Winning at Army? 'It's harder here than anywhere else'

A shot rings out.

No one flinches at the pop of a rifle, not here in West Point, and certainly not the crush of cadets streaming down Mills Road. The soldiers-in-training file past Lusk Reservoir, with the water still on this mild fall day. The only sound, for a moment, is a snare drum announcing their arrival. They wear green camouflage and stiff tan boots, their Army Combat Uniforms a study of neutrals against the gold-flecked backdrop of November in upstate New York.

Michie Stadium looms over their right shoulders. Beyond it, Fort Putnam, the landward defense that safeguarded the Hudson River from the British during the Revolutionary War, holds its post up the hill.

These are men reporting for duty. Army football kicks off at high noon.

There is something new in the air in West Point: faith. The Black Knights are bowl-bound for the first time since 2010 and just the second time in two decades. They began the year 3-0, the program's best start in those 20 years. This Saturday, they head to Baltimore to try to exorcise one last, excruciating ghost: Navy.

The Midshipmen have won 14 straight, a gross indignity that sits in the guts of Army fans the country over. Although the Black Knights enter the weekend as six-point underdogs, optimism persists. More often than not, they play Navy close -- losing by four last year and seven the year before that. And didn't Army handle Temple in its season opener, the same Temple that steamrolled Navy just last weekend in the American title game?

See, Army football doesn't merely want to win again. It expects to. And that -- expectation -- is as foreign as it is fragile in West Point. It has been a hopeful fall.

Just 100 yards from the football players' procession, Bob MacArevey sips his drink at a tailgate. He is a member of the Long Gray Line ("Class of '72, proud and true"), but his revelry is laced with an undercurrent of something more desperate. He practically winces, then leans in to confess.

"We believe we need to be winners," he says. "You can't be a loser in this business. Can't be."

Winning was once Army football's birthright. Just outside of coach Jeff Monken's office, a glass-encased suite perched high in Michie Stadium, a trio of bronze statues commemorate the Black Knights' three Heisman winners -- more than Alabama or Georgia, LSU or Penn State, Texas or Navy can claim. Army captured three championships to match, all before the mid-century mark. The endemic losing came later.

The two forces seem incompatible, a chemistry ripe for combustion: systemic, inevitable losing in an ecosystem that rejects anything short of triumph as a means of survival. The U.S. Army does not lose because it cannot.

"We are tasked to create a warrior ethos," says Gaylord Greene, Army's associate athletic director and former Black Knight wide receiver. "And there is nothing more indicative of a warrior ethos than competing and winning."

Still, Army lost.

Since 1996, Army has won three or fewer games 14 times. In 2003, the Black Knights went 0-13, a mark of ignominy no other team in college football has ever matched. The nadir of the futility? Including November's loss to Air Force, West Point has surrendered 27 of its past 29 contests against its fellow service academies.

Pete Dawkins is the Black Knights' last Heisman winner; he took the trophy home in 1958, the year of Army's last undefeated season. The symbol of Army's winning ways cannot make peace with the downturn. "Many people don't know a thing about West Point except what they see when the scores are run up from Saturday's football games," he says.

MacArevey echoes Dawkins' sentiment. "It's been ..." he pauses, digging for the right word to describe an entire generation of losing, and lost, football, "... insufferable."

When Army fired Monken's predecessor, Rich Ellerson, after the 2013 season, Lieutenant General Robert Caslen, West Point's superintendent, reached out to the academy's most prominent alumni with a written pledge.

"Nothing short of victory is acceptable," he promised. "That fundamental ethos is at the heart of this academy. It must be ingrained in every one of our athletic programs. Our core values are duty, honor, country. Winning makes them real."

Jeff Monken's hard, inescapable truth is this: He sits in living rooms to ask mothers and fathers to put their sons in harm's way.

That burden is everywhere in West Point. A pew in Cadet Chapel remains roped off, forever vacant, save for a candle lit each morning. When the cadet corps gathers for formal occasions, a place setting sits by an unoccupied chair. Just beyond the 40-yard line, a seat in Michie Stadium stays untouched for every home game, a plaque to its side. "Let this empty chair serve as a memorial to those who served in the military of our great Nation, but never returned home to us."

"Death is so prevalent at the academy," says Josh McNary, a linebacker for the Indianapolis Colts and one of just two Army graduates currently playing in the NFL.

When that hard, inescapable truth was Rich Ellerson's to share, he did so under the weight of a country engaged in two wars. "It wasn't an abstract exercise, in terms of what happens if. It was ongoing," he says. "That mission and those sacrifices were right in the middle of your sights."

Army's former coach made three trips to Iraq and Afghanistan in his five years at West Point. If he was going to send his players into the line of fire, he wanted to see that line for himself.

Even without the specter of two wars, Monken and his players face the reality -- and sacrifice -- of active-duty service.

