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Army Cadets struggle to reclaim old glory

Army football is loaded with bright, courageous, patriotic, dedicated young men, but they are America's worst college team.

Old soldiers around the world expressed disgust and embarrassment over West Point football futility. Many remember 1944-46 glories when Red Blaik, a coaching wizard blessed with Doc Blanchard, Glenn Davis and a load of athletically skilled Cadets, went 27-0-1 with a scoreless tie against Notre Dame.

It'll never be like that again. Today's most talented jocks have NFL fantasies and enlist at football-rich places where students are unlikely to ever salute a boss or wind up facing the most challenging of all situations in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Army should be measured only against service academies. But even that has been sour. Navy is clearly superior, having put 58-12 and 34-6 pain on the Cadets the past two seasons.

Air Force, in a 21st season of coaching excellence by Fisher DeBerry, flies in a splendid stratosphere, achieving a 157-89-1 record since 1984 with 17 winning years and 12 bowls.

Soldiers are envious.

Two years ago, at the Army-Navy game, I asked 10 West Point graduates why Air Force is so much more successful than Army or even Navy. All agreed that the Falcons are good at selling solid football talent on passing up a long-shot NFL chance in exchange for an extraordinary education plus an opportunity to fly fighter jets.

As for Navy, the Middies became repetitive losers after George Welsh left to coach at Virginia in 1982, but football respect is now restored at Annapolis. Paul Johnson was hired from Georgia Southern and, in his third season, Navy went 8-5 in 2003, including a loss to Texas Tech in the Houston Bowl.

Army has had a khaki bellyful of being called "the Blank Knights of the Hudson." Last season, they became the first Division I-A team to go 0-13. West Point was outscored 476-206.

Oh, yes, it's a quest more difficult than even Navy faced, but at last you sense a fiery, purposeful attitude as well as ample resources dedicated to bringing smiles back to Michie Stadium.

Football-hungry old solders raised $65-million. Army's facilities were upgraded and the Cadets went searching for their Paul Johnson. But what big-name coach was willing to take on the monster West Point task? Tom Osborne, Bill Parcells and even Nebraska's freshly fired Frank Solichsaid no.

But, there was this retired fellow his coaching history unquestionably rich, building a power at Maryland, earning a shocking share of the 1990 national championship at Georgia Tech, and then some NFL wonderworks, taking the 1994 Chargers to a Super Bowl.

Bobby Ross has a magnificent portfolio, but four years ago the coaching business brought him down. Hired away from San Diego by Detroit, he quit the struggling Lions in midseason. There was talk of an emotional breakdown.

An old soldier himself, an Army first lieutenant in his youth, Bobby moved home to Lexington, Va., fading into obscurity alongside the campus of his alma mater, Virginia Military Institute. One of his sons graduated from the Air Force Academy, another from the Naval Academy.

But the itch wasn't dead. Army came along with a $700,000-a-year offer. Ross is 67, but his juices are reinvigorated. West Point football is in the the multiaccomplished hands of a tough old trooper.

I don't know if even he Eight days ago, Army played its first game under Bobby, getting flogged 52-21 by Louisville, a 16th consecutive loss for Army. Saturday night brought another chance against Houston.

To begin with, Ross keeps beating on the fabled chest of West Point football, trying to find a 21st century pulse.

He has my cheers.

QUICK HITTERS: ESPN basketball specialist Andy Katz's preseason rankings have Florida 24th, FSU 33rd and an ACC-heavy top five of Wake Forest, North Carolina, Kansas, Georgia Tech and Syracuse. Steffi Graf, staring at husband Andre Agassi during her Tennis Hall of Fame induction speech, cooed that "the best part of the tour was that I ran into you." Terry Mulholland, at 41 a well-traveled baseball pitcher now with Minnesota, has beaten every one of the 30 major-league teams. Nothing in the Washington loss altered my thinking, that O-line is the Bucs' biggest problem, because when skills are lacking there, chances diminish of running or passing efficiently. Tony Siragusa was a colorful NFL 330-pound defensive lineman who has become a massively uninformative, really poorly dressed waste of time as a Fox TV sideline analyst.

Hubert Mizell can be contacted at mmizell02earthlink.net.

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