For Joe Drape's bestselling Our Boys, the New York Times reporter profiled a small-town Kansas high-school football team that strung together a record-breaking winning streak despite a town population of fewer than 2,000 and a correspondingly shallow talent pool. To study his subject, Drape relocated his family to Smith Center, Kansas, for an in-depth look at what constitutes success in football and life in small-town America.
"These are smart, motivated guys, who look you in the eye, and they know when what you're saying is hollow."
In his latest book, Soldiers First: Duty, Honor, Country, and Football at West Point, Drape once again gets up close to a storied program, this time at a far more guarded place: the US Military Academy, in West Point, New York.Gelf recently spoke to Drape by phone about Army's hippie coach, the other service academies' recruiting advantage, and how he'd feel if his son went to West Point. The interview has been edited for clarity.
Gelf Magazine: For Our Boys, you relocated your family out to Smith Center for the season. This time you didn't have to move to the Midwest for the story. How was it getting up to West Point from your home in Manhattan?
Joe Drape: It's a lot closer than Kansas; it was about 45 minutes up to West Point from New York, over the George Washington Bridge and up the Palisades Parkway. Getting into the Academy, especially now since 9/11, is pretty involved to clear security, but once I got over to the football program I had free access.Gelf Magazine: How is Army football different than what we're seeing elsewhere in Division I?
Joe Drape: With the big college-football programs, we've seen with the recent conference realignments what it's often about: money. There's so much going on at West Point beyond the football. It's an Ivy-League caliber education and football is just one component of these players' lives. Where you or I might have taken 15 or 17 credits in college per semester, these guys are taking that, plus six to nine military credits on top of that, and they have all the extra requirements of being a cadet. These are the good guys of college sports.
Gelf Magazine: When Nick Saban is leading Alabama out against, say, Vanderbilt, we have a pretty good idea of how the game is going to go, whether or not he comes up with an effective motivational speech. That's not the case with a head coach at Army, where you've got to motivate guys to play teams that often are more athletic than them.Joe Drape: [Coach Rich] Ellerson does have to pick his spots as a motivator. Once you start tossing around a lot of "fuck thems" to get your players motivated, you've lost them. These are smart, motivated guys, who look you in the eye, and they know when what you're saying is hollow.
One of the things that motivated me to write the book was Ellerson; he understands West Point and he's trying to work within the community and culture. His father went there and Ellerson knows and respects the tradition, but he also can be pretty unconventional. Some of his players call him a "hippie coach." He has them doing yoga and breathing exercises.
Ellerson also understands the special demands on the cadets. One of the things he's done is to try to reduce the overall practice time since the players have so much going on beyond football. He's got the number of full practices down to three a week.
The head coach was one of the reasons I was drawn to Smith Center for Our Boys, too. There, it was Coach Barta.
Gelf Magazine: You focused on a few particular players when you took a look at the 2011 Army team. One was quarterback Trent Steelman, another was linebacker Andrew Rodriguez. I'm most familiar with Steelman from watching the Army-Navy games; I know he takes a lot of hits running the option.
Joe Drape: Trent's an incredibly tough football guy. A lot of guys struggle, but cadet life hasn't been the perfect match for him. He's an example of a guy who Ellerson inherited who was maybe not a great match for West Point life.
A-Rod [Rodriguez] is another incredible guy. In the book I say he's got a 4.14 grade-point average and ranked third in his class. When I say that, it's not just academics. There's Academics, Militarytheir performance on everything from inspection to training missions, solidering, basicallyand Physical; they have to be in shape and of character.
Gelf Magazine: Turning to the football, all three academies run a variation of what I'll call Navy's triple option. Would you say that in order for them to compete they have to run these type of sets? Something that isolates a few key guys on the defense into decision-making?
Joe Drape: Of all the aspects of the book, I'm probably the least well-versed in the Xs or Os. I do think the academies will stick with the option-based offenses because basically they can get numbers on the other team at the point of attack: four guys on three, or five on four. Like you said, it also forces the decision-making on the defense, and allows the academies to dictate the play even if they're not as big as the other team. They have some bruising backs so also run some wishbone. Ellerson's been effective with the option and they've also, defensively, done a good job employing his double-eagle flex.
Gelf Magazine: You allude to some advantage that Air Force and Navy might have over Army in recruiting athletes in general. When it comes to running those offenses it helps to have a good athlete at quarterback making those snap decisions, so the recruiting is especially important there.
Joe Drape: None of the academies knock one another, but the Air Force and Navy have a recruiting advantage. The Army means boots on the ground in combat after West Point. Coming out of the Naval Academy or the Air Force Academy, players could be serving from a plane or a ship. That makes a difference in recruiting. Wouldn't you say Air Force or Navy has had the best option quarterbacks recently?
Joe Drape: The similarities are there, too, for the academies. Army's goals for a successful season would be: 1) Beat Navy; 2) Win the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy; 3) Win a bowl game.
Gelf Magazine: One of the best games for the team in the book, without giving too much away, was the home game against Northwestern. Obviously Army players are physically smaller than most any team they play, particularly one coming out of the Big Ten, but they held their own.
Joe Drape: Northwestern is a great opponent; Army should schedule them every year. They are big bodies but don't have depth at some of the skill positions like some of the other Big Ten teams.
Gelf Magazine: How would you feel about your own son attending West Point?
Joe Drape: If my Jack were admitted to West Point, I'd be both thrilled and terrified.