WEST POINT – If being an assistant football coach at Navy for six years gave Jeff Monken anything, it was a crash course in pragmatism. Consider those credits transferred.
\“We’re not going to masquerade who we are,” Monken said. “There will be very few Saturdays that we are bigger, faster or more athletic, collectively, than the teams that we play. We always believe that it doesn’t take the best players to win, it takes the best team to win and we’re going to field the best team. We’re going to be tough and disciplined; we’re going to play with pride and passion.”
Such was Monken’s prevailing mindset as he was introduced Monday as Army’s 37th head coach. No, he will not be coaching – nor recruiting – the type of player who you’ll likely see someday at an NFL Draft Combine. Nor will he likely be leading the type of player who need be led around by the nose to practice diligently or play hard. Those with such attributes will be left at the door. Pride -- or any derivation of the word -- seemed to be Monken’s mantra.
“We’re going to field a team that everybody’s going to be proud of,” he said. “That’s the kind of team that I want to represent. When somebody watches Army play football, I want them to turn the TV off and say ‘I’ve never seen a team play like that before. I’ve never seen guys play that hard.’ I want that to be our football team. That doesn’t guarantee victory, but without that, we’re not going to have a chance. But I can assure you, we’ll play with those characteristics and that will give us a chance to win every single time we play.”
Monken replaced Rich Ellerson, who in five years as head of the Black Knights led them to a record of 20-41, including one winning season. Overall, that 7-6 record in 2010 was Army’s first winning season since it finished 10-2 in 1996. Since Jim Young retired in 1990, the Black Knights have had six head coaches. None left Army with a winning record. And while the customary practice for a new coach is to rebuild, it is athletic director Boo Corrigan’s belief that such a process need not preclude wining.
“What you will find with Jeff is that there aren’t a whole lot of details that he doesn’t already know the answer to,” Corrigan said. “Coach Monken said in the conversations with the Superintendent [Lt. General Robert Caslen] and myself that he feels this is a situation where he can come in and make a difference right away. He understands what this is, he didn’t come here not to win. From a mandate standpoint, any pressure that we were to put on him, this is a self-driven man that takes as much pride in what he does that it made him appealing to us.”
“There is nobody here that will have higher expectations for our team and our performance than me,” Monken said. “Nobody’s going to put more pressure on me than me. I want to win. I don’t take kindly to anything else. Second place is no fun for anybody. We’ve got 4,400 cadets here that we’re going to send off as military officers and when they go out and do their work, we don’t expect them to come in second place. So that’s not going to be an option around here, either.”
When Ellerson was fired Dec. 15, Corrigan and Caslen formed a two-man search committee to find a successor. Monken was not on any immediate short list.
‘We took Monday the 16th to talk to current members of the football team and former members and other friends who we know in the industry to come up with our best potential candidates,” Corrigan said. “We vetted that list on Tuesday and Wednesday in order to set up the interviews. Interviews took place on Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Monday with myself and General Caslen in attendance. These interviews took place off post. As we went through that process, we established a number of tenants who we thought were best fitted for this job and who had the most important qualities that we were looking for. First and foremost, we were looking for an understanding and appreciation of West Point and our mission at West Point. We were looking for someone with the ability to inspire. We were looking for someone who had an established tradition of winning and, fourth, an insatiable advocate to recruit. But not only to recruit but to recruit those 17 and 18 year olds to West Point.
“As we looked at this, there was one person who kept coming up among the many people vying for this job. Let me stress this, it was reassuring to see the value of West Point when this job became available and the number of people that had bridged for this job who understood what West Point and the young men who they get to lead while they are here. As we went through this there was one name who came up over and over again as we talked to multiple people. Then we had the opportunity to meet coach Monken. It was his want, his drive and his dedication to always do things right that has led us to this decision.”
