WEST POINT — Breaking even is a reasonable goal if you’re playing craps or coaching a football team that hasn’t had a winning record in 14 years and only two in the last 20. Rich Ellerson does the latter. And he’s in the unusual position of having agreed to play an extra game this season that can turn a break-even year into another loser.
“I think there’s a lot on the table,” the Army head coach said about his team’s appearance against SMU in the Bell Heliocopter Armed Forces Bowl Dec. 30. “We’ve accomplished some things this year. We’ve done some things that are laudable. Our senior class will always look back on being a part of this success formula for Army football as it reemerges. When the final ledger goes in, it’s 7-6. That’s big stuff. This is more than just a party and a celebration. There’s a football game here with an awful lot on the line for this football team and this senior class.”
Problem is that 7-6 could just as certainly be 6-7, and after having pulled the Black Knights from a seemingly perpetual pit in just two seasons, Ellerson admits “what’s on the table next week is significant.”
Army would not be facing this problem, of course, had it won just one of its two previous games. Those games, however, were against Notre Dame and Navy, and neither represented anything short of a challenge. Needless to say, the loss to Navy, the team’s ninth straight to the Midshipmen, is what sticks in the craw.
“It’s a different feel,” Ellerson said. “I think I said coming out of maybe the Notre Dame game that we were disappointed in how we played. We didn’t feel like we handled it very well. I think it’s a very different feel. I think we were frustrated, but we played well [against Navy]. We really felt throughout that contest and afterward that we could move the ball, we could stop those guys. We felt like we competed. Now, we got hit by lightning, and we didn’t do some of the things you have to do to win a football game against an accomplished, consistent, hard-fought opponent. It was a different feel. We felt like we competed. We felt like it was more frustration. We weren’t disappointed. Sometimes in years past, our fan base may have been disappointed in us. This time, they were disappointed for us. There’s a big difference there. They felt like the guys had really dialed it up, competed, expected to win and fought to win.”
The lightning strike to which Ellerson referred was a fumble by quarterback Trent Steelman at the Navy 3-yard line in the final minute of the first half that was recovered by Navy safety Wyatt Middleton and run back for a 98-yard touchdown. An Army touchdown would have cut the Navy lead to three; instead, Navy all but put the game away. And while a bowl victory would not reduce the pain from that loss, it might salve the wound.
More pragmatically, a victory could have long-term consequences. Many of those players Army recruits are similarly courted by Navy and Air Force, both of which have established winning programs. Yes, it’s easier to convince a high-school player to consider you when you’re winning.
“I think the voice around academy football all year has helped us a little bit,” Ellerson said. “I do sense that there’s a pool of guys out there that are spending more time with the idea of West Point than maybe would have in the past. That doesn’t necessarily make this the ideal destination for them, but the fact that there’s this pool of individuals who are considering and looking into and finding out about West Point and educating themselves about West Point that wouldn’t have otherwise means that the brighter spotlight and the little bit more attention that we’ve had is a good thing.”
Having been an assistant coach with bowl-bound teams in the past, Ellerson said there is a necessity to strike a balance between the importance of such a game and the fact that for many of the players this will be not just their first bowl game, but their last game.
“Whether you’re playing in the Fiesta Bowl or Holiday Bowl, there’s an awful lot when you get to that contest,” he said. “For the guys, it’s a little bit more straight forward. Coaches can go crazy at these things. You have to be careful because you’ve brought your family with you, you’re still recruiting and you’re still coaching. The to-do list can get pretty intense, but the guys themselves are going to be on holiday. They’re going to be enjoying each other.”
But that enjoyment will come with a price tag.
“As the game looms, as we get within that 48-hour window of the game, it will be all business,” Ellerson said. “We’re excited to play, but we know what it takes to prepare. We know what to expect when we get on the field. That part of it is pretty universal. I don’t expect there’s going to be a steep learning curve for our guys in that respect. They’ll know how to dial it down.”