‘Culture shock’ propels Army
Black Knights’ three-year rise directed by former
Navy assistant Monken
There has been much talk about the dramatic turnaround Army West Point football has made over the past three seasons.
The Black Knights have a 27-10 record since the start of 2017, an impressive accomplishment for a program that endured losing records in 18 of 19 previous seasons.
Beating archrival Navy on Saturday would give Army back-to-back 10-win seasons. The Black Knights managed just four wins or fewer every year except two between 1997 and 2015.
Coach Jeff Monken believes the turnaround actually began in 2015, when Army went 2-10. The Black Knights lost eight games by a touchdown or less that season by playing much better than what Monken saw in 2014.
“I thought we developed into a tougher, more disciplined team in 2015. I thought we were well-coached and executed a lot better than my first year here,” said Monken, noting that Army lost to Navy by four points and to Wake Forest and Tulane by three, among other close calls.
What has changed the past three seasons is that Army has figured out how to win all those close games. The Black Knights have won 12 games by a touchdown or less between 2016 and 2018.
“We’re doing just enough to win. A lot of our games the last three seasons have been really close and we’ve found a way to pull out a lot of those,” Monken said. “Our players have done a really great job of executing when they needed to do so.”
Army’s 27 wins over the current three-year stretch are the most since the program’s three straight national championship seasons (1944-1946). The Black Knights have earned three consecutive bowl berths for the first time in program history.
While many college football pundits are surprised by Army’s sudden resurgence, Monken is not. The former Navy assistant came to West Point with a plan to turn around the struggling program.
“We are doing exactly what we said we were going to do and what we believed we were going to do,” he said.
Army athletic director Eugene “Boo” Corrigan is also not surprised since Monken is the signature hire of his eight-year tenure. Corrigan got to know Monken when both were working at Navy and believed he was the ideal candidate to fix Army football.
“We hired Jeff for who he is — a tough son-of-a-gun who is committed to all the right values,” Corrigan said. “I think Jeff has brought a high level of toughness and everything that comes with it. That means not turning the ball over, not having silly penalties, converting on third down, stopping the opponent on third down. It all comes down to attention to detail.”
Junior linebacker Cole Christiansen, who serves as tri-captain, remembers when Monken showed up at his house in Suffolk, Va., for a recruiting visit. Monken told Christiansen to trust him that Army was about to start winning.
Christiansen arrived at West Point in 2016 and realized immediately why that was about to come true.
“Complete culture shock. Coach Monken has come in and totally changed the attitude and mindset of the entire program,” Christiansen said.
Christiansen noted that a new tradition established by Monken involves Army taking the field before each game carrying a black flag emblazoned with the skull and crossbones insignia. It also contains the intials GFBD, which stands for “God Forgives, Brothers Don’t.”
“We live by the meaning behind that black flag — the never-say-die attitude; the kill or be killed mentality. Coach Monken instilled that in us and we take pride in being tougher and more physical than our opponents,” Christiansen said.
Senior center Bryce Holland, another Army tri-captain, said Monken constantly preaches the four staples of humility, toughness, effort and execution.
“We’ve definitely built a tough-minded attitude and established the importance of paying attention to detail,” Holland said. “We knew all along what type of team we wanted to be and we practiced that way even in 2015 when we didn’t win a lot of games. It was just a matter of when everything was going to click and we were going to start having some success.”
Army is ranked No. 22 in the latest Associated Press poll and recently completed its second straight undefeated home campaign at Michie Stadium.
Monken, like Niumatalolo, has emphasized the catch phrase made famous by New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick.
“It’s about everyone doing their job and just playing as a team. That’s how organizations are successful,” Monken said. “Every man has a different role. It may not be the role that they envisioned, but they embrace that role nonetheless and do the best they can to help the organization be successful.”
Monken tells his players it equates to serving in the Army. Some soldiers might wanted to be the sharpshooter, but instead were required to fill the ammunition box.
“Whatever your job is, do it to the best of your ability,” the fifth-year coach said. “We’re not a very big team, we’re not an overly talented team and we’re not going to win any track meets.”
Army’s two losses this season came on the road to Duke and Oklahoma. The Blue Devils, who are 7-5 and headed to the Independence Bowl, pounded the Black Knights, 34-14, in the season opener.
Oklahoma, which just earned a berth in the College Football Playoff, needed overtime to slip past Army, 28-21.
Now the new challenge for the Army coaching staff is to make sure the players remain as hungry as they were when the program was mired in losing.
“Our players and our coaches are doing a great job of staying focused on what’s important, and that’s improving every day,” he said. “It’s about not being satisfied with what we’ve accomplished so far and wearing our arms out trying to pat ourselves on the back.”