WEST POINT, N.Y. (AP) — Rich Ellerson thumbs through the old program that sits atop the coffee table in his office. It’s from the 1962 Army-Navy game.

The Black Knights’ new football coach quickly finds the page he’s looking for — clearly he has done this before — and points to a picture of John Ellerson, Army defensive end, team captain, Rich’s older brother and one of three men in the family to graduate from West Point (their father and another brother also were cadets).

So when Ellerson calls his gig “the most important job in the country” he is not dealing in hyperbole.

He didn’t attend West Point himself, but turning around a tattered program and making Army a winner again is a personal mission for Ellerson, not merely a step on the career ladder

“The United States Military Academy in a time of war struggling in a game that’s a metaphor for combat, that’s not right,” said Ellerson, his square jaw, close cut hair and wiry frame giving him a straight-from-central-casting look for the job. “Everybody wants to win. We need to win.

“In my world that’s a big deal.”

It’s also not hyperbole to say Army football has never endured such a terrible stretch as it has the last dozen seasons.

The program that produced college football icons such as Hall of Fame coach Earl “Red” Blaik and his famed Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside backfield of Heisman Trophy winners Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis has become a doormat.

One of the great venues in all of sports, 85-year-old Michie Stadium, sitting on a bluff above the Hudson River, has not been home to a winning team since 1996.

That season, coach Bob Sutton’s Black Knights went 10-2.

Since then, Army has taken every wrong turn imaginable. Every mistake compounded by the next one. The wrong coaches playing the wrong style against the wrong opponents.

Army is 30-108 over the last 12 seasons, each ending with a losing record. Even worse, the Cadets have lost seven straight games to Navy, the Middies’ longest winning streak in the series.

“It’s been tough,” said former Army coach Jim Young, who was part of the committee that helped hire Ellerson. “Particularly, knowing that Air Force and Navy are similar and having success.”

Young coached Army from 1983-1990, going 51-39-1 and rescuing the program from hard times by installing a triple-option offense.

Even then, the days of Army being a national power as it was in the 1940s — when the Cadets won consecutive national titles under Blaik — were long gone. But Young proved Army could still be competitive.

The option helped level the playing field for Army, which could no longer match up athletically with the majority of major college football teams.

“The advantage of option football is the cadets are very disciplined people and an option attack requires discipline and a team functioning together,” Young said.

The trouble started for Army in 1998. Worried about being able to function as an independent when almost every college football team was aligning with a conference, Army joined Conference USA. It was the first step toward oblivion. Army, literally, could not keep up in a league loaded with speed.

Mistake No. 2: To keep pace with C-USA opponents heading into the 21st century, former athletic director Rick Greenspan decided Army needed a more modern offensive approach.

Out went the option, in came coach Todd Berry and his spread offense with plans to fling the football around Michie Stadium. It was a disaster.

In three-plus seasons under Berry, Army went 5-35. He did lead Army to a 26-17 against Navy in 2001, the Cadets’ last victory in the storied rivalry.

The next season, Navy hired Paul Johnson as coach. Using his triple-option offense, the Midshipmen have had six consecutive winning seasons, even though Johnson himself has moved on to Georgia Tech.

Army left Conference USA after the 2004 season. Good move. Before that season, Bobby Ross was hired to coach the Black Knights. Bad move.

Ross had a glitzy resume that included a national championship with Georgia Tech and a Super Bowl appearance with the San Diego Chargers. But he was 68 at the time and not a long-term solution. Nor was his West Coast offense. Army won nine games in three seasons under Ross, and the timing of his departure in January 2007 left the school in a bind.

Assistant Stan Brock was hastily promoted and two 3-9 seasons followed, though at least Army was using the option again in 2008.

After Brock was let go, athletic director Kevin Anderson determined it was time for Army football to go “back to the future.”

No one needs to sell Army’s players on the significance turning the program around.

“It’s important not only for this program to win but for everyone that’s in our corps to feel that winning spirit, so that when we go on to the profession of arms, into the military, that we build on that winning mentality and expect to win at everything we do,” linebacker Stephen Anderson said.

Ellerson seems to be the perfect fit.

A coach with West Point ties, an option offense (he and Johnson worked together at Hawaii) and a lifelong desire to work at West Point. When he signed his last contract at Cal Poly, where he went 56-34 in eight seasons, he made sure there would be no buyout if he left to become Army’s head coach.

Where most people see stumbling blocks to success on the football field at Army — high academic standards, rigorous dawn-to-dusk responsibilities, a military commitment after graduation — Ellerson sees the perfect breeding ground for a winning football team.

“It’s a martial game. This institution is about leadership and developing leaders in character in the United States Army,” he said. “There are some things about the West Point culture — duty, honor, country — that set our guys completely apart from their contemporaries and draw them nearer to the game.

“We’re trying to tap into that culture, to those experiences and make them translate.”

It’s that kind of outlook that has hopes rising around West Point.

“I strongly believe if Rich Ellerson can’t turn this program around,” Kevin Anderson said, “I don’t know if there is a coach who can.”

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