In November, senior linebacker Andrew King received his post-West Point branch assignment: infantry. He will graduate in May, take 60 days' leave and then begin his first active-duty station. This was King's first choice, and it is the culmination of a desire to serve his country, a seed of an idea he first sowed 15 years ago on Sept. 11, 2001. At 7 years old, he watched his father, a member of the New York Police Department, join first responders to Ground Zero. Now King's will be the boots on the ground.

For this is the cadets' hard, inescapable truth: They learn to live with loss, or at least the shadow of its possibility.

Just three months ago, in the early-morning hours of Sept. 11, a Sunday, Army's second-year cornerback, Brandon Jackson, died in a single-car accident. He was 20. He was from Queens, New York. He liked rapping along to 50 Cent. He left his team reeling from a new, unexpected kind of loss. Eight days later, 10 busloads of cadets -- including teammates and coaches -- traveled to Queens for Jackson's funeral.

King spoke at the ceremony but couldn't bring himself to prepare remarks. "I really didn't have an idea of what I wanted to say when I went up there. Just that we missed our brother."

Brotherhood seeps in here at West Point, and at service academies, until it is baked into the DNA. Monken and Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo worked alongside each other in Annapolis for six seasons nearly 10 years ago, but Niumatalolo came to Jackson's funeral just the same. "Kenny and I are as close as brothers," Monken said after.

The day after Jackson's death, Monken's 14-player leadership council decided they would practice that day, as always. They would play UTEP, as scheduled. They would go 3-0, if they could, to honor their brother.

"When we say brotherhood on this team, it was forged in these barracks," says junior offensive lineman Josh Boylan. "And it keeps us going through each and every day."

On game days in West Point, every single cadet is required to be in Michie Stadium. "What's important in the army," Monken says, "is that our soldiers support their fellow soldiers."

The mandate is clear: The cadet corps shows up for the team in the stands; the team shows up for the cadet corps on the scoreboard.

"If we have a bad performance out there, we feel like we let the corps down," senior linebacker Jeremy Timpf says. "That is definitely a thing."

Timpf has been on the winning side just 15 times in his four years at the academy. He pauses, a quiet acknowledgement of the weight of those defeats.

"When you see Army on TV," he says, "you want to see the Army winning."

Timpf glides from Army to the Army, conflates the two so seamlessly -- a football team and a U.S. institution -- that they become tangled together, organically linked, indistinguishable. The point where one ends and the other begins is now a blur.

Brotherhood becomes winning becomes Army becomes the Army.

Cadets are given 60 seconds to cross the threshold from their civilian lives to their West Point existence.

On their first day at the United States Military Academy, they have precisely one minute to say goodbye to their family and friends before they are ushered through a set of double doors into Eisenhower Hall, where they will cut their hair, receive vaccinations and get issued 22 pieces of their new uniforms. Cadets are stripped of who they were to be remade into who they will be.

"That is the toughest thing they do," Boylan says. "That first year, you ask yourself a few hard questions."

It's so self-evident it borders on banal: Life is different here. Twice a day, an attendant enters Cadet Chapel, the academy's gothic, medieval fortress, to ensure each hymnal and each Holy Bible is in exact alignment with each hymnal and each Holy Bible in the pew to its front. At 11:55 every weekday morning, each one of West Point's 4,400 cadets lines up in formation before proceeding to Washington Hall for lunch. If a cadet is caught on the grounds after taps -- lights out, for civilians -- the crime is punishable by walking hours: walking back and forth in the common area, in full dress uniform, for increments of five hours at a time. And for six weeks after entering West Point's gates, cadets give themselves over to basic training -- Beast Barracks -- to remake themselves into soldiers. Each cadet learns how to march like a West Point cadet, how to speak like one, how to chew like one.

"You know what? I think it's harder here," Monken says. "I think it's harder here than it is anywhere else."

Monken spent six seasons as the slotbacks coach at Navy. He spent two more in the same role at Georgia Tech before leaving to be head coach at Georgia Southern. His family tree is a coaching tree: Monken's father and four uncles were high school coaches in Illinois, and those fathers gave way to seven second-generation coaching sons. Monken knows anywhere.

"We're averaging just over five hours of sleep a night," he says.

Some of his players get two, three, four hours. Some get eight, but it isn't enough. Monken knows it isn't enough. He knows his hands are tied. The demands of football are just one line item in a long laundry list of commitments his team assumes.

His co-captain, Andrew King, is a battalion commander in charge of 300 cadets from the A-1, B-1 and C-1 companies. His other co-captain, Jeremy Timpf, is on the staff station in H-4, so he sees to the maintenance of the building and the safety of his company. In early November, Timpf discovered rats making their way into the basement at Scott Barracks. A matchup with Notre Dame in Texas loomed just a few days away, and so Timpf prepped for bottling up DeShone Kizer at the same time as he worked with an exterminator to eliminate an infestation.

Monken is not spared. Most college coaches don't have to answer for the decisions of the president of the United States, but most colleges aren't so closely tied to the U.S. government. When he was an assistant coach at Navy, Monken called a recruit at home in Akron, Ohio, and received a tongue-lashing from the recruit's father.

