It's hard to imagine anything as colorful as a wishbone at West Point, where gray rules with iron-fistedness and sparkling conversation is "Yes, sir." Yet this old relic of an offense has become as familiar to the Cadets as predawn marches in the Hudson River mist.
So maybe it's stolen from Air Force and still looks sort of odd run by a bunch of slow guys in black and gold. But Army, in its second year with the wishbone, is starting to play its find-the-football game with something approaching abandon.
The Cadets are 8-2 and headed for their second straight postseason appearance, in the Peach Bowl Dec. 31 against Illinois. First, of course, comes Navy (3-7) Saturday in that service rivalry classic at Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium. And should Army add that one to the win column, it would mean nine victories for the first time since 1949, when a Red Blaik-coached team went undefeated.
It would be an accomplishment of the highest order for the Cadets, especially this team of Cadets, because they will astonish you with their lack of obvious talent. There are no Mr. Insides or Mr. Outsides here; don't insult Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis. We're talking strictly journeymen, and the closest Army comes to a star is fullback Doug Black, a 6-foot, 210-pounder who spills out of his high-necked tunic and lumbers around every Saturday for an average of 88.6 yards a game.
"These are all guys who do well because of our work ethic," said kicker Craig Stopa. "If you tried to pick one person that we couldn't do without, you can't, because we don't have one."
For instance, Black is a senior who jumped from intramurals to the 1984 varsity, but he's the leading rusher with 886 yards and hasn't been tackled for a loss this season. Throw in a slick operator at quarterback named Rob Healy, who has gained 552 yards, and a couple of halfbacks, William Lampley and Clarence Jones, who are better at blocking than running.
But slap it all together and something just seems to happen. The Cadets are scoring 35.8 points a game, sixth best in the nation. They are rushing for 350.8 yards a game, a shocking second best in the country and a statistic that must be disturbing at the more unproductive wishbone schools.
The man behind all these numbers is Jim Young, the military-minded third-year coach -- "His word is law," Stopa says -- who borrowed the wishbone from Air Force last season. It gave Army an 8-3-1 record including a victory over Michigan State in the Cherry Bowl. Two straight winning seasons is heady stuff for the Cadets, who had only one in the previous 11, but the close-mouthed Young, despite an 87-46-2 record at Arizona, Purdue and West Point, isn't ready to predict a trend yet.
"I certainly don't anticipate that, because one year does not exactly equal 11," Young said. "We've got a long ways to go in that regard."
If the Cadets have taken to the wishbone with unseemly ease, it's probably because they hadn't had much success with anything else over the last decade and were just 2-9 in Young's first year.
"I think at that point we were so tired of losing we'd have done anything to change our fortunes," Stopa said.
Army's success with the wishbone in 1984 could well have been a fluke. But its fortunes changed for certain when it opened this season with five straight wins to climb briefly into the top 20 at 18th.
Then came the losses, at Notre Dame, 24-10, and later, Air Force, 45-7. The loss to the Falcons hurt the most; aside from the margin of defeat, it killed Army's shot at retaining the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy it claimed in 1984 as winner of the three-way service rivalry. But the Cadets followed it with a 49-7 victory over Memphis State Nov. 16.
"We had early success and we got into the Top 20," Stopa said. "I think maybe we might have forgotten what got us there. Now we're back on track."