Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Army Football Preview: What's the "So What?"

I posted the following to a few of my social networks this week and was a bit surprised by some of the responses.
I got a question about Army’s revamped Offensive Line.  That wasn’t a huge surprise.  I’d been planning to talk some about the offense.  What surprised me were the responses I got via FB, which were a little more philosophical.  For example, my buddy Ray followed up by asking:
“What should athletic experience be contributing to the development of future officers?  Why (besides $) do we put all this effort into a relatively small chunk of cadet life?”
I wasn’t sure where to go with that.  I mean, I’m not convinced that my five years in uniform make me an expert on the officer training goals of the United States Military Academy.  But I’ll own that I have about as much Corps Squad experience as anybody, and that I feel like I benefited from it as much as anybody.  Maybe more importantly, I wouldn’t say that my experiences swimming at Army were “a relatively small chunk of [my] cadet life”.  Really, swimming at Army felt more like an all-consuming passion that eclipsed nearly everything for four solid years.
So sure, I’ll talk about that.  It’s certainly been a part of my memoir, though only tangentially as far as “Why are we doing this?” is concerned.
But then another friend followed up privately with something that was a little more provocative:
“I would focus on teamwork and building a winning culture.  We haven’t won a war since 1945.  Instilling the importance of achieving victory was one of the cornerstones of the former Supe’s vision.  It wasn’t just about beating Navy.  It was about giving every ounce of your effort to WIN.”
So.  The thing you have to realize—that I sometimes forget—is that my friends are all senior field grade officers now, that they’ve been in uniform in some form or fashion for well over twenty-five years, and that they are deeply, emotionally invested in the real culture of the United States Army.  
They own it.  They live it every day.
For these guys, the War in Afghanistan isn’t something that’s happening on TV.  Nor are they simply waxing poetic about their alma mater’s football team.  Rather, the distribution of cadet time and resources are a legitimate concern, especially given our national security realities and the inescapable fact that we live in a resource-constrained environment across all governmental functions but most particularly as it comes to soldier training time.  I personally take issue with my friend’s assertion that we haven’t won a war since 19451, but he’s right that the Army itself can’t afford to field a sports team with a defeatist attitude.  More to the point, it’s not a great sign that we had a generation of leaders at West Point who seemed okay with athletic mediocrity; perhaps this really is related to the reality that a lot of the military’s leadership over the last twenty-plus years have seemed okay with mediocrity on the ground so long as their personal interests and promotions aren’t held up in Congress.   I mean, that’s a bad look, am I right?
Source: AZ Quotes
Winning on the football field is a lot clearer-cut than is winning the hearts and minds of the Afghani people.  But still, there is no substitute for victory.  GEN Colin Powell articulated this clearly in the Powell Doctrine in the wake of Vietnam.  He and his peers lost a war and then reformed the Army out of almost nothing back in the 1970s, with the fruits coming in Berlin in 1989 and in Kuwait in 1991.  That, to me, is what winning looks like for the Army.  Task and purpose, and no moving the goal posts after kickoff.   By contrast, today’s leaders have seemed a little too willing to just sort of go along to get along.  The problems are all too big, allowing folks to throw their hands in the air, saying things like, “Who could have known how complicated this would be?”
It’s not good enough.  That is not what winning looks like.
I guess what I learned by swimming—at Army—is that there are some times when folks are counting on you when you simply cannot fail.  There are times when your teammates are looking for you to make a play, and you just have to rise to the occasion and make it.  Circumstances don’t matter, nor do excuses.  The version of you that doesn’t crack under pressure, that’s getting through this, that fights and wins… You just have to be that guy when that’s the guy that your teammates need.  The times when I’ve been my best self, when I’ve transcended what I thought were my physical limitations and come up with legitimately peak performances, those have mostly come in these kinds of situations.  Learning to channel that, to get to the other side without breaking, to not just hit the wall but to smash it at a sprint, that’s the work of a lifetime.
The hardest thing I did at West Point was a set of 5 x 300 fly on something like 3:30.  I did it cow year.  Coach Ray Bosse put me in with the distance swimmers and had me swim their set, but butterfly.  It was 5 x 300, and it was—by a lot—the most transcendentally difficult thing I’ve ever done in my entire life.  I don’t know how to describe it except to say that at a certain point my mind shut down, and I became one with the struggle.  Like I was ramming my head into a wall, and eventually the wall somehow gave way.  But there was another wall there, so I went at that one head-first, too.  And then that one fell, but then there was another wall after that.  So I went at that one, fucking relentlessly.  On and on it went.  That’s what it was like.  
I had to attack relentlessly just to keep up, so that’s what I did.  And it was amazing, like, “I am bashing these walls down with my face!”
This shot is actually from high school.  But you get the idea.
I went to the National Training Center as a tank platoon leader a few years later, and I was up for four days.  We did a movement-to-contact, followed by a deliberate defense, followed by a hasty attack, and I somehow never got a chance to lay down over the entirety of that time.  And it was exactly the same.  Not coincidentally, the First Gulf War was one hundred hours, i.e. exactly four days, and I’ve talked to a lot of people about it, and they’ll tell you that this was one of the hardest parts—moving forward relentlessly in the attack for four days.  But that was what victory looked like.
Which doesn’t mean that I got some special “victory sauce” by being a corps squad athlete because that’s definitely not what happened.  The Academy tests people in different ways, and everybody’s got their own stories.  Rather, I think the point my friend was trying to make was that it’s about the expectation.  If you expect to win, if you believe that you can win, and you’re fully committed to winning, then you’ll push yourself further and achieve more, and that’s how you get to the other side and actually win.  By contrast, if you accept defeat, and you compromise and tell yourself that it’s okay because you tried, that’s when you fail.  True commitment goes all in, with no reserve.
It’s no surprise that these are the terms in which Coach Monken talks.  You look at what these guys are doing, and it’s all about commitment, and it’s all about brotherhood.  This follows a basic rule of leadership.  Soldiers may fail themselves, but they rarely fail their buddies.  The commitment that these guys have, to fight harder for each other in order to achieve goals that they believe they can reach, that’s powerful stuff.  It is no surprise that it’s working.
As my buddy said, the Regular Army could use some of that.
* * *
Next week we’ll talk actual football, I promise.

