Rich Ellerson’s sales pitch to potential Army football recruits doesn’t revolve around triumphs at Michie Stadium. At least not initially.
The third-year coach touts a philosophy of winning all day. In the classroom. In the corps. In the barracks. In the summer.
It hasn’t produced wins as much as Ellerson would have liked this year for the Black Knights (3-8), who meet Navy (4-7) on Saturday at FedEx Field. But there remains belief Army is moving in the right direction after struggling mightily for more than a decade before Ellerson’s arrival.
“That’s going to be the way home,” Ellerson said. “I can’t prove it yet, but I’m telling you this is working. The scoreboard can’t validate that for me just yet, but as impatient as we all are and as painful as those Saturdays were, this is happening. It’s happening because guys like this, in the face of adversity, when it got hard to hold onto that culture, fiercely did just that.”
It was perhaps trickier because Army made significant progress in Ellerson’s first two seasons. The Black Knights entered their annual finale against Navy in 2009 with bowl eligibility at stake, only to fall 17-3. Last year, Army secured its first bowl berth since 1996 and first postseason victory since 1985.
This group, though, is younger. A whopping 28 Black Knights have made their first career start this season (compared to 23 for Navy). In a more jarring development, 11 freshmen have earned at least one start for Army, while Navy has only two on defense plus punter Pablo Beltran.
In that sense, the Black Knights’ slide in the win column isn’t astonishing. Yet at this stage of constructing the program, other developments mean as much as victories.
“It’s obvious we’ve made a bunch of strides,” quarterback Max Jenkins said. “It’s been a little bit of a disappointing season. It didn’t go the way we wanted to, but we battled. It’s a testament to a lot of the character of this team. We’ve definitely moved in the right direction. We had the bowl win last year. The right steps are being taken. We’re just right on that edge of really breaking away and being successful.”
Yet there is an inevitable comparison with Navy.
The Mids have won nine straight games against the Black Knights, the longest stretch of dominance by either side in a series entering its 112th meeting. Navy’s average victory margin in that span is 25.7 points, and the Mids have yet to lose since Paul Johnson was hired and installed the current triple-option attack after the 2001 season.
Johnson later left for Georgia Tech, with current coach Ken Niumatalolo taking over and maintaining Navy’s potent system. But for the first time in that span, Army (first) leads Navy (fourth) in the national rankings in rushing offense.
“I think they’ve made a lot of progress,” Niumatalolo said. “They’re buying into the schemes. It’s a change from when coach Ellerson came and they’re a little bit different offensively and defensively. You can tell they understand what they’re trying to get done.”
And getting better.
“Our talent is increasing immensely,” linebacker Steven Erzinger said. “We’re getting excellent recruits in under coach Ellerson, and they’re really recruiting to what this academy can handle and the talent that fits into the system they brought, which works well for all of us.”
Still, Ellerson has remained alert for any decrease in a commitment to his view of what an Army football player must do in each facet of his life at the academy.