‘Group of Five’ countdown, No. 5: Troy Calhoun, Air Force
The service academies have found a path to competing against schools with less stringent academic standards and far better track records for sending players to the NFL, schools with bigger, stronger athletes.
Precise, disciplined execution of the triple-option offense has become an equalizer for Air Force, Army and Navy, whose pool of recruits is limited to athletes who don’t harbor NFL dreams, don’t get scared off by a commitment to military service and don’t expect to compete for national titles.
One of the benefits of the run-heavy offense is that opponents aren’t accustomed to defending the offense used by so few schools. It’s tough preparing for a completely defense for one week.
So why don’t more schools use the offense. Maybe they don’t have confidence that they get their players to execute so precisely, with such discipline because their players aren’t as smart and aren’t as buttoned up as future soldiers. They might also not want to take the plunge because it makes recruiting top-notch athletes more difficult.
Plus, it’s viewed by some as something of a surrender, an admission that conventional methods just won’t get it done.
Skeptics wonder: Can it work in a power-five conference?
It already is working. Paul Johnson won two Division I-AA national titles with his flexbone offense in 1999 and 2000, took it to Navy, where he went 45-29, and is heading into his 11th season at Georgia Tech.
Johnson has had six winning ACC records, three .500 marks and just one losing conference season. He’s in a bit of a rut, his teams having gone 9-15 in conference play the past three seasons, compared to 37-19 the first seven, so this will be a big season for him. Branches of his coaching tree are experiencing no such rut and continue to do remarkable things. Navy’s Ken Niumatalolo and Army’s Jeff Monken have engineered amazing turnarounds, and Brian Bohannon started from scratch a program at Kennesaw State in 2015. Bohannon’s overall and Big South Conference records: 6-5, 2-4; 8-3, 3-2; 12-2, 5-0.
Being different still has its value in a copy-cat sport and the best way to be different in today’s pass-happy football climate is to run the triple option.
No. 5 — Troy Calhoun, Air Force
Record at school: 82-60
Overall record: 82-60
Impressive win: vs. No. 19 Boise State, 27-20, Nov. 25, 2016
Why he's on the list: In using his Mulligan hire after Charlie Weis didn’t work out, Sheahon Zenger gave serious consideration to hiring a triple-option coach. His thinking was that by going with a coach who does things completely differently from the rest of the conference, Kansas not only would put opposing defensive coordinators through tough times one week a year, Kansas could recruit athletes that might not fit a spread offense but could excel in a triple-option, such as smaller, more mobile offensive linemen. So instead of standing in line behind nine other schools for the same recruits, Kansas could be the only Big 12 school wooing them.
It was a good thought by Zenger, but in the end he was swayed more by the potential for David Beaty to make Kansas a big-time player for Texas high school recruits than by the positive feedback he received about Calhoun, as buttoned-up a football coach as you’ll find anywhere. His offenses, which all but ignore the forward pass, consistently produce big numbers because the players are so well-drilled in running the triple option.
A native of McMinnville, Oregon, Calhoun played quarterback at Air Force (1985-88) and started his coaching career as a graduate assistant at his alma mater under Fisher DeBerry. Calhoun then served his military commitment and returned to Air Force to continue working as an assistant, starting as recruiting coordinator and JV offensive coordinator.
Calhoun then become OC at Ohio University, where his offense set school records for yards, and at Wake Forest, where the school led the ACC in yardage.
Calhoun went to work for the Denver Broncos and followed Gary Kubiak to the Houston Texans, where he became offensive coordinator before taking over as head coach at Air Force in 2007.
The Falcons finished fourth in the nation with 307.42 rushing yards per game, ranking behind only Army, Navy and Arizona.
Calhoun’s triple option banks more heavily on the tailback and less on the quarterback and fullback than the offenses of the other service academies. It has worked well for him. Calhoun inherited from his college coach a program coming off of three consecutive losing seasons. He has had eight winning seasons and three losing ones since taking over the program.
We’ll never know if Calhoun would have left his alma mater for the Kansas job. If he had become Weis’ successor, might Zenger still be the athletic director? Probably. Ditto for if Zenger had hired Dave Doeren, then at Northern Illinois, now at North Carolina State, instead of Weis.