By Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman on Twitter)
I had a chance recently to talk college football with former Air Force coach Fisher DeBerry, who won 169 games in 23 years with the Falcons. The College Football Hall of Famer now spends time with his family in South Carolina and Oklahoma and does great work with his foundation. He also votes in the Legends Poll, which will be released on Sunday. Coach DeBerry discusses the state of collegiate athletics, realignment, current teams and some of the greatest players and places from his outstanding career.
Patrick Snow: There have been several scandals lately, and many at storied places like Miami, USC and Ohio State. What do you make of the current state of college football, and what coaches can do about it?
Fisher DeBerry: It’s very disheartening because that’s not what intercollegiate athletics is all about. The purpose of intercollegiate athletics is to teach life values, and the most important person in the program is the player himself. We’re trying to help them become the people they want to be and have opportunities to find their rightful place in society. I think that’s what the basic foundation of college athletics is all about. Unfortunately, the almighty dollar has crept in the sport and caused a lot of pressure and certainly a lot of unfortunate things to happen. It’s a sad indictment on college football, to be honest with you, but we need to understand that coaches are in the game to help kids. I know the heart and soul of these coaches, and most went into coaching for the same reason I did - to help kids. However, they are certainly not in control of the kids 24/7.
PS: Do you see any validity to players being paid?
FD: First of all, again, it defies the main intent of what college athletics is all about. That intent should be to get an education and have a great experience, and so I think anything more than the scholarship, room and board, tuition and what the NCAA allows is what everybody should do. We have Pell Grants and things like that for kids that really need it, but the unfortunate thing is that some kids don’t use that money the way that’s in their best interest. I don’t think adding more money necessarily is the answer. I think we have to scrutinize more the people who give to the programs and hang around the programs. Kids are kids. They don’t have their hands out, but if somebody walks up to them and wants to help them in an illegal way - and it’s substantial – then it’s very tempting. They’re kids, and I think we have to be very conscious of who is hanging around the program.
PS: Let’s move on the field. The Legends Poll comes out this Sunday, but who are some of your favorites this season to play in the BCS and for the national championship?
FD: Some of the teams I like are Oklahoma, Alabama, LSU, Oregon, Florida State, Stanford, Boise State, Oklahoma State, Nebraska and Wisconsin. There are a lot of teams right below them that will make a lot of noise and can have a major impact on what it will look like at the end of the season, but that’s my ten to start out. Oklahoma has a great quarterback and outstanding receivers, particularly [Ryan] Broyles. They offensive line has experience, but they had a tragic loss at linebacker and some injuries there as well. They have Florida State this weekend, so that will be a big game for both teams. Oklahoma probably has the most depth. Alabama has a great running back but may have a question at quarterback. They certainly have great athletes throughout the program.
PS: Who do you think could challenge Alabama and LSU in the SEC?
FD: I think South Carolina. They have some big-time players and just need the quarterback to be more consistent. They have a running back as good as anyone in the country and a receiver as there is in the country. Their thing is to improve defensively, and they have some really good edge players. It’s the first time in four or five years that they have the same offensive line coach for two years in a row. The quarterback has experience, and there’s no substitute for playing experience. And you know Arkansas, if their quarterback steps up, they can surprise a lot of people. They have some doggone good wide receivers, and their defense is getting better.
PS: You really like Nebraska and Wisconsin. Are they the most likely pair to play in the first Big Ten Championship Game?
FD: Yes, but I don’t think you can rule out Penn State or Michigan State, and Ohio State is Ohio State. They still have some great players and they still have great tradition. Adversity can bond a team and bring the best out in them, and we’ll just have to see how they handle losing a star quarterback and a great coach.
PS: We now have Nebraska in the Big Ten and Colorado and Utah in the Pac-12, and the Texas A&M to the SEC story has dominated the headlines. What do you make of the current expansion, especially if leagues go past the current 12-team threshold towards 16-team “Superconferences”? Is this a bad direction for college football?
FD: Having gone down that road, I think it is. Twelve is the best number, and the reason I say that is in the Western Athletic Conference we went to 16 teams. At the first conference meeting we had an agenda that we thought would take three hours, and after three hours we had only covered two items. We had to come back and have an extra meeting the next day, something a lot of coaches did not like. What happens when you get 16bteams is that you’re not going to be able to satisfy everybody. It’s so important that everybody is behind the conference and believes in everything going on within the conference, and they want to promote it. With too many [teams], teams begin to look out for themselves more than they do the overall betterment of the conference itself. It seems to be a very workable number to have 12, but money is going to dictate these decisions. You’re looking for TV markets and bringing revenue in.
