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Air Force Takes Off With ‘a Few Unwanted Men’

Times Staff Writer

The Air Force Academy doesn’t ever figure to announce that it would like to recruit a few unwanted men.

Yet, when it comes to the Falcons’ football program, the slogan might apply. Air Force has become the nation’s seventh-ranked team with players who were, by and large, disregarded by other Division I schools.

“There aren’t very many players on our team who were recruited by UCLA or USC,” Coach Fisher DeBerry said. “We try to encourage good players who might be on UCLA’s second list.”

For that matter, Air Force encourages players who weren’t even on the second list of most major colleges.

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Take quarterback Bart Weiss. He was recruited by only Air Force and Dartmouth, choosing Air Force because he wanted to play in Division I.

Or, how about free safety Scott Thomas?

He had his eyes upon Texas, but Texas turned its eyes the other way at the last minute. So, Thomas settled on his second choice by attending Air Force.

“Texas backed out on me two days before the signing date,” Thomas said. “I’m still kind of bitter about that. They painted a rosy picture and yanked the carpet out from under me. But what’s their record right now?”

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Thomas has a point. Whereas Texas is now 4-2, the Air Force is 8-0.

Admittedly, Thomas never dreamed Air Force would be better than Texas when he entered the academy four years ago.

But then, who would have dreamed that Air Force, in 1985, would be working on an 11-game winning--currently tied with Bowling Green for longest in the country?

At the turn of the decade, Air Force did nothing but turn out losing teams. The Falcons suffered eight straight losing seasons until they finished 8-5 in 1982.

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DeBerry, a second-year head coach, became an Air Force assistant in 1980. He thinks the Navy game during in 1980 (when Air Force finished 2-9-1) may have been the beginning of the turnaround for the Falcons.

“When we played Navy that year, they were going real well,” DeBerry said. “I think they had the No. 1-ranked defense in the country and we beat them, 21-20. They beat Washington the next week, and Washington went to the Rose Bowl that year. Since that season, I certainly think we have been able to recruit better athletes.”

And since 1982, Air Force certainly has been attracting attention from bowl games. The Falcons have won three straight bowls--beating Vanderbilt in the 1982 Hall of Fame Bowl, Mississippi in the 1983 Independence Bowl and Virginia Tech in the 1984 Independence Bowl..

This year, Air Force is attracting more attention than ever from bowl committees. Air Force was scouted by the Orange, Sugar, Fiesta, Cotton and Bluebonnet bowls during last week’s 37-15 win over Utah.

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“Once we started going to bowls, success bred success,” DeBerry said. “It became a little easier to recruit.

“Plus, the pendulum has swung from the apathy of Vietnam. Young people are feeling a commitment to their country instead of asking what their country can do for them. “Economic times also help the academies. It costs a lot of money to go to school. It’s a free education here.”

Weiss said an increased interest in academies is only part of the reason Air Force has risen in football.

“I think limits on scholarships at other schools have helped, too,” he said. “We don’t get hurt by depth like we might have before.”

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The 1985 season is certainly helping to make an impact on Air Force’s national prominence.

Though the Falcons have won all but one game by 16 points or more, their closest game may have been most significant. They beat Notre Dame four weeks ago, 21-15, joining a handful of teams ever to beat the Fighting Irish four straight years.

The Falcons lead the nation in kickoff return average, and they are second in scoring offense, fourth in rushing offense and eighth in total offense. In addition, their defense is eighth in points-against.

“I think the Air Force Academy probably has the best team it’s ever had,” San Diego State Coach Doug Scovil said. “It’s a typical Air Force team. They are very intelligent and disciplined and don’t make many mistakes.”

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DeBerry said it would be a mistake to say that Air Force expected to be quite this successful.

“Before the season, I told our players we were capable of winning every game and losing every game,” DeBerry said. “In most games, we’re not physically up to our opponents’ standards. We may not be as big or run as well as our opponents, but our kids have a solid self concept.”

Though most Air Force players were ignored by other schools, they have not been left wanting this season.


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