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Rich Ellerson has Army football looking up

Coach Rich Ellerson, left, has an deep understanding of West Point. His father and two brothers are graduates of the military academy.
Coach Rich Ellerson, left, has an deep understanding of West Point. His father and two brothers are graduates of the military academy. (Craig Ruttle/associated Press)

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By Camille Powell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 10, 2009

Rich Ellerson loves the rivalry between Army and Navy, calling it "a template" and "the example of what a rivalry should look like." He is aware that Navy has dominated the competition recently, winning the past seven games by an average score of 39-10. But he wants to make one thing clear.

"I haven't lost any to Navy," he said.

It's true; this is Ellerson's first season as the Black Knights' head coach, and the 110th meeting between Army and Navy will be his first on the sideline. He's brought plenty of changes to West Point -- for starters, he turned a 6-foot-10 left tackle into a wide receiver -- and has Army playing for its first bowl berth in 13 years.

The Black Knights (5-6) already have won more games than they have in any season since 1996, when they went 10-2 and lost to Auburn in the Independence Bowl. A victory over Navy (8-4) in Philadelphia on Saturday would be their first win against a service academy team since 2005, and it would put them in the EagleBank Bowl against Temple on Dec. 29 at RFK Stadium.

"Just look at them; they're better," said Navy Coach Ken Niumatalolo, who has known Ellerson for more than two decades. "Army is a better football team, and it's because of Coach Ellerson. He knows what he wants, he has a vision and he's as smart as they come."

Ellerson was hired late last year from Cal Poly, where he posted a 56-34 record in eight seasons. His familiarity with both the triple-option offense (he worked with Paul Johnson at the University of Hawaii) and West Point made him an ideal fit for an Army program that was bringing in its third coach in four years.

He did not attend West Point -- he graduated from Hawaii in 1977 -- but he has a deep understanding and respect for the academy. His father and two brothers are West Point graduates and retired Army officers; his oldest brother, John, was a three-year letter-winner in football and served as the Black Knights' captain in 1962.

So Ellerson believes that his goal as football coach is to make sure his players are "pulling in the same direction that everyone else is on post; we're all on the same team," he said. That philosophy, he added, is reflected in everything that the team does: from the offense that it runs (a variation of the triple-option that Navy has used to great success), to the defense that it uses (the double-eagle flex, a complex, aggressive scheme that Ellerson helped devise as an assistant at Arizona), to the players whom it recruits ("future officers who run fast").

"I was told when I got here -- it wasn't quite said this way, but I heard it this way -- 'Ellerson, your job is to develop leaders of character,' " he said. "We are part and parcel to the larger [goals of the academy].

"The greatest professional compliment I'll ever receive is I got to participate in the execution of the mission of the United States Military Academy. My venue is football, the greatest leadership, team-building laboratory on post."

Ellerson has done things to try to bring the football players closer to their (non-athlete) classmates and to their teammates. He required all of his players to take the Army physical fitness test; in previous years, certain players -- many of the linemen, for instance -- were allowed to do a bike test instead of doing the two-mile run. That gesture had an impact on the Corps of Cadets, said senior defensive tackle Victor Ugenyi, "They see us doing the exact same things they're doing, and it's okay, maybe they are working for us, maybe they're part of us."

On the football field, Ellerson made changes as well. A total of 18 players switched positions, including five players who are currently starting. Ugenyi moved from defensive end to defensive tackle, and senior Fritz Bentler went from defensive tackle to left guard.

Ali Villanueva, a 6-foot-10 senior, made the biggest switch, moving from left tackle -- where he started 12 games as a junior -- to wide receiver. Ellerson likes having a big receiver on the perimeter of his offense -- at Cal Poly, he had 6-6 Ramses Barden, who's now with the New York Giants. Villanueva leads Army with 29 catches for 460 yards and has all five of the team's touchdown receptions.

Ellerson is "a little bit different compared to the other coaches," said Ugenyi, who also played for Bobby Ross and Stan Brock. "I'd say he's more like a hippie football coach. He's from the West Coast. He gives a different perspective because you're used to everything being by the book. When Coach Ellerson comes and switches it up, it makes you think."

So far, Ellerson has the players thinking that they can put Army back on the right track.

"This game will hopefully turn the program in the right direction," Ugenyi said. "When the seniors came here as freshmen, we all got together and said that our goal was to bring winning football back to Army. With this game -- and hopefully the bowl game afterward -- we can do that."

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