If you’ve taken a spin on the coaching carousel at any point in the past five years, you’ve probably become familiar with Air Force head coach Troy Calhoun. Openings at Tennessee in 2012 and at Minnesota in 2010 and elsewhere throughout the country have seen the Falcons coach’s name arise in speculation, but Calhoun has remained steadfastly committed to the United States Air Force Academy.
On Wednesday, after rebounding from a disastrous 2-10 season to finish 10-3, Calhoun signed a five-year extension to remain at Air Force. The numbers aren’t gaudy–Calhoun received an annual $25,000 raise in salary, and he’s now making just $850,000 a year–but the message is pretty clear: Troy Calhoun is an Airmen through and through and he plans to stay that way.
Coming out of Roseburg High School in Roseburg, OR, Troy Calhoun was one of two freshmen to letter on Fisher DeBerry’s 12-1 Air Force squad in 1985. A four-year lettermen, Calhoun then joined DeBerry’s staff as a grad assistant in 1989. He’d eventually be given a full-time position and ran the junior varsity offense until 1994.
We can rattle off the Wikipedia entry and tell you about his offenses at Ohio and Wake Forest and then his three year stint in the NFL with Denver and Houston, but in 2007, when Fisher DeBerry retired after a legendary 23-year career, Troy Calhoun came home.
It’s safe to say that life at the service academies hadn’t changed much since he’d left 12 years earlier to pursue a career, but college football certainly had. Given the stringent academic and social standards and the service requirement, the academies had fallen on relatively tough times in regards to their football programs in the late-90s and early-00s.
In Fisher DeBerry’s final three seasons at the helm, Air Force had gone just 13-21 and they’d failed to make a bowl game in each of their last four attempts. At Navy, in the three years that saw the program transition from Charlie Weatherbie to Rick Lantz to Paul Johnson, the Midshipmen went 3-30. Through 2014, Army has had just one winning season in their last 18.
Recruiting elite athletes at a place like Air Force is nearly impossible in 2015. Truthfully, it had been incredibly difficult for a long time before that.
Upper echelon college football programs have become sweatshops for the NFL, promising recruits an opportunity to play three years and earn a payday that could change their lives. At Air Force, the commitment to serve as an officer is flexible depending upon your designated career path, but, for the most part, athletes with legitimate NFL aspirations don’t want to be “inconvenienced” by the obligation.
Instead, service academies recruit character and mold their talent to fit the system. Since Troy Calhoun took over in 2007, Air Force’s system has resulted steadily in bowl eligibility.
Life at a service academy creates a certain kind of football player, and the fact that every platitude we can use to describe them is oozing in cliche is by design. The playbook is simple, and its perfection is required. Grit and pride are what ultimately give them their edge.
Whether you’re talking about Navy or the Air Force or Army, success requires that you take an assortment of no-star (if you’re lucky, two-star) guys and find a way to compete against the likes of Notre Dame, Boise State and Stanford. To do that, you’ve got to create a culture.
Troy Calhoun and his predecessor have been incredibly successful at it. So have Navy’s Ken Niumatalolo and his (Paul Johnson).
In an age where contemporary offenses are about as fashionable as open-concept living spaces (everyone wants one, while only a handful have the means to pull them off), Air Force and Navy are throwing the ball less than 13 times a game. The discipline it takes to run an offense as simplistic (but difficult to defend) as an option attack is incredible, but academy life is conducive to that style.
However, it’s not as if the discipline is the sole byproduct of playing for a service academy. It doesn’t create itself.
Calhoun and Niumatalolo have been successful at Air Force and Navy, but Army still hasn’t found their fit. Jeff Monken appears to have their program on the rise, but they’ve still played in just one bowl game in the past two decades.
However, the difficulties at Army make appreciating the job a guy like Troy Calhoun does that much easier.
After DeBerry struggled to close out his career with one final bowl appearance, Calhoun took over and immediately took the program to six consecutive bids. He won Mountain West Coach of the Year honors in 2007.
However, after winning seven games in 2011, then six in 2012 followed by just two in 2013, it looked like Calhoun’s Falcons were on the decline. Yet, Calhoun’s services were still in demand.
Even after an 0-8 season in the conference last year, Troy Calhoun probably could have taken another gig–a position that gives him more freedom on the recruiting trail and in the classroom. He stayed at Air Force.
This season, when the win over Western Michigan gave Air Force its sixth 10-win season in the program’s history, Calhoun probably could have taken his pick from a handful of Power Five job openings. Instead, he signed an extension.
As a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy, his service requirement was filled long ago, yet he remains.