[1] The Republic of Korea is a going concern today because of the success of American arms in 1951.  Also, we won decisively in Grenada, Panama, and in the Gulf in 1991.


  1. When there are 70 new cadets in the class of 2022 who are football recruits it makes a person wonder is West Point really allowing the best of the best into the academy? Is the academy a football school or as the name implies a military school? As a parent of a non football player or corps squad athlete, I have witnessed the special treatment of corps athletes (extra food, sitting hours to study rather than walking hours, dismissing drunk driving and sexual harassment allegations and arrests). What is this truly teaching the young to be officer? Also,I question the rate of attrition and graduation( on time) of corps squad athletes, especially football players. So, there are approximately 1200 slots in incoming classes at West Point, their goal is to have %25 diversity, %25 women in each class. Subtract those numbers from the 1200, plus all the recruits for athletics, how much room is left for the applicant that truly wants to be a leader in the U.S. Army? The one who works hard both academically and physically, but because they don’t fall into that huge chunk of “desirables” get left out in the cold. The playing field is not even. I was an athlete in college, many years ago, my time was not my own, we weren’t coddled, given special meals, or had a special gym or nutrition center (just for us), given extra time on assignments. We were expected to attend class, turn in assignments on time, and practice 3-4 hours per day, Christmas and New Year’s were our only days off in the season. We played because we loved the sport, and knew that chances of becoming a pro was minimal or non existent. We were a winning team. We survived, followed the rules, and many of us are leading successful lives. My thoughts are play to win, that’s sports. But to think that football or any other sport is going make you a millionaire-think again. It’s the education, sacrifice, discipline and respect that will make you successful in life and especially as an Army officer. Army football is cocooned in their own little world at West Point. My personal opinion is that this cocoon inside a cocoon isn’t much help for these players to become successful Army officers, unless they are smart enough to see outside the cocoon and recognize they aren’t really special and will need to rely on others besides their football buddies.

    1. With respect, you’re looking at this wrong & selling your son short as a result. Because the Army is a team sport. So the truth isn’t that West Point admits, say, 400 Corps Squad athletes & the rest are the real “deserving cadets”. Rather, West Point admits 1200 OUTSTANDING cadets, some of whom are standout D1 athletes. The rest, tho... if they’re not outstanding athletes, they need some other reason why they’re badasses. A monkey can learn to stand in formation. What are these kids bringing to the table that’s not BEATING NAVY?

      So, serious question: why is your son a badass? Why does the deserve to be in a class that is otherwise ~30% badass recruited D1 athletes?

      I don’t ask because I want to sell folks short. The guy who suggested this column was a PFC in the 82nd before heading to USMAPS & then USMA. He brought Real Army experience, & believe me, it was in short supply.

      I don’t know what makes your son special. It’s not, “He goes to West Point.” Everyone reading this went to West Point. The question is: why is he on the team? What does he do that others don’t or can’t?

  2. I respect your opinion, and your assumption that it is a son I am speaking of... Also, is not every cadet an athlete? So, they do know what it’s like to be part of a team. I have seen Sandhurst competitions that are brutal. Those teams practice year round with no special time set aside for their training or coaching. No special meals, equipment, they coach and push themselves and depend on each other to become successful.
    If you do research into most of the “D1” athletes, a lot of them could not get into the D1 schools they thought would recruit them, thus settling on Army. The monies generated by football goes back to football, no other sport or the corps of cadets.

    Seriously, what makes recruited athletes badasses? They skirt tasks, discipline, aren’t victims of the poor mess hall food ( I.e. their own nutrition center), get a shortened beast and their own special CFT. Also, from an unnamed source, football players are told they only have a two year commitment following graduation.

    USMAPS was originally set up to provide prior service soldiers as a means to reacclimate into the student mind set. Which is an excellent idea and more active duty soldiers should consider or be considered for USMA. However, it appears, that USMAPS has become a “red shirt” year for recruited athletes that didn’t meet the USMA standards, no matter how hard the administration tried to bend their standards for them.

    I am not here to debate the “bad assness” of my grad. I am debating the issue that USMA is a military school. First and foremost cadets should be training to be Army officers, not for hopes of becoming an NFL, NBA, MLB player.

    1. Look, I’m obviously not going to convince you. I can only really speak to my personal experiences. *I* turned down multiple D1 offers to go to West Point, including 90% financial aid at Harvard. Because *I* wanted to serve in the military. Another guy on the swim team *from my year* turned down UPenn. Plenty of others have similar stories.

      Most corps squaders are standout high school athletes who use sports to create opportunities for themselves. Many (including myself) haven’t given the future any concrete thought until coaches start calling, & that’s when they/we have to decide who we want to be.

      Reality is that sports opens doors. Lots of doors. Army athletes are then choosing the door that says Army. Because they want to serve but—at 18–they also want to continue in their sport. That’s actually a good thing.

    2. BTW, there's a chapter about this specific topic in my memoir. It's Chapter 7, "Choosing a Life".

      Part 1:

      Part 2:

      Not everybody gets recruited specifically by Harvard, but I think my experience is otherwise pretty typical. Several of my classmates, not all of them swimmers or corps squad athletes, have told me that they remember making this choice.