Monken was given a 6-year contract. His head-coaching experience came at Georgia Southern, which he led to a record of 38-16 the last four years, including 7-4 this past season. He was an assistant coach for 20 years, 13 under Paul Johnson, the current head coach at Georgia Tech. Monken coached slotbacks at Georgia Southern from 1997 to 2001, then joined Johnson first at Navy, then at Georgia Tech. Having coached at Navy gave him the inclination to someday return to one of the military academies.
“I hoped that I would have a chance to coach at a service academy again,” he said. “I told my wife about five weeks ago when something came up, I said ‘I need to go coach at a service academy again and not have to worry about these kids.’ I kind of said it offhanded, but I’ve always felt an incredible sense of connection to the service academies. Certainly Navy, because I coached there for six years. Those young men were incredibly special. The maturity that they have as undergraduates is apparent. They’re different than a typical college-aged student. I think that was the reason we were able to win. I expect the same here. We’re going to get our guys to play that way and not just to play at West Point, but to play for West Point. I’m not here to coach at West Point, I’m here to coach for West Point. We’ll win because of the passion, energy and trust that we have for each other will come through every time we play.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be the head football coach at one of the world’s premier academic institutions and one of the most storied programs in college football. To walk through the Hall of Fame and see the national championships, the Heisman Trophies and the football coaches and to join that group is an incredible feeling. I’m excited about getting started.”
Monken is in the process of putting together a staff, and those he’s already hired have begun contacting those players whose Ellerson’s staff recruited and signed.
“The staff that is in place has reached out to all of those guys and they have solidified their commitments,” he said. “There are a number of young men out there still who we’re going to have to get our hooks into, as they say, and give them a chance to see this great institution and see these facilities. I’m confident that when we get these young men here and give them the opportunity to see this place, they’re going to be sold as well.”
Recruiting, Monken said, will be his priority. Admittedly, being hired this late puts him at a disadvantage.
“We’re going to be behind, but I don’t think it takes long to get caught back up. Our staff is going to be busy on the phones and when we get the opportunity to go on the road, per NCAA rules, we’ll get back out to see those guys face to face. Sometimes the newness of a program and the appeal that there is can be beneficial to recruiting. Jerick McKinnon, who was our quarterback at Georgia Southern, is an NFL prospect and was arguably our best football player this year. We waltzed into his living room in the middle of January and hadn’t had one conversation with him, but we got him on campus and he came to Georgia Southern. It was the same at Georgia Tech and Navy prior to that. When you get on board and everything’s new, there’s an excitement to that and I think we’ll be able to take advantage of that.”
But it will not be his intent to lower the bar to make up for lost time.
“We’ve got to get the right kids in here and we have to identify them,” he said. “We do that by putting together a staff that can evaluate and seek out those young men that belong here at West Point. I don’t know if there are other things that are more important than those two. The next would be the return of our veteran players and getting them ready to go for the 2014 season. Recruit, retain the ones we’ve got, and develop them all. Those are the three things that I think are really important. You won’t sustain success unless those things are continuous in the program.
“I believe all the little details are important, and we’ll coach that. But with recruiting, I want to know everything about the young man, not just that he’s a good football player or that he has good grades. I want to know every little thing about him and know that he’s going to be a good fit on our team. Our uniforms, our meeting rooms, what the locker room looks like, it’s detailed to the letter. I’m wired that way. I’m sure there’s other coaches who are more laid back on some of the little details, but I’m not like that. It’s amazing that when you coach the little details, you can point to them and the differences they make on Saturday afternoons.”
As to Army’s recent spate of failure against Navy – the Black Knights have lost 12 straight – Monken is at a loss.
“I can’t speak for Army during my six years that I was at Navy,” he said. “I only know what we were experiencing on the other side. We had a team that possessed all of the qualities that I’ve talked about today. When our team possesses those same qualities, we’ll be on the other side of it. I’m happy to say I’m 6-0 in the Army-Navy game, but on the wrong side. I’m getting on the right side this time.”