look at the Army side and we were huddled around heaters. There was not a single Navy guy near one. They ought to take that picture and post it in the Army locker room and have the Army football players understand what it takes to win. That epitomized what I felt we needed to do to get tough.”
When he was appointed to his post this past summer, Caslen, a member of the football team when he was a cadet, emphasized his desire to beat Navy. Instead, the Black Knights lost their 12th straight, ending the season 3-9. A victory still would have left them with their third straight losing season. But does since-fired coach Rich Ellerson still have his job if his team beat Navy?
“We’d probably be having some tough conversations involving myself and the athletic director [Boo Corrigan],” Caslen said. “I don’t know. The answer to the question is ‘I don’t know.’ We might have had to have gone back and look at the season and see the kind of progress we were making.”
Among the progress – or lack thereof – Army was not making, Caslen said, involved on-field discipline, specifically, turnovers. With a turnover/takeaway average of minus 1, Army was tied for 68th in the nation; in contrast, at plus 1, Navy was tied for ninth. On new coach Jeff Monken’s to-do list, discipline, Caslen said, best be high on it.
“We were one of the most ill-disciplined teams in America,” Caslen said. “You only get the ball 10, 12 times a game and you’ve got to put 30 points on the boards, which means you’d better score about half the time you have the ball. We have to learn discipline. We have to coach discipline. He will bring discipline. The second thing he’ll bring is toughness. You know how you measure toughness? Look at the fourth quarter. Go back to last year. Look at how many fourth quarters Army won last year. The answer is two [actually, three, against Louisiana Tech, Temple and Hawaii]. What happened to the great Army fourth quarters? What happened to that? We need the mental and physical toughness. We need the mental toughness first, then the fourth quarter doesn’t let you down, it becomes the great equalizer. And the team that plays as a team with the greatest will is the team that will win the fourth quarter.
“The next thing he brings is inspiration. As he said, most times we’re not gonna be as big or fast or strong as the team we’re playing, but if you can play to the level of your potential on that bell-shape curve we can go head to head on any given day with any team in the country. The key is how do you get those kids to play inspired football up to their potential every play, every series, every game? That’s leadership. Leadership will inspire. Leadership comes from the coaches and from the players themselves, the seniors. Over the last 20, 25 years all the successful Army football programs had great senior leadership. That what makes the difference.”
Caslen has heard criticism that he has begun placing too heavy an emphasis on winning. To which he replies, essentially, what’s Army here for?
“My answer to that is when America puts us on the ground they don’t expect us to do our best, they expect us to win,” he said. “They expect us to be fighters, who go out there tooth and nail and do whatever it takes honorably and win. When the American people see the Army they see it exemplified through West Point and believe it or not, the Army-Navy game. What have they seen from Army the last 12 years? We’ve developed a culture, a habit, of losing, and in my opinion that is wrong and something we have to reverse. I don’t care if it’s football, I don’t care if it’s soccer, I don’t care if it’s lacrosse, I don’t care if it’s academics, if you develop a habit of losing than we in the United States Army are in the wrong business. We have to turn that around.”