Nine months before Bobby Ross came out of retirement to coach football at Army in December 2003, the United States began its military involvement in Iraq. As he dug into his new job at West Point, Ross was thinking more about how to rebuild a team that had lost all its games the previous season than the escalating casualties of war.
Soon enough, Ross learned the success of Army football and whether the United States was actively engaged in war were often intertwined.
Though it had not happened during the two World Wars -- the Cadets won their three national championships at the end of and immediately after World War II -- Army's football struggles in the early 1970s were often tied to the unpopularity of and protests against the Vietnam War.
When Ross began to recruit in the winter and spring of 2004, the conversations he had with parents of prospective players often turned toward what was happening in Iraq. Those same conversations would include Afghanistan as well.
"I experienced that quite a few times, parents saying, 'I don't want my son to go to war,'" Ross, who retired after Army won nine of 34 games in three years, said recently. "They wanted them to get a degree from a military school, but they didn't want them to go to war. I think that was a part of it [Army's lack of success]."
Ross, whose first head coaching job was at the Virginia Military Institute during the Vietnam War, recalled one recruit in particular.
"I had a real good safety from Naples, Fla., whose parents did not speak English. I had to take an interpreter with me into his home, and we lost him because his parents did not want their son to go to West Point and fight a war," Ross said. "He was a tremendous kid. He could have been a leader within the Corps, and he was a darn good player."
As Army (2-9) gets ready to play Navy (7-4) on Saturday at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, looking to break a 10-game losing streak against the Midshipmen, it appears that fourth-year coach Rich Ellerson is running into the same problems that foiled Ross and others who couldn't turn around the program.
After a promising start under Ellerson that included a 12-13 record in his first two years and the school's first bowl appearance in 15 years in 2010, the Black Knights look as if they have regressed despite leading the country in rushing offense and beating Air Force for the first time since 2005.
"I'm a little surprised that the momentum hasn't continued after we went 6-6 and beat SMU in the bowl game," said Kevin Anderson, who hired Ellerson from Cal-Poly in 2009 and left to become Maryland's athletic director in the fall of 2010. "I thought it was on the upward swing and they would have done better."
Anderson said he believes the program has yet to recover from the seven seasons it spent in Conference USA between 1998 and 2004, when it won a total of 13 games and no more than three in one season. "Those were some pretty dire years," said Anderson, who came to Army in 2004. "Trying to get back to where Army football was, it's been pretty difficult. Navy and Air Force -- particularly Navy -- have had great success during the same period, and that might have had something to do with it [too], trying to rebuild."
'There's a way forward'
A 41-21 home win over Air Force last month is certainly a salve to what has been another long season, and has given the team a chance to play for the Commander in Chief's Trophy for the first time since Ross' second year, but though they now use the triple-option offense, it still appears as if the Black Knights can't copy Navy's nearly uninterrupted success of nine winning seasons beginning in 2003.
The spectre of war still casts a rather ominous shadow on West Point's hallowed grounds along the Hudson River.
"There are a lot of challenges ... but we think there's a way forward," Ellerson said before last week's Army-Navy luncheon in Philadelphia. "We are an Army at war, and Mom and Dad and everybody reads the paper. The guys [who] we recruited came for the right reasons -- they came with the eyes wide open, we don't shy away from that."
Army athletic director Boo Corrigan, who succeeded Anderson, said Ellerson "is the right guy" to bring Army back to prominence and is often perplexed by the lack of success that Ross had in his short time at West Point.
"Coach Ross didn't become dumb at West Point. He's a hell of a football coach," said Corrigan, whose father, Gene, was the commissioner of the Atlantic Coast Conference when Ross was in his final year at Maryland and later when he won a share of the national championships while at Georgia Tech.
Ross said he believes other factors played into his inability to turn the program around. There was the remote location of the school, outside little Highland Falls, N.Y., as well as the 19-game losing streak he inherited.
Neither Ellison nor Corrigan believe the success of the other two service academy teams limits the chances of Army getting its share of the same players who wind up in Annapolis or Colorado Springs, Colo., with Air Force. "We're a different destination [than the other service academies]. We truly are," said Corrigan, who spent three years working at Navy earlier in his career. "At the end of 47 months, most likely within 12 months, you're going to be somewhere in harm's way. ... That's where the outcome is. You've got to embrace who we are and what makes us different. The leadership opportunity that it provides is amazing."
Asked if Ellerson's job could be the hardest of any coach in the Football Bowl Subdivision, Corrigan said: "It could be, but if it is, it also provides a lot of opportunties to improve, which is how we have to look at it. [Ellerson] understands what West Point is, and the destination, and he's also a good football coach.
"All those things combined, we've just got to make sure what we're doing works within the instituion and the football program and that's not easy. There are a lot of good football coaches who came before him that couldn't get it done, so what are we doing to make a difference?"
Will the recruits buy in?
Army junior linebacker Jarrett Mackey can understand the obstacles Ellerson and his coaching staff face in persuading high school players to become a member of the Black Knights. Mackey had to be convinced, too.
"I was naive, as a 17-year-old, what you see on TV and what you see in 'Call of Duty' is what you know about the Army," Mackey said. "I told my Dad, 'I don't want to do this.' He told me to give it a chance. When we went on a visit, I still didn't think it was the place for me. The normal way of society is that you want to stay out of harm's way."
But after three years, Mackey concedes that "the military lifestyle has grown on me," and sees the progress the program has made under Ellerson.
"We've had our ups and downs, but once we get the ball rolling, it's not going to stop," Mackey said.
Navy senior linebacker Matt Warrick, whose father is a retired helicopter pilot with the Marines, said he considered Army coming out of high school. Warrick said he wound up choosing Navy because "it gave me more options" for a military career, though he will follow his father into the Marines when he graduates in the spring.
Lt. Col. Mike McElrath, who played at Army from 1989 through 1992 and now works as the military liaison between the football program and the academy, said the U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan has certainly affected recruiting. But he also believes Navy's success on the field has played a role, too, in Army's struggles.
"We have about the same type of young man who's going to play on those teams, and like all young people they want to be successful, so you may gravitate to that program that has shown a period of success over the last five, six, seven or eight years," McElrath said. "We had that in the 1980s, then Air Force became the hot team. Now it's shifted over to Navy."
A win over Navy might quiet some of the grumblings among Army fans and personnel who are tired of their team's decade-long failures in its biggest game. Ellerson knows that until it happens, recruits might wind up in Annapolis.
"If we are all trying to do the same things, recruit the same guys and develop guys the same way, then somebody's got an advantage," he said in Philadelphia. "What we saw against Air Force, and other schools similar to ours [athletically], we're gaining on them. ... I can't prove it with a scoreboard yet ... but these are fair fights."