By John Kekis
The Associated Press
Joe Steffy still goes to Michie Stadium to root for the home team. A fixture for more than a half-century at Army football games, sometimes he wonders why he bothers.
"There's enthusiasm in the crowd, but no one feels anymore that we're going to win. This week we're going into a game 31-point underdogs," Steffy said before Army lost 34-10 at Louisville on Oct. 11. "How can you be enthused?"
Once regularly in the top five in the nation in rushing, Army is last this year at 63.8 ypg, the only team in Division I averaging under 2 yards per carry.
Army's 24 turnovers lead the nation.
South Florida shut out Army 28-0 at Michie Stadium last month, the first time the Black Knights had been blanked at home since 1981.
Army opened this season 0-6 for the second straight year, is 0-4 in Conference USA, has been outscored 223-85 and hasn't scored an offensive touchdown in the first half.
The glory days of Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis and the national championships in 1944 and 1945 are just memories now. These are gray days for the Long Gray Line.
Under Todd Berry, fired last week after posting a 5-35 record in three-plus years as head coach, the Black Knights of the Hudson have one win in 18 games and a school-record 12 straight losses at home after Saturday's 38-32 overtime loss to East Carolina. Berry fielded two of the three worst teams in academy history: 1-10 in 2000 and 1-11 last year.
"It hurts," said Steffy, 77, an All-American guard, team captain and winner of the 1947 Outland Trophy as the nation's outstanding lineman.
"We were national champs back in the 40s. We were No. 3 in 1958, when Pete Dawkins won the Heisman Trophy," Steffy said. "Now, it looks like we're a third-world team, if we're even that good."
Since athletic director Rick Greenspan fired coach Bob Sutton two days after a 19-9 loss to Navy in 1999 - three years after Sutton was named national coach of the year for leading the Black Knights to a school-record 10 wins and a bowl berth - Army has plummeted:
Part of the slide can be blamed on Army's 1998 decision to give up independent status and join Conference USA, envisioning more money from television and perhaps a bowl game now and then.
Many thought that was a mistake. Army doesn't attract the high-impact, NFL-bound players who don't want to trade prime playing time for the military commitment required by the service academies.
"I didn't see what Army had in common," said Troy Lingley, a standout linebacker who graduated in 1989. "We joined for a chance to get to a bowl game and make some extra money. But if you can't win games, it doesn't make a difference."
Academy superintendent Lt. Gen. William Lennox Jr. decided in July to pull Army out of the conference after next season.
Others say Army was doomed when Berry jettisoned the ground gobbling wishbone in favor of a passing attack that has never clicked.
"It's smash-mouth football," former tailback Mike Mayweather said of the wishbone. He thrived in the offense, graduating in 1990 as the all-time leading rusher in service academy history with 4,299 yards.
Former coach Jim Young (51-39-1 at Army) installed the wishbone and won with it, including victories over Michigan State and Illinois in the academy's first bowl games.
Air Force coach Fisher DeBerry still uses the offense. The Falcons have beaten Army 13 times in the last 14 seasons, are 6-1 this year and are third in the nation in rushing at 297.4 yards per game. Archrival Navy also still runs the option. The Middies are 4-2 this season and lead the nation in rushing with 313.8 yards per game.
"When Berry changed more to a pro-style offense, I wasn't confident he could recruit those types of athletes," Lingley said.
Interim coach John Mumford said his biggest challenge will be "getting the kids on track mentally."
"They're very dedicated athletes and they're not winning," said Mike Breslin, West Point Class of 1961. "At some point, if they're not careful, the failure to win can be corrosive."
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