The Long Grey Line: The Inside Story of the Resurrection of Army Football

The tears of Trent Steelman had become emblematic of the futility of West Point football for the better part of the last 30 years. Army had lost to Navy for the 11th straight time, and that streak would continue. Rich Ellerson had brought about a mollified demeanor during his five-year tenure as head coach of the Black Knights, but ultimately failed to propel them back to relevance.

Since winning the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy in 1996, Army had sported a record of 52-142 entering the 2014 season and had not defeated Navy since 2001. They were perhaps the worst college football team in the country during that span of time. Rich Ellerson was fired, and West Point athletic director Boo Corrigan knew he had to unearth a proven coach who would reverse the fortunes of a storied football program.

On Christmas Eve in 2013, Corrigan had his solution. Jeff Monken became the 37th head coach of Army, and everything was about to change, gradually…

Monken had established himself at Georgia Southern University, where he utilized the flexbone option principles that his mentor Paul Johnson had taught him. Monken earned a 38-16 record at Georgia Southern, and facilitated the program’s transition into an FBS team.

During spring training in 2014, Monken would often berate his players for failing to keep their lockers clean. “If players can’t keep their lockers clean and tidy, then how can they expect to play that way?”, Monken had quipped. It was the little things that previous regimes at Army had failed to accentuate.

Army still lost a combined 18 games from 2014-2015, but change had arrived. Most of the underwhelming players recruited by Rich Ellerson had graduated, and Monken’s plan had come to fruition. He even held a banquet at the conclusion of the 2015 season, during which he addressed the players, their families, and West Point alumni, and ensured that Army was on the cusp of finally defeating arch nemesis Navy.

Army finished 2015 with a 2-10 record, but seven of those losses were decided by a single possession. That all changed in 2016.

Granted, the 2016 season began on a somber note, as star cornerback Brandon Jackson was killed in a car accident. The team dedicated the rest of its season to him.

Army finished the 2016 regular season with a 7-5 record, its first winning season since 2010, and they finally got past Navy, winning 21-17, and a victory over North Texas in the Heart of Dallas Bowl, the academy’s first bowl appearance and win since 2010.

In 2017, Army won the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy for the first time since 1996, and won the Armed Forces Bowl against San Diego State to earn its first ten-win season in the same amount of time.

But thus far, 2018 could be Army’s greatest season in over 70 years. The team is ranked in the AP Top 25 for the first time in 22 years, and the academy could very well have its first-ever 11-win season, provided they defeat Navy and then Houston in the Armed Forces Bowl, which, as previously mentioned, they won last year.

And where could Army go from here? Only time will tell, but all indications are that the sky is hardly the limit.

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