"'He said, 'your president' this and 'your president' that ... 'Don't call here ever again.' You don't get that at a traditional college," Monken said.

And so Monken's recruiting pitch is at once the hardest and easiest sell in college: Come to Army! For the bargain price of precious little sleep and zero free time, you can get an Ivy League-caliber education, train to become a world-class soldier and play Division I football. The catch, of course, is what kind of Division I football?

Before he accepted the job at West Point, Monken sat down with General Caslen, the superintendent. He was direct in his assessment.

"Here are some things I think need to be in place to make us competitive," Monken told him. "Here's what they're doing. I know because I was there. Can we do the same things?"

Three years later, Monken doesn't say the name or the place. He doesn't need to: Navy.

The fervent, almost manic desperation to topple the Midshipmen is palpable in this town. It settles over the barracks and homes and sloping hills of West Point like a fine layer of dust. At the corner of Stony Lonesome and Washington roads, the Beat Navy House welcomes visitors to the academy. General Caslen's stately white house looks over the Plain, the field that showcases cadet review before Army home games, and on its porch drapes a gold and black banner: "GO ARMY. BEAT NAVY." Yell out the refrain over the Hudson, and you expect to hear it echoed back from Constitution Island: Beat. Navy.

Yes, Army wants to beat Navy. But before that, Army must be like Navy.

Army is not the lone school whose football program must bend to service academy regulations. It is simply the one still grappling with how to field a competitive football team in the 21st century in the face of them. Troy Calhoun has guided Air Force to nine bowl games in his 10 years in Colorado Springs. Ken Niumatalolo charged toward his eighth winning season at Navy this year, casually unseating heavyweights along the way: Notre Dame, Houston, Pitt. The blueprint is there for Monken's taking.

Under Paul Johnson, alongside Niumatalolo, Monken bore witness to the imperceptible tidal shifts that, together, amounted to a sea change at Navy. In his first summer in West Point, Army athletics set many of those same shifts in motion.

"I just don't know if it's possible to excel and be the very, very best you can be in each one of those things: academics, athletics and the military," Monken admits. "There's not enough time in the day."

In truth, the demands of being a cadet nip away in a thousand different ways at what it takes to remain elite and competitive at college football's highest level. As such, three years ago, under General Caslen's guidance and Monken's urging, Army set down the long, hard road of introspection. It began to make changes.

"The institution has taken this seriously," Pete Dawkins says. "It's made some significant adjustments -- interestingly, similar to the ones that the Naval Academy made a number of years ago."

The first order of business: reconsidering football players' summers. Cadets spend the bulk of each summer in military training, right in the heart of the season. They're on the rifle range. They learn how to fire mortars. They take on night patrols. And they return for football training camp, oftentimes, with stress fractures and 20 fewer pounds from the physical exertion. Army not only adjusted the timing -- football players now head out for military training as soon as the spring semester ends -- but also accelerated the training schedule to three-and-a-half weeks.

The Army has adapted to Army football in other ways too. The football players take part in Beast Barracks but do so in fewer days. They no longer make the 12-mile march from Camp Buckner to West Point that marks the end of basic training and official beginning of cadet tenure with the larger cadet corps.

Gaylord Greene is quick to point out that these are not concessions but modifications. The football players are cadets and must meet all cadet requirements -- but now in a new time frame more conducive to winning football. Those changes, however small, are not nearly so vital as what Army's newfound willingness to embrace those changes portends: a 21st-century approach to major college football.

As is ever the case for Army, its season comes down to Navy.

The Black Knights' postseason fate is secure -- they'll meet North Texas in the Heart of Dallas Bowl in just a few weeks' time -- but the Midshipmen remain the true litmus test. Because while this season has been redemptive, it has been mercurial too. Army won its first three games only to lose five of its next eight. It beat Temple, the American conference's eventual champion; it shouldered a loss to Buffalo, the MAC's basement-dweller.

Fits and starts.

Just four days after one of those fits -- a 31-12 dismantling by Air Force in West Point -- the team reconvenes for practice at Howze Field, in the shadow of Michie Stadium. As mist turns to rain, the Black Knights line up in punt formation, snap the ball and nearly get Zach Potter, their freshman punter, killed. He drops in a heap, his wind gone, and Monken sprints over to the line.

"Line up over here, in front of this m-----f-----," he yells, grabbing No. 32 by the jersey. "You line up over here," he screams again and pulls No. 36. "You over here! You'll get a guy's f---ing leg broken!"

There is no music blaring, just the sound of helmet on helmet, pads on pads and Monken's boiling-over frustration. He walks away, shaking his head.

Fits and starts.

His team is still learning how to win, still remembering to expect to win. But the mere fact that there are postseason plans again, after a nearly barren, 20-year desert, is one step closer to where they want to be. That next year holds the same promise -- for Dawkins, for Monken, for the players -- is one more.

And so, on a wet night in November, on a practice field in West Point, Potter slowly picks himself up and trots back to the line to run the drill again. The punt goes off without a hitch. This time, and for now, Monken likes what he sees.