When Lt. Gen. Robert Caslen took charge at West Point, he declared war on mediocrity.
“I need to work all across West Point to build this winning culture,” he told Military Times in 2014, about a year into his tenure as superintendent (which ends Friday). “Mediocrity … it kind of bothers me. These kids, when they graduate, are going to lay it on the line. If they’re surrounded by mediocrity, we’re not providing them with what they need.
“Whether it’s mediocre tactical officers, mediocre instructors, mediocre coaches — you know, wherever that mediocrity is, that’s something we’ve got to address. This is not who we are at West Point. This is not who our Army is.”
And while the football team served as the launching pad for most civilians’ interest and awareness of the school, avoiding mediocrity on the gridiron came with conditions, as far as the superintendent was concerned: “Our football players are cadets and cadets first. … In order to build a winning culture, I don’t want to change who we are as an Army and as West Point.”
Under new head coach Jeff Monken, the Black Knights were anything but mediocre in 2014. By any reasonable metric, they were simply bad: 4-8 on the season, a loss to Yale, and a 17-10 loss to Navy, keeping West Point winless in the rivalry game since 2001.
The next year, the Black Knights lost to Fordham in their home opener and proceeded to finish 2-10. Mediocrity would’ve been a blessing. But as Monken’s recruits began taking on greater roles in 2016, it became clear that business as usual was ending and that at least one of the lessons Caslen imparted to Monken during their 2014 trip to Afghanistan was coming to bear.
“We’re there to win,” Monken said in 2014 when asked what he learned from the trip. “The expectation of the United States Army isn’t to do your best, to give it the old college try. It’s to win.”
And so, in front of then-President-elect Trump, the Black Knights would snap Navy’s win streak. The 21-17 victory would delight alumni across the world … including this member of the Class of 1975, in the winning locker room:
The next year brought another victory over the Mids, a second-straight bowl victory and just the second 10-win season in school history. While compiling Caslen’s overall scorecard at West Point falls outside the mission of a military sports blog (that you should still follow on Twitter, anyway), the Black Knights’ on-field efforts have leaped from pushover to a team that could give the schedule-makers at top-tier programs a second thought.
In other words, during Caslen’s tenure, Army football skipped over mediocrity. Which was kind of the point.