WEST POINT, N.Y. (AP) — When Army came calling at Jeff Monken’s door, departing for the north was not on his mind. He was content as head coach at Georgia Southern, fresh from pulling off one of the biggest college football upsets in recent memory — 26-20 over the Florida Gators in “The Swamp.”
“I had a great job where I was and hadn’t really thought about it (leaving),” said Monken, who coached Georgia Southern for four seasons and guided the program into the top level of college football in that final year.
Having been an assistant at Georgia Southern, Navy, and Georgia Tech under Paul Johnson, where he learned the nuances of the triple option, Monken was the perfect candidate.
And there was this.
“I have a great admiration for our military and to consider being in a leadership position at what I think is the world’s best leadership laboratory, West Point, that really captured my interest,” said Monken, who will lead the Black Knights (9-2) against West Virginia (5-4) in the Liberty Bowl in Tennessee on Thursday. “I didn’t serve in the military, and so I guess in some way I feel like it’s my opportunity to serve and develop and prepare the next generation of leaders for our Army. I know what we teach in our program is going to go a lot farther than our locker room.”
His players have responded remarkably well. Milestones accomplished as Monken’s seventh season comes to a close include: won the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy, the annual round-robin with Navy and Air Force, in back-to-back seasons (2017-18) for the first time in program history; won an academy-record 11 games in 2018 and finished ranked No. 19 by the AP, and also earned the Lambert Trophy as the top team in the East for the first time in 60 years; guided the Black Knights to three unbeaten seasons at Michie Stadium; beat Navy in 2016 for the first time since 2001 and now has won four of five against the Mids, in the end the standard for keeping the job.
To put that in perspective as the 53-year-old Monken strives to complete a third season with double-digit victories and notch his 50th win at West Point, consider this: Two decades ago Army finished 1-10 to begin a four-year stretch that produced just five wins in 47 games, capped by a 0-13 season in 2003, still the worst in NCAA history.
“He’s a tough, hard coach, and you can coach that way if the players know that you genuinely care about them and love them, and that’s the situation we’ve got here right now,” said assistant coach Tucker Waugh, who was on staff in those dark days at the turn of this century. “They trust him and he trusts them in turn. They respond really well.”
Brotherhood is a word thrown around football locker rooms all over the country. It has a special meaning at West Point. The Army media guide lists 167 players from all over the country, so many that only 30 don’t have a teammate with the same number and there are 11 groups of three players who have the same number. Pick a name or a number and ask the head coach, and he’ll immediately respond with the player’s hometown, high school, and likely something about a parent. It’s a tactic Monken says he picked up from former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel and the players are expected to follow suit.
“He’s exceptional along those lines. It’s definitely not the normal,” Waugh said. “From time to time he’ll call on a guy and say, ‘Hey, who’s this? Where’s he from?’ The players, they’re studying. They don’t want to be put on the spot. They want to have the right answer. The bottom line is it’s important and he puts the effort into it.”
That brotherhood is bolstered by a family man with a wife and three daughters, along with his ubiquitous father, Mike, who’s been on the sideline for all eight games at Michie Stadium during this pandemic-strafed season. Mike Monken, one of five brothers who coached high school football in Illinois and are in the state’s High School Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame, and his wife are fixtures at games, all smiles when their son leads the Black Knights out of the locker room.
One big happy family.
“It kind of just comes down to our three core fundamentals and characteristics that we really see as most important for our culture, and that’s trust, commitment and love,” said senior captain Mike Johnson, whose class has won an academy-record 35 games. “I think with this team you see that to the highest step. You see guys who care about each other, who trust each other unconditionally and who just completely are committed to do whatever it takes, whatever role they need to do, to win. Those little things day-to-day turn into great successes.”
Added Monken: “I’m happy that we’ve been able to change the fortunes of this program, but I’m more happy about the fact that we gave our players the opportunity to experience success on the football field, to have that sense of pride as they leave here and go on in the Army. They changed Army football and had a great experience and are going to look back on their college experience satisfied and happy and proud. That’s what I’m most pleased with.”
Oh, and one other thing: “Beat Navy!”
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