Let loose! Go for it! Enjoy yourselves!
We are reminded that football is a game. It is high pressure and — for the Alabamas and Ohio States of the world — serious business. Yet, it is still a game. It still works well when athletes enjoy being on the field and competing.
There is immense pressure associated with this sport. Recall the pressure Army and Jeff Monken felt three years ago to get rid of that very oppressive 14-game losing streak against Navy. Recall the burden carried by West Point football players, particularly that senior class in the autumn of 2016 as it prepared to play the Midshipmen.
Football wasn’t necessarily less fun back then, but Army had a mission it had not yet completed. A level of urgency accompanied that task to finally topple Navy. Army football players and coaches didn’t breathe easier until they had finished the job.
Look what has happened inside the walls of the Army program since that win over Navy. Everything has changed.
Army was once the clear No. 3 service academy program in the 21st century. Now it is just as clearly No. 1.
Army was once the vehicle used by Navy and Air Force to get to the Commander In Chief’s Trophy. Navy-AFA used to be the game which swung the CIC Trophy outcome each season.
Now, Air Force-Navy is the game for avoiding elimination from the CIC race. The Falcons and Mids both have to go through the Black Knights if they want to win back the CIC Trophy. Army is the focal point and epicenter of CIC Trophy football, not on the periphery of that particular competition.
Army was once the program mired in mediocrity, looking up at Navy winning 11 games in a season and winning a bowl game by a blowout margin.
Now, after 2018, Army is that team. Army has done so many of the things Navy had recently been achieving. It is a total role reversal in the world of academy football. It started when that oppressive 14-year losing streak was busted.
Now, Army is the target. More precisely, Army is where Navy was at the start of 2016: Coming off an 11-win season, feeling great about itself… and knowing that opponents would give it their best shot the following season.
Navy got pushed back in that 2016 season, and the Midshipmen enter 2019 uncertain of what the future holds for them. Injuries have certainly played a large role in limiting what the Midshipmen have been able to accomplish in recent years, but it is also true that Navy hasn’t been able to replicate a formula which had worked so well for so many years. Navy reached a high point… and hasn’t been able to regain its magic since.
Army — which overcame the troubles and trials it faced earlier in this decade — is now forced to deal not with failure, but prosperity.
Paradoxically, success can be a bigger problem than failure. Handling the good times can be just as challenging as handling the bad times.
Army has to remember — in a year when everyone will be gunning for the Black Knights — that this is still a game, something fun. It isn’t a chore. Standing up to every opponent’s most vigorous effort is not something to be tolerated, but instead relished. That mindset has to enter Army’s practice field this season.
Having fun is often accompanied by the need to let loose.
This year, Army will literally need to let Loose.
Jay Bateman was the rock-star coordinator on the 2018 Army coaching staff. His reputation grew enough for Mack Brown to pluck him from West Point and carry him to North Carolina and the ACC. We are going to find out this year how much Bateman meant to the Army program. It is up to his replacement — who was promoted within the program — to show that Army doesn’t have to skip a beat on defense.
John Loose was the safety coach for the Black Knights last season. He now gets the keys to Monken’s defense as its coordinator. It could be that Monken has established such an airtight infrastructure in his program that the transition will be seamless. It could be that Bateman had a knack for tactics that Loose might not match. We will all see together how much this change means for the program, but it is certainly one of the foremost points of intrigue attached to Army football before the season begins.
Keep this point in mind when discussing Army’s attempt to sustain itself as the king of service-academy football entering the 2020s: Navy’s long-term success was built on the back of many components, but one of them was coordinator continuity. Buddy Green held down the defensive coordinator job for a long time, giving Navy consistency and cohesion on its coaching staff. The man who replaced him, Dale Pehrson, just stepped down after 23 years of coaching at Navy. Ivin Jasper has been Ken Niumatalolo’s offensive coordinator for 11 seasons. This will be his 12th in 2019. Jasper has been on the Navy staff since 2002, dating back to the Paul Johnson days.
Bateman to North Carolina is the first big coaching disruption or dislocation since the program became the clear big dog in the CIC Trophy series. Army might manage the transition extremely well and show that the program is robust enough to withstand turnover on the coaching staff. This year, the Black Knights simply have to prove it.
They have to have fun… and let Loose do his job as Bateman’s replacement.