PS: Let’s talk about some of the superlatives from your outstanding career. Who would you consider your best player on the college level?
FD: The best player we had at the Academy overall was Chad Hennings [also a College Football Hall of Famer], and he went on to have nine years in the NFL after fulfilling his military obligation. He got three Super Bowl rings. He really grew in the program and had great God-given skills. He had so much pride and wanted to be great, and he went on to win the Outland Trophy his senior year. Chad was just a great role model for college football and the Academy. We also had a great quarterback in Dee Dowis, who ran the triple option probably as well as anyone has ever run it. For a number of years, he held the NCAA record for rushing yards by a quarterback. And Beau Morgan was a great player for us as well. He was the first quarterback in successive years to rush and pass for over 1,000 yards in the same season.
PS: Who would you say was the best player you faced, the guy that gave you and your staff the most headaches?
FD: Oh my. In 23 years at the Academy, there were so many. I held my breath every time Rocket Ismail got his hands on the ball for Notre Dame. Also Allen Pickett, the great running back, and certainly Tim Brown [both of Notre Dame]. I always wondered where he was on the field. Those were great players. Robert Smith of Ohio State was one that every time he touched it you held your breath, but we were fortunate to beat them in the Liberty Bowl. Marshall Faulk too; we were fortunate to beat them two of the three years he was at San Diego State. He was one of the great ones. LaDainian Tomlinson of TCU has his coming out party when they beat us 35-34, and it was the only game we lost that year .
PS: What were some of the best environments where you coached and that represent what college football should be?
FD: I always enjoyed playing at Notre Dame, especially before the expansion of the stadium. The fans were right on top of you there, but they really appreciated good football. Tennessee was a fun place to go and play. They had 106,000 people or so, and they must have played “Rocky Top” 200 times. BYU was a tough place to play, especially when you got behind and their crowd really got into it. Another great place to play is Army because their kids really get into the game.
PS: What is the moment that still hurts the most from your career? Maybe one where you still look back and wish that you could redo it.
FD: In 1985, Penn State and Air Force were the only two undefeated teams in that last game of the season. Penn State played Pittsburgh and won and had we beaten BYU, it was very likely we would have played them [Penn State]. BYU intercepted a pass in the end zone and beat us 28-21 that day. That was really tough. Also, we played Northwestern in 1994. We had a pretty good football team but had lost to Colorado State and BYU in the first two games. Northwestern came in, and we dominated the game all day long but fumbled right before the half and that would have put us up. Late in the game it was 10-7, and we fumbled the ball on the same play as the end of the first half. They picked it up and ran 98 yards, and we lose 14-10. However, that team did come back and win eight of the next nine games, and I was really proud of them. One more was the one-point loss we had at Tennessee in 2006. I went for two at the end and got beat 31-30. If I had it to do over again, I told Chad Hall who’s now with the Eagles when I was driving through Knoxville last summer that I would run the same play again.
PS: What are some favorite rivalries in college football, whether you were part of them or just enjoy watching?
FD: Alabama-Auburn is obviously a special game. Certainly our [Air Force] games with Army and Navy were very, very special. Living now in Oklahoma part of the time, that is certainly a special game between Oklahoma and Texas. Your USC-UCLA games, Oregon-Oregon State games, South Carolina-Clemson games; it’s those instate rivalries that really excite you about college football.
PS: Who are some of the coaches who you admire and respect the most?
FD: I have great respect for Bobby Bowden. Bobby and I have been good friends. When I was named the head coach at Air Force, I picked up the phone and called Bobby to find out what I was supposed to do. Bobby was so gracious, and we remain good friends. Certainly I have a great respect for Grant Teaff and his coaching, and he was always a great mentor. I think Bob Stoops sets a great standard and is a great role model for all coaches across the country. We have so many great coaches in the game today, and sometimes we need to recognize more the great things they do on and off the field. Coaches care about the communities that they live in and work in, and they care about the people in their state and those who support their program. Coaches are my heroes because I know and respect so much the heart of a coach.