Good intentions are rarely the manner in which a person’s job performance is judged, which is why Rich Ellerson needs to clear out his office. As the Army head football coach for five years, Ellerson’s best season came in 2010 when the Black Knights finished 7-6, including a victory in the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl. The other four seasons were varying degrees of train wrecks, including 3-9 this season, and, perhaps most importantly, Army’s 12th straight loss to Navy.
As he addressed the media Saturday following the Black Knights’ 34-7 loss to Navy there was a sense of expectation, if not resignation regarding his job status. That was confirmed when Army athletic director Boo Corrigan dropped the hammer Sunday.
‘This is a very difficult day for all of us at West Point,” Corrigan stated in making the announcement. “Rich Ellerson has represented West Point and the Army football program extremely well since taking over as our head coach five years ago. He has been a tremendous role model for our cadet-athletes and great mentor for many within the athletic department. Unfortunately, our team has not experienced the level of success on the football field that we expect, and we feel it is necessary to make a change in leadership at this time.”
Surely the loss to Navy was the final touch. Upon being named the academy’s superintendent this past July Lt. Gen. Robert Caslen, a member of the football team in 1973 and 1974, said that beating Navy was among his goals.
That was beat. Not play well. Not remain competitive. Win.
Last week, at a media gathering in advance of the Army – Navy game, Corrigan called Ellerson “the perfect fit at West Point not only to lead our football program but to create leaders of character for the United States of America.” So much for votes of confidence. Ellerson’s father and two brothers were all academy graduates, so he surely had a greater feel than most of what life at West Point entails. How serious was Ellerson about success? His son, Andrew, was a member of the team, but there was no sign of parental favoritism. Andrew’s limited role was as a long snapper.
Red Blaik, for whom the field at Michie Stadium is named, was Army’s football Messiah. The Chicago Bears had George Halas. Notre Dame had Knute Rockne. Army had Blaik. In 18 years as head coach, his teams were 121-33-10, won three national championships and produced three Heisman Trophy winners. After Blaik retired following the 1958 season, six coaches, all doing so with varying levels of success – or worse – ran the show for 25 years. In 1983, Jim Young appeared, and with him came – who’d have guessed it? – winning. Young coached the Black Knights for eight years, leaving with a record of 51-39-1. And perhaps of even greater significance, his teams won six of eight games against Navy.
Young retired following the 1990 season, and his successor, Bob Sutton, had a nine-year run in which the Black Knights had two winning seasons. Among the more disastrous stretches was the 3½-season run of Todd Berry, whose record of 5-35 included a 1-11 finish in 2003. Though give him credit for one thing – the Black Knights beat Navy in 2001, the last time Army has done so. Berry was fired in 2003 after his team lost the first six games; John Mumford replaced him in midseason and lost the last seven. Bobby Ross was next; a 3-year record of 9-25 led him to the door. Stan Brock had back-to-back 3-9 teams and was history. Ellerson joined the party in 2009. He finished with a record of 20-41.
Corrigan said a national search for Ellerson’s replacement will begin immediately. Deputy Military Athletic Director Col. Joe DeAntona will assume day-to-day operations of the football program until a new head coach is named.
In terms of both difficulty, preparation and limited sleep, the only person likely to put in as many hours as a football coach is the President. No, check that. Football coaches don’t golf quite as much. As do many coaches, Ellerson accepted a disproportionate percentage of the blame after losses and deferred the credit to his players after a victory. No sense of a Rex Ryan in this neighborhood.
He perhaps spoke a little bit more X’s and O’s outside the locker room than some of his peers, but that’s likely the result of 36 years as a coach. Talk of I-backs and misdirection plays and defensive formations become as inherent a characteristic as eye color. You know a football coach has gone the extra several miles when the listener’s eyes begin to glaze and you’re certain there’s been talk of a quarterback draw that can only be utilized on days in which the humidity is less than 25 percent and only then if the opposing team’s cheerleaders are all blonde and pursuing their graduate degrees.
OK, he never got that bad. Though there was this one time…
But, ultimately, Ellerson is a good man. Yes, he wanted to win. That’s what coaches kill to do. Hell, it’s what they’re paid to do. But wearing a t-shirt or a cap bearing the Army named seemed to legitimately give him pride. This wasn’t someone wearing a particular school color to satisfy the sneaker deal he got from Nike. And like any coach at an academy whose primary goal is to get their students prepared for war, not the NFL or NBA, there’s a pre-supposed limit on the caliber of player he is likely to successfully recruit.
The quarterback with the rifle arm and pinpoint accuracy will most certainly end up at a school at which he can showcase himself for a prospective shot at the pros. The halfback who can run the 4.4 40 and enlist the moves of a gazelle as he breaks through the line isn’t likely looking forward to the 5-year military commitment all Army students have waiting for them upon graduation.
With two years remaining on his contract Ellerson would be in no hurry to look for another job; in fact, he’s hinted in the past that this would be last job, and, if so, happy retirement, coach. But it’s very difficult for these guys to lose the itch. Defense is his specialty, so if someone out there is looking for a coach who can plug a hole in the defensive line or tighten up the secondary – or would just like an injection of class into their program – give the man a call. Who knows?
You could do a whole lot worse.