WEST POINT, N.Y. (AP) Army coach Jeff Monken intently studies a group of players at practice when a ruckus erupts in another group.
Monken makes a beeline for two players grappling on the ground in a heated exchange, yanks each up by the shoulder pads and escorts them off the field. Practice is over for them, and Monken makes that clear with a few harsh words. Then it’s back to teaching as the Black Knights continue preparing for their first rivalry game of the season at Air Force with a sense of confidence that’s been building since Monken was hired four years ago.
With a no-nonsense demeanor and a steely resolve, Monken has transformed Army into a winner, something the academy had desperately sought for the better part of two decades. The Black Knights, with their ground-gobbling triple option offense, are 6-2, the only losses coming on the road against Ohio State (38-7) and Tulane (21-17), and the school is the first in America to accept a bowl bid. Army has a tie-in with the Armed Forces Bowl and accepted its bid after beating Temple in overtime last month.
These are heady days along the banks of the Hudson River, and the good feeling on campus is palpable.
”It’s hard not to walk around and hold your head a little higher when you’re actually winning some games,” said former running back Joe Walker, now on staff as an athletic intern. ”You can see it in the Corps of Cadets. They’re pretty excited about Army football, I think now more than ever.”
”It’s pats on the back all week long,” added linebacker Cole Christiansen. ”Everywhere we’re going, everyone’s saying, `Go beat them! Go beat them!’ I wasn’t here back in the old days when it (West Point) was a little rougher than it is now, but I know that the vibe around campus is a lot better now.”
The atmosphere wasn’t so great when Monken was hired in December 2013. Since the 1996 team won an academy-record 10 games under Bob Sutton, losing had become the norm, reaching a nadir under Todd Berry when Army posted a record that has never been duplicated by any team – 0-13 in 2003. Before Monken guided the Black Knights to an 8-5 mark last year that included an all-important win over archrival Navy and a bowl victory, Army had managed only one winning season – 7-6 under Rich Ellerson in 2010 – in 19 years under six coaches and had lost to the Midshipmen 14 straight times.
Monken, who had three straight double-digit winning seasons at Georgia Southern before coming to West Point, has struggled, too. After guiding the Black Knights to a 47-39 victory over Buffalo in his first game as head coach, the team lost three straight, including an embarrassing overtime setback at Yale, an Ivy League foe that plays at college football’s second tier. Even worse, Army was outscored by a combined 57-13 in losses to Air Force and Navy and finished 4-8.
Monken’s second season also was forgettable – at least on paper. The Black Knights finished 2-10 in 2015, but six of those losses were by a combined 28 points, and both Monken and the Army brass sensed that something good was in the making.
”I knew we were turning the corner. I knew we were going to have a good football team,” Monken said. ”They just kept battling and kept believing. I knew our attitude was where it needed to be. We were playing 24 freshmen. Now those guys are juniors. The belief and trust is that we’re supposed to win.”
This season Army is 5-0 at home, the last two victories by a combined four points over Eastern Michigan (28-27) and Temple (31-28). The success at Michie Stadium has been special for both the players and Monken, who has endeared himself to the entire academy by storming across the field to celebrate with the Corps of Cadets after each win.
”We’re on the flip side now,” junior linebacker James Nachtigal said. ”We’re finally winning the ones that come down to the wire. We’ve got a lot of belief in each other. It builds the brotherhood. It gives you a stronger connection to the team. The seniors know how to win, they expect to win, and that just trickles down from there.”
The win over the Owls gave Monken 20 in four years, the first time that’s been accomplished at the academy since Jim Young in 1986. West Point Superintendent Lt. Gen. Robert L. Caslen Jr. isn’t surprised.
”It’s how the players connect to him. They respect him, they admire him, they know he’s a man of standards,” said Caslen, a center on the 1973 Army team that finished 0-10 under Tom Cahill as the Vietnam War was winding down. ”That’s what you saw in the locker room (after the Temple game) – a tremendous bond that he has earned … and building in them the mental and physical toughness where they now believe in themselves and they’re willing to lay it on the line for each other.”
”He’s what we thought he was,” added athletic director Boo Corrigan, who hired Monken. ”He came in here and energized us.”
The trick now will be to make the newfound success endure. Sutton was named national coach of the year in 1996 and three years later was fired on a Philadelphia street after three straight losing seasons.
”Everybody is happy and excited,” said senior quarterback Ahmad Bradshaw, whose late touchdown beat Navy last December. ”But one thing coach told us is complacency is the biggest thing that could turn everything around.”
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