Sticking to the Plan
Just before Air Force’s final game last season, Coach Fisher DeBerry learned that 12 of his players had broken curfew.
Even though the group included five starters and DeBerry needed a victory to avoid his first losing season in eight years, he didn’t hesitate in suspending the players. Air Force won the game, 38-37.
“That’s Coach. He could have let the young men play who broke his rules, but he chose not to do that, and I think it’s just an indication of his priorities and values, that character is as important as anything,” Vice Athletic Director Brad DeAustin said. “He knew there was a risk that we were going to lose that game to Utah, but it didn’t matter.”
DeBerry has never wavered from his belief that hard work and character are more important than anything that happens on the field. It’s a philosophy that has made Air Force one of the winningest programs in the nation.
Air Force has had a losing season just twice in 18 years under DeBerry -- none since 1993 -- and has gone to 11 bowl games. The Falcons have had 10 seasons with at least eight wins and are 48-18 the last five years, 11th-best in the nation.
Air Force was 5-0 this season heading into Saturday’s game against Brigham Young and was one of 11 undefeated teams in the country. The Falcons are ranked for the first time in three years after jumping into the poll at No. 21 this week.
The success and DeBerry’s approach have made him one of the most revered figures at the academy, but the humble coach doesn’t think he’s done anything special.
“My wife talks about it a lot more than I do,” DeBerry said. “She doesn’t think I’m a legacy. She thinks I’m just getting old.”
DeBerry is an exceptionally organized person -- he plans some things months in advance, DeAustin says -- and discipline is a key part of his approach.
It’s a perfect fit for coaching at a service academy, where football practice is often the easiest part of the day for the players.
The day typically starts around 6 a.m., when the players wake up, clean their rooms then march with their squadron. After a brief breakfast, the players head to four or five hours of classes, eat lunch and head out for military training.
By the time players get to practice around 4 p.m., they’ve already had a full day.
“There’s just not enough time. You never feel like you have enough time,” DeBerry said. “Sometimes I wish I could get to know each kid very, very close and very intimate, and feel like you have more time to spend individually with the players.”
The other two major service academies, Army and Navy, have similar regimented schedules and the same stringent entrance requirements, but neither has had the success Air Force has.
DeBerry has a career record of 146-78-1, most all-time by a service academy coach. In that span, Army is 87-102-1, including 0-5 this season, and Navy is 66-121-1 and has gone through five coaches.
The Falcons have won 11 straight games over Army and Navy, including a 48-7 rout over the Midshipmen two Saturdays ago. Air Force has also won the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy 15 times, including five straight and 13 of 15 under DeBerry. Army has won the trophy six times, Navy five.
“Air Force has won a lot of recruiting battles,” Navy Coach Paul Johnson said. “Players want to go to the academy that is winning. It’s up to the other academies to mirror what Air Force is doing.”
Again, DeBerry is quick to deflect credit.
“We’ve had good players, committed players, a lot of pride, and I’ve been blessed to have an outstanding coaching staff and some continuity on our coaching staff,” DeBerry said.
“I don’t think it’s anything that Fisher DeBerry has done. I just think I’ve been blessed to have some great people around me.”
DeBerry turned 64 in June but is showing no signs of slowing.
His days during the season are filled with game-planning, practices, interviews and meetings with school officials and boosters, and he rarely takes time off in the off-season -- all while keeping up his ever-positive attitude.
“It’s a very, very demanding job and he’s got the energy and determination to keep at it, to have his staff keep at it and not have them get burned out,” DeAustin said. “It’s a pretty special talent.”