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Academic approach to the spectacular
Pat Putnam
October 12, 1970
The Air Force Academy has twice been obliged to de-emphasize its team, but its array of quick, smart players like Ernie Jennings (right) wins anyway
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October 12, 1970

Academic Approach To The Spectacular

The Air Force Academy has twice been obliged to de-emphasize its team, but its array of quick, smart players like Ernie Jennings (right) wins anyway

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Nothing should. In 1958, Martin inherited 41 players, 18 of them freshmen moving up. The year before, the Falcons had gone 3-6-1. The team was dispirited and disorganized. "Oh, oh," said Martin, "let's go back to the basics—and let's have fun." Air Force did, and somehow went unbeaten, tying Iowa en route and ending with a scoreless tie against TCU in the Cotton Bowl.

Then some military types stepped in. "It's a football factory," they said. Martin was ordered to cut back on recruiting, which was like taking something from not much. At the same time, the Academy's athletic director plunged on with his scheduling, lining up such breathers as UCLA, Missouri, SMU, Stanford, Washington and Nebraska. By 1963 Air Force had recovered enough to be 7-3 but then got shelled 35-0 by North Carolina in the Gator Bowl. Martin came home and asked for a new contract. He still had 18 months on his old one. The brass said no. Martin said, "I quit." There was a consultation and Martin got his contract, plus a promise of more civilian assistants and the chance to try and get more qualified athletes into the Academy. (As at West Point, the cadet body at the Air Force Academy was being increased from 2,700 to 4,400, matching the Naval Academy's size.) That storm had hardly settled when a cheating scandal broke in January of 1965. Two cadets stole examination papers and sold them to others. Before it was over, 109 cadets had resigned, 29 of them varsity football players. And Martin was ordered to de-emphasize again.

Since then there have been many changes in the command at the Academy. For one, Brigadier General Robin Olds became the commandant of cadets. Olds was an All-America tackle at West Point in 1942. Army's other All-America tackle that year was Frank Merritt, now the Air Force Academy's athletic director. These days Martin's football program gets no more than it deserves, but it certainly gets no less. Football and basketball pay their own way at the Academy. What is spent must come from gate receipts and from donations—the $3.5-million, 40,000-seat Falcon Stadium was built entirely from donations. There are lots of Congressmen watching to see that things stay that way.

"The reason we are a better football team is because at last we are getting the better athlete," said Jim Bowman, the assistant athletic director for candidate counseling. "When we began recruiting, a high school coach would say he had a boy not good enough as an athlete for Michigan or Stanford, but good enough for us. And service-minded kids wanted to go to Army or Navy. Now, because of the times, the space age, we are getting our full share."

"It's the Now generation," says Martin. "And we are the Now Academy. We offer 28 majors, and students can go as fast as their learning ability allows. Our students can complete some of their graduate work before they get their bachelor's degree. And a lot of the students who come here now are fine athletes."

"Are they different from the type of athlete Navy had when you played?" Martin was asked. Martin laughed, perhaps thinking of the tough All-Americas that Navy had recruited for its crushing wartime teams. "They're a different breed. We have a democratic football program here. It's a soft sell. I have my input, and the players have their input. Against Missouri, we were leading 30-0 with a fourth-and-goal on the one. I wanted to go for a field goal. The players said they wanted to go for a touchdown. I abstained. When I was a player at Navy we never would have done that. We might have mentioned it in the huddle, but we never would have said anything to the coaches."

Plenty of people are hearing from the Air Force this year.

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