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New Mission At Army: To Be What It Can Be

This article originally appeared on April 4, 2009 in The New York Times, and was written by Brian Heyman. 

WEST POINT, N.Y. As his players participated in drills at Foley Athletic Center, Rich Ellerson, the new Army football coach, walked the field, peering from under a camouflage cap, watching, evaluating, sometimes giving instruction.

“Fiery,” defensive tackle Victor Ugenyi said of the 55-year-old Ellerson after this recent spring practice. “He has a lot of will for an old man.

“You wouldn’t expect him to be doing half the stuff he is, like when he comes into drills and he’s pushing you around. He’s telling you to toughen up because he doesn’t want you going easy on him when he’s trying to work through drills. He just brings a lot of energy and a lot of experience to the program.”

Ellerson is Ugenyi’s third head coach as he heads into his senior year here. But academy officials are hoping they have finally found the right man to lead the downtrodden Army program back to respectability.

After 12 consecutive losing seasons under five coaches, including 3-9 records in each of the last two seasons under Stan Brock, Army has given Ellerson a simple mandate since hiring him in December: win now.

“I was looking for a plan for how we were going to start doing this for Army football,” Athletic Director Kevin Anderson said. “The reason why the change was made was because there wasn’t a plan developed. We went out and did the search and found the person who has the plan.

“He has not only me but the leadership at West Point believing that we’re going to see progression and we’re going to stop this losing.”

Ellerson, in coaching for 32 seasons, knows about winning. He has been a head coach for nine seasons, the last eight at Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo. His teams there posted winning records seven times, going 48-22 over his final 70 games, with two playoff berths in the Football Championship Subdivision.

People who know him, though, say that he always spoke of the Army job since becoming a graduate assistant in 1977 at his alma mater, the University of Hawaii, where he played center and linebacker.

“I didn’t realize I was always talking about that,” Ellerson said. “I was always interested in Army football. It was something to dream about.”

Ellerson, the son of an Army colonel, Geoffrey Ellerson, was born in Japan and lived in places like Germany, France and Virginia before spending his high school years in Tucson.

Like their father, Ellerson’s two brothers are West Point graduates and retired Army officers. One brother, John, played football and was a team captain for the Black Knights in 1962.

“So this is ground zero for the game in my world,” Ellerson said.

But since Bob Sutton guided Army to a 10-2 record and an Independence Bowl berth in 1996, the program has declined.

A foray from independent status to Conference USA from 1998 to 2004 did not work out. Nor did straying from an option-oriented offense when Todd Berry replaced Sutton. Brock finally brought the triple option back last season.

Linebacker Stephen Anderson, a starter last season as a sophomore, said there generally was support at the academy and from the alumni. But he has also heard comments that strike a nerve.

“There are jokes,” Anderson said. “I mean, I’m not a joke. Our team is not a joke.

“I’m not making any guarantees. But I strongly believe in our potential as a team, our potential as a coaching staff, these guys coming in here, being winners, knowing how to win. They’re going to teach us how to win. They’re going to teach us to feel that fire. I expect to win this year. I expect to go to a bowl game.”

The independent schedule includes more comparable teams now. But the academic rigors, the military training and the five-year active-duty commitment are factors that recruits have to consider.

Kevin Anderson said a winning football team affected everything: morale, donations, television deals, recruiting for other sports.

“We don’t fool ourselves,” he said. “We know we’re not going to compete for a national championship. But the one thing we firmly believe is we can win more games than we lose. And if we do that, that will put us in line to go to a bowl game. And we’re definitely on a mission to beat Air Force and Navy.”

Ellerson could have the blueprints. He is considered a whiz on both sides of the ball, having helped install the acclaimed Desert Swarm defense as an assistant at Arizona in the early 1990s and having put together a productive triple-option offense at Cal Poly. The Black Knights are counting on his expertise with that type of offense.

“We might not be the biggest guys, we might not be the fastest, but it’s assignment football,” said quarterback Chip Bowden, who will be a junior and is one of 14 returning starters. “We know what to do, and we’ll do it well. As long as we do that, we’ll win some ballgames.”

Dick Tomey, now San Jose State’s coach, hired Ellerson for his staff four times: twice at Hawaii and twice at Arizona. The players, Tomey said, will find Ellerson is wise and intense as well as approachable and compassionate.

“I don’t think I’m demeaning anybody when I say he’s the smartest football coach I’ve ever worked with,” Tomey said. “I’m not talking about football smart. I’m just talking about generally because he’s always reading a ton of books. He’s up to date on world issues, political issues.

“I think he’s going to do a phenomenal job. As far as being a football person, he’s very knowledgeable about every phase of the game, as much so as anybody I’ve known.”

Ellerson has a vision for his program: “Consistently good, occasionally great.”

“We’ve gone through some tough times, but we’ve also had some great times,” he said. “It’s time for those times to come back.”

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