January 12, 2011

Coach Ellerson discusses The 2010 Season

A man was once quoted as saying, "The future is not something we enter. The future is something we create.''

Rich Ellerson is trying to live those words.

The Army football coach entered West Point two years ago and is clearly creating a bright future for the program.

You can credit the support system, you can credit the players themselves, and you can certainly credit the committee that recommended his hiring two years ago last month.

But you can not move the center around which all that revolves. They are the spokes, he is the axel.

The wheels had not spun down a victorious road in the 13 years before his arrival, and since then he has led the way to a winning season, a bowl bid and bowl victory.

The Head Coach

But if you're looking for a speech and acknowledgement of such credit from the coach, it's just not happening.

For a man who is honest, motivated, dedicated and honorable, you can add the word humble. Still, there is no denying, even in his words, the pride and satisfaction of this past season, the first so celebrated since 1996.

"The thing I'm most proud of,'' he said the other day in our one-on-one session, "is the team's culture, the team's culture of itself, and a lot of that came from our seniors, from last year and this year. I was able to sell them that choice, and they had to make an intellectual choice, because frankly they had to make that choice. They didn't necessarily have the advantage of coming in here as 17-year-olds and walk into something that existed. "They had to create it. And they had to share a vision of one another and myself. And to lead that exercise and to help them articulate that vision for what Army should be, could be, was the most rewarding part. Because not only did we do that internally, but an awful lot of hard work had been done behind the scenes - that had to happen, that had to be done before you could have some of those great Saturday afternoons, before you could have that great day in Dallas.''

Dallas (Fort Worth) of course was the site of Army's victory over SMU in the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl, the culmination of a season that included four victories on the road, one loss in overtime, and two other losses by a total of 10 points.

And at season's end Ellerson was among the candidates for National Coach of the Year.

The residue of all that continues to resonate, yet in some ways remains immeasurable. "It's something that you can recruit to. It's at the cornerstone of every effort,'' Ellerson said. "It's something young people want to be part of. You come to visit, you experience it because you experience it through the Cadets that are currently on the team. 'I want to be part of it; I want to be with you guys.'

"I think it's changed how we're perceived by the larger corps, because that culture is absolutely invested in the larger mission of the institution, and our guys are reinvested back in the companies.

"I've seen all kinds of, maybe unintended, consequences that have been positive. But first and foremost,'' he pointed out, "has been the quality of the experience for the guys who are playing Army football.'' As he said more than once during the season, Cadets are not going to win part of a day, they are going to win all day. It's all interconnected.

And sure, Ellerson has had plenty of help, especially in the initial stages. Otherwise he might have failed to post a winning season like the three men before him.

He interacted with the Corps of Cadets, the Department of Physical Education and the Department of Military Instruction. He received help from USMA Superintendent Lt. Gen. Franklin L. Hagenbeck and right on down. "Everywhere I looked,'' Ellerson said, "I had people ready to sign on and help make it a winning proposition.

Army football needs to be pulling in every direction, the same direction as any one of those entities. I really had guys who got it, and I maintained that we were going to validate the good work they do on Saturday afternoons in that operational environment we call Michie Stadium.
- Head Coach, Rich Ellerson

"I guess another aspect that made me proud was - and again, I had a lot of help - I was able to take advantage of the help and recognize how unique the program is. It's not just unique to its civilian counterparts, it's unique to the other service academies, and (also) to not try and use someone else's template, but to discover and articulate our own.''

Obviously he did a pretty good job carrying out that mission. And he knew he didn't have a heck of a lot of time to make that happen. "The nature of coaching, especially at an academy, is you better get it right coming through the door, because if it takes you a couple of years the bus has left the station. The center of gravity in my recruiting efforts won't be on me until probably 2012,'' Ellerson said, "That's when the real center of my gravity will be on the recruiting classes I've had. So if it takes you two years you won't be here when that effort starts to get out there on Saturday afternoons. "So it was imperative,'' he added, "that I got it right when I came through the door, and was really fortunate that I had some great mentoring. And that included guys from the former staff that I kept on, who helped me navigate. All those guys (several colonels included) were a gold mine of insight.

"Army football needs to be pulling in every direction, the same direction as any one of those entities. I really had guys who got it, and I maintained that we were going to validate the good work they do on Saturday afternoons in that operational environment we call Michie Stadium.

"We became a proving ground for some of their efforts and I think they always felt that way. They were really great developmental resources for the Cadets, and so was I.''

The nature of coaches is also that they are optimists. Not to a fault so much as they are sometimes unrealistic.

Rutgers felt it was going to have a nice season and, even with its overtime win against Army, wound up 4-8. Do you think Mack Brown and Texas saw their 5-7 season coming?

Ellerson and his staff were really no different. They could envision a winning season, they could envision higher accomplishments. "When you get close to it,'' Ellerson explained, "you don't see it 20-20. We never visualized not winning. Maybe intellectually you know you're probably not going to run the table. And we knew it was going to be hard, we knew it was going to be up hill.''

It was, but for every game except Air Force (42-22) and Notre Dame (27-3), the Black Knights competed. And in truth they could have just as easily wound up 10-3.

During the season Ellerson expressed his bitter disappointment regarding those losses, but a terrific effort against Navy and then in the bowl game made up for much of that.

Replenishing the Cupboard

As for the carry-over, there is no reason to think Army will not be chasing another bowl experience. Not to mention breaking long strings of defeats to the other two academies. "Next year could be one of those years again,'' Ellerson said. "It's going to be tough as heck. We're gonna be really young. The center of gravity in the team stays very young for another year at least. There will be a lot of opportunities for young players, and I think we'll be athletic. But we won't quite be there in terms of physical development.

"We're going to have a lot of new guys, especially on the offensive line, and on the defensive side of the ball down the middle. We're going to have a lot of guys play their first college football. We had high expectations this year, and we will again.''

They lose four of their interior linemen, with only guard Frank Allen returning. And running back Patrick Mealy is the only regular skill position player leaving.

The defense takes just as big a hit, with the likes of rush end Josh McNary (he'll play in the East-West Shrine Bowl), nose guard Mike Gann, end Marcus Hilton, linebacker and spiritual leader Stephen Anderson, and defensive backs Donnie Dixon and Donovan Travis.

Army also loses punter Jonathan Bulls and senior kickoff specialist Matthew Campbell. "They'll be gifted guys,'' Ellerson said about his up-and-coming players, "and the learning curve will be great. This will be another year when the coaches are earning their money, and the players are going to be learning about themselves that they're just guessing at right now.''

That's still a ways away, and with this past season only two weeks in the books, the topic of Operation Turnaround remains quite vivid.

For Ellerson, it seemed like the longest season of his life. With long byes leading up to the Navy game (from Nov. 20 to Dec. 11) and then the wait until the Dec. 29 bowl game, the season seemed like it was, in his words, "just relentless.

"It was tumultuous,'' he added. "There were all kinds of ups and all kinds of downs. But I'll tell you what: it had a story book ending.

"Our guys were rewarded and I think that meant a lot to a lot of people, because they felt like that was something that, 'It's not the destination, it's not the finished product, but I think that's got a chance to take roots.''

It already has of course. Mostly because of the new guy who wasted no time getting his hands dirty.


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