Air Force coach DeBerry retires

AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- Fisher DeBerry dumped a box of belongings from his office into his SUV and drove off slowly with his wife, LuAnn, leaving behind the campus he loved along with a lot of unanswered questions.

DeBerry, 68, retired Friday after 23 years as Air Force's football coach, finishing with three straight losing seasons and two big controversies in his final years.

DeBerry, whose 169-109-1 record made him the winningest coach in Air Force history, had the third-longest tenure at one school of any active college coach, after Joe Paterno (41 years at Penn State) and Bobby Bowden (31 years at Florida State).

"There comes a time in every man's life when I think you have to look at the big picture and decide what's the best thing for your family"
-- Fisher DeBerry

Coming off a third straight losing season for the first time in his 23 years at the academy, DeBerry read a prepared statement at a news conference, then walked off without taking questions.

"There comes a time in every man's life when I think you have to look at the big picture and decide what's the best thing for your family," said DeBerry, who guided the Falcons to three conference championships and spent 27 years at the school, including four as an assistant coach.

He briefly hugged athletic director Hans Meuh on his way out of the Falcon Athletic Center Hall of Excellence.

Meuh demurred when asked if DeBerry had been pressured to make changes on his staff.

"We had our normal end-of-season discussion. We met a couple of times and talked about it and bounced ideas back and forth and ultimately, Fisher just decided that it was time," Meuh said. "Coming from the military, you always know when it's time to put your papers in to retire."

Safety Bobby Giannini said DeBerry told his players in an emotional half-hour meeting Friday morning before finals that he wanted to spend more time with his family -- his two children and five grandchildren live in Oklahoma.

"And I sincerely believe that. He's always been straightforward with us and wouldn't lie to us about that," Giannini said. "He's wants to spend more time with his family, and after 44 years of one job, I don't blame him for that."

Senior quarterback Shaun Carney, the point man in the Falcons' triple-option offense, said he didn't think DeBerry was nudged out the door, either.

"He talked about how his family played such an integral role in his decision, how he wanted to be there for his children, his grandchildren as they grew up," Carney said. "I really think the decision was more about his family than it was about him."

Still, several players said they were blindsided by DeBerry's decision.

"Everybody was kind waiting to see what would happen but I don't think anybody really expected that he'd be gone," Carney said.

Until he met with Meuh over the weekend and again Monday, DeBerry certainly seemed like a man intent on fixing a broken program with a senior-laden roster next year.

"This is the hardest decision that I have ever had to make in my life," said DeBerry, whose final team lost 13 linemen for the season or a significant amount of time with injuries and finished 4-8.

He singled out his wife of 41 years, thanking her for "her love, her support and her commitment and particularly for putting up with all those late suppers."

DeBerry, who made $770,000 last season, had more than $2.5 million remaining on the final three years of his contract, will receive an $850,000 settlement spread out over five years along with a monthly annuity of $8,500 for life, which comes from the Air Force Academy Athletic Association and not taxpayer funds.

DeBerry was 35-11 against Army and Navy and led Air Force to 14 Commander-in-Chief's trophies awarded to the winner of the annual service academy rivalry, but he lost his grip on the trophy as Navy won it the last four years.

He also had problems off the field in recent years.

In 2005, he was criticized after a 48-10 loss to TCU when he said Air Force didn't have enough "Afro-American" players, singling them out for being able to run well. DeBerry was reprimanded by top brass at the academy and offered a public apology.

In 2004, academy officials asked him to remove a banner from the locker room that included the lines, "I am a Christian first and last ... I am a member of Team Jesus Christ."

On Friday, he mentioned his faith in his nine-minute farewell, thanking "my Master Coach for leading us to Colorado 26 years ago."

News of his retirement was met with sadness by players and alumni alike.

"No one -- I mean no one -- has meant more to Air Force football and maybe academy football than Fisher DeBerry," said Denver Broncos general manager Ted Sunquist, who played at the academy while DeBerry was an assistant.

"There will never be another Fisher DeBerry. The past few seasons have not been successful from a wins and losses standpoint. I know that frustrated him. And for whatever reason, they just weren't able to get the thing turned around," Sunquist said. "But I don't think his enthusiasm, his love for the game or the program has waned any."

Meuh praised DeBerry for his tireless work and "countless contributions. He has been a solid role model of all our core values: integrity, service and excellence, in all he has done for us."

Meuh said he'd like to hire a replacement by the holidays so that recruiting doesn't suffer. An academy background is a plus but not a prerequisite, he said.

Two years ago, Meuh had to replace basketball coach Chris Mooney and he pledged to make a great hire. Jeff Bzdelik has led the Falcons to a 35-8 record since and a spot in the rankings for the second time in school history.

"He said he gave the same promise back to us," Carney said.