By BJ Bennett
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As a new head football coach continues his diligent preparations, the why is just as significant as the how.
Of all of the traits new head football coach Jeff Monken has brought to the United States Military Academy, perspective might be his most important.
Fresh off a run at Georgia Southern that included three consecutive trips to the national semifinals and ended with a historic triumph over Florida, Monken has a direct energy and persistence that should resonate well at West Point. He leads by example, a tireless worker who has come up through the high school and NCAA Division III ranks to college football's highest level. A member of one of the game's top coaching families, Monken has a new bond upon which to build; the relationship between man and country.
Monken credits much of his development to his time spent in Statesboro, his first stint as a head coach. An assistant with the Eagles from 1997-2001, Monken followed Paul Johnson to Navy and ultimately Georgia Tech. Monken went 38-16 at Georgia Southern, helping to restore the winning tradition of a program known for constant contention.
"I had an opportunity to work there twice, once as an assistant under coach Johnson. We were tremendously successful, and then to go back and be a part of the program as a head coach was an honor and thrill for me," Monken explained on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. "I'm a Georgia Southern man and always will be. It's a great place special place."
The opportunity ahead will start as a march uphill. Army has just one winning season since 1996 and, most disappointingly, has lost 12 consecutive games to archrival Navy. Not one of the last five coaches of the Black Knights won more than a third of their games. A year ago, Army won just three times and lost five straight to end the season. In their finale against the Midshipmen, the Black Knights compiled merely 207 yards of total offense.
Step one, for Monken, is changing the culture and expectations, establishing a status quo on the field that mirrors all that the players do off of it.
"The number of classes that our students take, along with the requirement that everyone has to play a sport and then the military requirements, there is a lot on their plate," he stated. "It's done that way purposely so these guys learn to manage time and learn to take on a lot of responsibility. They are going to have that when they take on leadership positions in the military. It sets them up for success for the rest of their lives."
The service academy lifestyle is nothing new for Monken, who was an assistant in Annapolis from 2002-2007. In terms of infrastructure and operations, the experience has valuable transparency. The one-time wide receiver at tiny Millikin University in central Illinois is also quite familiar with college football's most passionate and poignant annual tilt.
"We have had a great experience here, getting acclimated, settled in and getting our cleats dug into the rivalry with Navy," Monken continued. "I was apart of this rivalry as an assistant. Now I'm on the other side, finally the right side of the rivalry, and we look forward to being able to compete in this big game."
Fair or unfair, Navy, and to a lesser extent Air Force, are constant measuring sticks for Army. Monken is quick to embrace expectations. In the modern era, Jim Young won nearly 57% of his games from 1983-1990 and Bob Sutton reached the ten-win plateau in 1996. That fall, the Black Knights topped Duke, Rutgers, the Midshipmen and Falcons, and very nearly upended Terry Bowden and Auburn in the Independence Bowl.
As validated by his decision to leave on-the-rise Georgia Southern, now a member of the FBS Sun Belt Conference, Monken is ready to be rebuild one of the nation's most influential programs.
"It's about changing the day-to-day approach to our job and I say that from the standpoint of our players. It's their job, their responsibility to this program and this institution, to be successful," he nodded. "That isn't something that happens overnight. You have to change that over the course of time and that is still a process we are going through."
Confidence, albeit sometimes quiet and reserved, is another Monken mainstay. The Eagles had not won ten games in nearly a decade prior to his arrival on campus. Monken matched or beat that mark in each of his first three years. In what proved to be Monken's grand finale, Georgia Southern won at Florida -- and did so without completing a pass.
Attitude was as important as athleticism in Statesboro, sentiments that will soon be on display in southern New York.
"I wouldn't have come here if I didn't believe we had a chance to be successful," Monken acknowledged. "And at West Point, the United States Military Academy with this great history and what this institution means to our country, we need to win. This school deserves to have a winning football program. We have to win. I think our players are hungry and that they want to turn it around. I believe we can."
Gridiron glory, at Army, will never overshadow the charge. The goal is for it all to be intertwined.
"Everything we do here is in support of the big picture. We don't lose sight of that, but they hired me to do a job here and that is to be the football coach. My job is to field a team that this institution, the United States Army and the citizens of our country can look at proudly and say 'that is our team'," Monken added.
As a new head football coach continues his diligent preparations, the why is just as significant as the how. Monken has seen what it takes to succeed at a service academy. Above all else, he sees what it means.