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Air Force’s Troy Calhoun meeting challenge of replacing legend

Air Force head coach Troy Calhoun wears a headset and shouts from the sidelines in an NCAA college football game between the Michigan Wolverines and the Air Force Falcons, at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
(Icon Sportswire)

Ten years ago, Troy Calhoun left the comfort of an NFL offensive coordinator’s job – often a stepping-stone to becoming and NFL head coach — to take on one of the toughest head coaching challenges in college football.

That statement, you might be thinking, refers to coaching at a service academy with its limited recruiting pool. Yeah, that’s true. Calhoun left the Houston Texans to take over at Air Force, his alma mater.
But what was equally challenging for Calhoun, if not more so, has been following in the footsteps of a legend. That doesn’t always turn out well.

Fisher DeBerry retired 10 years ago after 23 seasons leading the Falcons from 1984 to 2006. He posted a record of 169-109-1 (.630) with three Western Athletic Conference titles. Perhaps more important in service academy football, his teams won the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy 14 times. That means sweeping Army and Navy 14 out of 23 seasons.

The bar was set high, and fans are fans. They expected Calhoun to maintain what DeBerry established.
Well, Calhoun is entering his 10th season in 2016 having signed a one-year contract extension in February that carries him through 2020.

Calhoun’s record of 67-50 (.572) with one Mountain West Conference Mountain Division title and three trips to the White House for the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy doesn’t yet match DeBerry’s marks in those categories.

But a Calhoun handicap was taking over a program coming off three straight losing seasons. His tenure also overlaps Navy’s rise under Paul Johnson from 2002 to 2007 and continued under his successor Ken Niumatalolo from there.

However, the former Air Force quarterback’s record also reflects taking advantage of increased bowl games available in college football. The Falcons have gone bowling eight of nine seasons, including the school’s first six-year streak from 2007 through 2012.

Calhoun likes to have five years remaining on his contract to aid recruiting, so from that standpoint it was routine for him to sign a one-year extension. But there are two back stories that raised some doubt concerning Calhoun’s future as the 2015 season unfolded.

First, he works for a new athletic director, Jim Knowlton, who was hired March 23, 2015. Typically, athletic directors turn to their own choice as a head coach at a sign of trouble.

Second, trouble surfaced last year when Calhoun was said to be unhappy that Knowlton scheduled a 2016 Air Force home game against New Mexico at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. Knowlton saw it as a friendly venue for a state populated by military bases, but now Air Force has only three home MWC dates instead of four.

Drawing out Calhoun’s true thoughts over controversial issues is on par with getting New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick to speak above a mumble, but whatever displeasure Calhoun raised apparently has been smoothed over. Knowlton praised Calhoun as an Air Force Academy “ambassador” in the Air Force media release on Feb. 3 that announced the contract extension.

“Troy Calhoun has been a tremendous leader for our program since coming to his alma mater in 2007, leading the program to eight bowl games in nine years,” Knowlton said. “He has also led the team to exceptional accomplishments off the field and in the classroom. He is a great ambassador for Air Force athletics and we are very excited about Troy’s continued passion to lead our program in the future!”

Air Force is expected to be strong again this season.

The Falcons were picked second in the Mountain West’s Mountain Division behind Boise State, a team Air Force has beaten two straight years. The Falcons get Boise on Nov. 25 at home.

Third-year starting safety Weston Steelhammer, who was named a preseason All-MWC pick, leads the defense as one of nine returning starters.

On offense, senior Jacobi Owens has been named to the Doak Walker Award watch list for the nation’s top running back. Last year, he led the team with 1,096 yards rushing on 205 carries with seven touchdowns. He had four 100-yard games, including 156 on 17 carries in the loss to San Diego State in the MWC title game.

Air Force’s primary question is at quarterback.

Nate Romine suffered a season-ending knee injury in last year’s second game, but if he is sufficiently recovered, he bumps Air Force’s returning offensive starters to six. Otherwise, senior Pate Davis may open the season Sept. 3 against Abilene Christian.

Davis has limited experience, but service academy athletes by their nature are overachievers. The mark of a good service academy coach is to having a team of such athletes respond to their opportunity to play above their recruiting star rankings. Calhoun has been accomplishing that task for going on a decade.

Follow Tom Shanahan of Today’s U on Twitter: @shanny4055

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